Panther Creek Cellars, a mainstay in the Oregon wine industry, began production in 1986 under Ken Wright. Their tasting room and production facility, located off the main street in McMinnville in a power plant dating to 1923, adds a unique element, as a combination of beautiful brick and woodwork greets guests. The occupation of the former power plant is both a novelty and a nod towards sustainability. Oddly enough, they moved to the plant location in 1989, the same year as the release of LL Cool J's Walking with a Panther release. (That's really just a coincidence.) During a visit to McMinnville, we received an invite from Panther Creek sales and social media maven Kendra Wessels to come by and check out the wines.
On to the wines: Panther Creek makes a fair bit of wine, and they make wine from a variety of Oregon's best vineyards. Panther Creek looks for a few characteristics when they source grapes. They are looking for interesting Pinot Noir and also for grapes that show the variety that Oregon's Willamette Valley is really capable of presenting in that varietal.
Kendra gave us the rundown on the Panther Creek approach. Of the nearly 8,000 cases that Panther Creek makes, 3,500 of those are their Winemaker’s Cuvee. This Cuvee is comprised of a variety of barrels and single vineyards, and is selected first, blended, and put away. The barrel selection changes from year to year with the goal being a wine that is a bit fruit forward and accessible now, as it's always the first release of every vintage.
After the Cuvee is chosen, Panther Creek turns their attention to their single vineyard designate Pinot Noirs. Panther Creek has been in the Pinot game for a good long time and have long-standing relationships with a number of vineyard managers and growers. They've honed in on the blocks they're interested in and focus on lower than average crop yields and fruit that really reflects the unique terroir of the site.
We tasted the 2007 Vista Hills Pinot, from the the Red Hills of Dundee. The wine was brighter than the other Pinots we had tasted. There were marked red fruit characters and a tinge of the earthy elements that are considered signatures of the Dundee Hills.
The 2007 Shea Vineyard Pinot from the Yamhill Carlton AVA followed. Panther Creek is the first winery to make a Shea Vineyard designate Pinot; and after tasting it, it’s clear why this was a good move, which many winemakers followed. The wine exhibits dark fruit, pepper and spice and is a darker, more full-bodied wine that can likely lay down a long while.
The 2007 Verde is not a single vineyard designate but rather a blend of "green" vineyards, or vineyards with LIVE certification. This Pinot blends Momtazi, Temperance Hill, and Elton Vineyards in an homage to sustainable viticultural practices. 2007 was the first year that Panther Creek produced the Verde and it's a brighter Pinot, with some minerality and young red fruit characters.
We also sampled the 2008 Pinot Gris, which blends fruit from the WIllamette Valley and Southern Oregon. The Pinot Gris is fantastic, and brings the structure structure from the Willamette Valley and the acidity from Southern Oregon together into a damn fine wine. We also had the opportunity to sample the 2006 Reserve 20th Anniversary Pinot, which is an enormous wine and could likely lay down into eternity.
Panther Creek has been bringing Oregon Pinot Noir to us for a long time, and their 8,000 cases are very well distributed and can be found throughout the country. They clearly have their stuff together. Kendra is another example of that: she has an extensive knowledge of the Valley, the vineyard sites and AVA characteristics, and she goes out of her way to give you an opportunity to try what Panther Creek offers. She opened up the tasting room for Gwynne and I while on her way to enjoy a day off. If you're in the Willamette Valley, or most places in the country you can likely find Panther Creek's Cuvee. Give their single vineyard wines a whirl, and go see them in McMinnville if you get the chance, they've got a great location, great wine, and some of the nicest tasting room staff we’ve come across.