The Winemaker

She's the toast of the Willamette Valley.

by Carolyn Shea

On February 22, 2009, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama hosted the black-tie Governors' Ball—their first state dinner at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. With the band Earth, Wind & Fire performing as headliners, 130 guests dined on a four-course meal prepared from all American organic and sustainable ingredients. Perfectly complementing the cuisine was an Oregon wine made by Evergreen alumna Anna Matzinger '93.

Anna Matzinger in a Wilamette Valley Vineyard

At Archery Summit winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley, the pinot noir grape is king. And in winemaker Anna Matzinger's hands, it is transformed into signature vintages that receive raves near and far—even from the White House.

Matzinger's creation, Archery Summit Estate Pinot Noir 2004, was chosen to be paired with the dinner's main course: Wagyu beef and Nantucket sea scallops, glazed red carrots, portabella mushrooms and creamed spinach.

"A big honor for sure," Matzinger acknowledged, "to be one of the wines poured during the first big dinner they had just after the inauguration." A big boost for Archery Summit Winery, too, not to mention the featured vintage itself (priced at about $150 a bottle): It sold out soon after being served at the White House.

Matzinger's limited-release varietal came from grapes grown in the Archery Summit Estate vineyard, one of two vineyards immediately surrounding the winery's state-of-the-art winemaking facility in Dayton, Ore., 35 miles south of Portland.

As Matzinger chats, she surveys the undulating terrain outside the 24,000-square-foot facility. Both vineyards are cultivated with pinot noir grapes; they're covered with lines of vertically trellised vines dangling with ripening clusters of the fruit. But one is on a south-facing slope; the other looks east. As a result, they are subjected to differing conditions, and the wines that emerge from them taste differently, demonstrating the French concept of terroir, which maintains that wine reflects the complete environment where it is produced—the soil, the topography, the microclimate. "You can literally drink a place," says Matzinger. "My sense is that you can taste a place with pinot noir more so than with other varieties."

Pinot noir grapes.

Pinot noir grape, also known as the "heartbreak grape."

Archery Summit Winery focuses on pinot noir, which has been branded the "heartbreak grape" because of its fragility and finicky nature. Thin-skinned, unstable, and tightly clustered (and thus susceptible to disease), it is perhaps the toughest of all grapes to grow. "It's like an elephant," Matzinger says. "It remembers everything done to it."

Getting the essence of this delicate fruit into the bottle is not only supremely challenging, it is also an art and a science. At Archery Summit, it is fastidiously tended and grown using organic principles. Following harvest, when the crew picks upwards of 30 tons of fruit in a single day, it is vinified in a five-story gravity-flow facility designed for the gentlest possible handling, starting with hand sorting and de-stemming at the top, descending to fermentation tanks, and ending up in deeply excavated subterranean caves, where the wine is aged at a constant 55 degrees in French oak barrels, and later bottled.

Matzinger clearly loves the challenge: She speaks fondly of the pinot noir grape, which is considered by many oenophiles to produce some of the finest wines in the world. "It absorbs the environment differently than other varietals," she says. "People love it so much because it expresses nuance—if you're open to it."

Archery Summit is situated in the Dundee Hills AVA (American Viticultural Region) of Oregon's Dundee Hills, a sub-appellation within the Willamette Valley that is blessed with the ideal soil and weather for growing pinot noir. Embracing a total of 120 acres split between five estate vineyards, it is one of about 20 wineries in the region, which is famously yielding some of the world's finest pinot noir wines.

Place plays a vital role, but wine's terroir also involves the savoir-faire of the winemaker—the love, attention and acumen put into the final product, all of which contribute to its specific personality. Under Matzinger's guidance, Archery Summit is regarded at the top of the bunch.

Her ruby-colored, full-bodied wines have received high scores and superb reviews from influential wine critics, major wine publications and food magazines like Bon Appétit. The Wine Spectator, for example, rhapsodized that "Archery Summit has established itself as the Rolls-Royce of Oregon Pinot Noir." Two years ago, her 2006 Red Hills Estate Pinot Noir was rated Oregon's No. 1 wine out of more than 650 judged by the veteran wine critic of Portland Monthly, who pronounced that it "embodies the phrase ‘a steel fist in a velvet glove'"–the quintessential description of a fine pinot noir.

Matzinger's path to celebrated winemaker started at Evergreen, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree in environmental science, or as she puts it: "a Bachelor of Science of Possibility." She concentrated on science—primarily biology, chemistry and in her last two years, marine science—some aboard the Resolute, the maritime studies yawl the college once owned. But she also lapped up Soviet Studies, Russian language, literature and art. "For me, the interdisciplinary nature and personal responsibility for my own education was profound," she says. "It gave me the confidence and knowledge that if I work hard enough and I'm open to the possibilities that are trying to find me, anything is possible. I did not have that kernel of knowledge before."

Wine tasting in a lab

Wine tasting in a lab.

After stints working in a microbiology lab in Boise, as a barista, and as a member of a fishery survey crew in a protected wilderness in Idaho, she got the job that set the stage for her future success: working as a lab tech for Napa Valley-based Beringer Vineyards, one of California's largest and most venerable vintners.

Within short order, she had donned a white coat to work as a chemist in the company's wine lab, where for the next three years, she analyzed grapes and juice during harvest time and monitored fermentation. An inveterate explorer, Matzinger later furthered her on-the-job enological learning in wineries located in New Zealand, Australia and back in California again.

In 1999, she joined Archery Summit, where no one wears white lab coats even though every step of making wine there draws on science and her technical background, from experimenting with clone selection, vine spacing and pruning techniques to analyzing crush and blends. But there's a lot more to it than that. Matzinger says one of the best aspects of her profession is its multifaceted nature. "There's an agricultural aspect, a craft aspect, a scientific aspect, an artistic aspect, a blue collar aspect, a white collar aspect, an educational aspect. You have to know the numbers, do the budget, be able to drive a forklift, run a bottling line, move barrels around, host people, fly to New York to pour wines, be on panels."

Matzinger's husband, Michael Davies, can relate. He is the winemaker for two other Willamette Valley wineries, A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill. Dubbed "The 'Power Couple' Winemaking Team" by Oregon Wine Press, they are together parenting Otto, 5, and Elsa, 2, and collaborating on producing wines under their own label, Matzinger Davies—a venture she views as an opportunity to pass something on to the next generation. Several of their fledgling wines, including a 2006 pinot noir, are already available. Hello, White House?