Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Connection--Firesteed Cellars

          In 1998, Shellie and Bryan Croft were driving along a vineyard road in the Willamette Valley.  The Crofts were viewing possible vineyard sites while working for other employers.  At one point, Shellie vividly remembers turning her head to look over her shoulder.  She viewed an aging farmhouse in the distance.  At that moment, a shock of electricity went up her spine.  She had a moment of clarity viewing that home.
            She then turned back to the conversation in progress, the tingle up her spine dissipating as quickly as it started.
            Some part of Shellie must have known that years later, she would be living in that home.  She and her husband would be raising their children in the middle of those vines, calling that vineyard their farm as they tended to the fruit that would be Firesteed Cellars' wines.

Most winemakers feel a connection to their wines--a deep, profound link to the grapes, to the land.  Bryan and Shellie Croft of Firesteed Cellars have this connection; it comes from living on the land, raising their children in the middle of the vineyards, and watching the vines grow every day of every year.  However, Shellie sensed this connection so many years before.
Shellie got her start in wine during college in Chico, California, where she worked in the service industry to make money for school.  One weekend she found herself in Napa working a golf tournament.  By 1990, she was working there full time as a tasting room staff member for Silverado Vineyards.  At the same time, Bryan was a UC Davis grad who was also working at Silverado Vineyards.  The two met, fell in love, and got married in 1998, the same fateful year of seeing their future home.

They eventually moved north to Oregon and were working at a custom crush facility owned by Wayne and Mickey Flynn.  Firesteed was one of the custom crush accounts.  In 2000, Howard Rossbach bought the facility from the Flynns and turned the entire production area to Firesteed Cellars, with no more custom crush clients.  Rossbach retained Bryan as his winemaker and Shellie as the cellar rat, making this upcoming fall Bryan’s twentieth harvest in the wine business.
Firesteed makes nearly 85,000 cases of wine near Rickreal in the central Willamette Valley, every year using less and less outside-sourced fruit and getting closer and closer to being only an estate-grown producer.  Of course, Rossbach and the Crofts specialize in the Valley’s best growers:  pinot noir, pinot gris, riesling, and gewürztraminer. 
Shellie starts our tour in the lab to help us get to know these Firesteed favorites; she considers this area her domain.  We then follow her to the vineyards, literally just days away from bud break at the time of our visit. Though she considers this Bryan’s area of expertise, he is away that day lecturing at OSU.  I’ve seen the pictures of Shellie’s hard work in the vineyards, right by Bryan’s side, so I know she is very knowledgeable in this realm, as well.

We make our way back to the production area and then barrel room, to the exact spot Shellie suffered quite an injury several years ago when falling off a barrel stack while working.  Though this wound has healed, at the time of our visit she was nursing a cracked heel, another winery injury from this fall’s cellar work.  It is a reminder of the genuine hard labor it takes to make wine; this is not a profession for the weak or faint-of-heart—Shellie and Bryan are neither.

Amidst the barrels, Shellie lets us taste her “Shellie Chard,” the 2015 chardonnay still sitting on its lees.  This barrel is actually for the Citation label also produced by Firesteed; these wines are small-lots using only fruit from the Erratic Oaks vineyard, the spot Shellie and family call home.  The inspiration for Shellie’s chardonnay is a very early wine tasting experience she had in Napa.  She was blind tasting chardonnays, and one--with its light oak and unmistakable fruit--seemed so remarkable to her.  She remembers it as “Wine C,” which turned out to be a Kistler Chardonnay.  It is what set her palate for every chardonnay since.

All the Firesteed wines are excellent examples of their terroir.  I first fell in love with the Firesteed Riesling, made in a wonderfully dry style that still shows the characteristic apple and floral  notes with just a slight hint of petrol—my favorite.  Next, the Firesteed Pinot Gris is a quintessential example of the Oregon style—light with zippy acid and white fruits. 
I had my first taste of the Firesteed Rosé (from pinot noir, of course) after my visit:  a beautiful shade of pink--with hints of strawberry, grass, and honeysuckle--that makes me long for summer and a patio.  Finally, my other long-time favorite is the Firesteed Pinot Noir.  Filled with bright cherry, fresh strawberry, slight mint, and wet earth, it is has become my go-to pinot, an outstanding example of an Oregon noir at an amazing price point. 

The connection Shellie and Bryan have to Firesteed wines can be sensed in every sip.  Shellie knew this connection was meant to be nearly twenty years ago when she spied her current home for the first time, years before Howard Rossbach appointed her husband to be the winemaker at Firesteed. 

Raising their children in the middle of the vineyard at Erratic Oaks gives Bryan and Shellie Croft a deep appreciation for the vines that make Firesteed Cellars' wines.  The terroir is reflected so well in Bryan’s wines because he lives in that spot, in that place where his wines actually begin.  The distance between the land and the glass has never been as short as it is for Firesteed wines.