Seeking Serentiy In The Dundee Hills

by | Dec 13, 2009

Oregon Business is running a lengthy profile on Domain Serene in its December issue.

The title, “Evenstad’s Island,” clearly hints at what’s to come in the article. While the Willamette Valley winery puts out highly-rated wine, the owners, Ken and Grace Evenstad, suffer from a damaged reputation. They’re seen as wealthy hobbyists from Minnesota and are said to be totally removed from the local wine-producing community.

For instance:

“Ken and Grace have been quoted as saying they’re responsible for the entire wine industry and winemaking techniques going back to Jesus,” says Harry Peterson-Nedry, founder of nearby Chehalem Winery in Newberg. “And that’s probably not far from what they believe.”

Indeed, both Ken and Grace Evenstad say that what differentiates their wines is unique methodology and an unusually high attention to detail. They insist on dry farming — meaning they do not use irrigation — because this method produces stronger tap roots and healthier vines. They also strive for a very low yield: around 1.78 tons of grapes per acre (the industry standard is 2 to 2.5). And they do 4-5 hand passes per year through the vineyard, green pruning, removing small clusters so the larger, robust ones have more space and food to grow.

Domaine Serene ferments each grape separately — not only according to the type but also by growing conditions such as elevation, direction and amount of sunlight — which means working with more than 200 individual Pinot Noir fermentations. Domain Serene also ages all its wines on-site for at least 15 months. According to the Evenstads, this combination of world-class winemaking practices was unprecedented when they arrived in the region 20 years ago. And they claim to have developed a unique system for making white wine (“Coeur Blanc”) from mature red grapes. Others in the region scoff.

“This kind of wine was made by an Italian producer long before it was made by Domaine Serene,” says Ken Wright, the Evenstads’ original winemaker who worked with them for their first 10 years. “If you like, I can send you the link to prove it.” (He did, and it did.)

Sadly, the story doesn’t end there.

In September, the news broke that the Evenstads were suing Tony Rynders — the man who worked as their principal winemaker from 1998 to 2008 and created many of their most highly rated wines — for leaving their employ with proprietary information, especially pertaining to the methods for making Coeur Blanc.

Rynders would not comment because the case is still under way. But others in the community are avid to speak on Rynders’ behalf. Ken Wright, for instance. He insists the Evenstads’ lawsuit is simply a battle for power. “It’s typical of Ken and Grace,” Wright says. “Look at it this way. They just celebrated their 20th anniversary in business and nobody was there who helped them make wine for the past 20 years. I actually kind of feel for them.”

Of course, the great irony here is that Domain Serene is well known outside the state for carrying the flag for Oregon pinot. “Only Oregonians want to strip them of their status,” notes Ann Bauer, the Seattle-based journalist who wrote the story.