By experience, reputation and timing, Brian Croser is perfectly poised to address the one issue that he believes has kept riesling from becoming as respected in the United States as it is in Germany, the Alsace in France, and even his native Australia the lack of domestic wineries to specialize in it.
"Riesling has been an addendum in the making of fine wine. Nobody gives it a focus and makes a point of being a riesling specialist," Croser said via phone from his Oregon estate, Tunkalilla Vineyard.
Granted, he acknowledges, a few wineries don't treat riesling as an afterthought. They embrace and promote it energetically, most notably the nation's largest producer of riesling, Chateau Ste. Michelle in Washington state.
Still, few wineries have built their standing on making only riesling. Croser and his wife, Ann, think they can, and their first releases, covering vintages 2008 through 2010, provide a persuasive case that the Crosers in combination with the site they've chosen in Oregon have the knack and the tools for developing Tunkalilla Vineyard into a riesling house of acclaim and influence.
All three vintages speak to the unassuming might and carefully calibrated balance of which riesling is capable, but my favorite is the Tunkalilla Vineyard 2009 Oregon Eola-Amity Hills Riesling.
While I favor the 2009 for its slightly more complex interplay of smells and flavors suggestive of both peaches and petrol, I relish all three for their sleek builds, agility at the table, touches of spice and terrifically racy acidity. The 2009 just seems to have a little bit more of each of those attributes, though if it were sold out I wouldn't hesitate to grab a bottle of the 2008 or 2010. All three are off-dry, but their sweetness is deftly balanced with acidity of grip and sharpness.
That Croser is making such authoritative and refreshing rieslings in the middle of Oregon won't surprise anyone familiar with his long and esteemed winemaking career, during which he's been a persistent advocate of matching particular grape varieties with specifically defined sites to evoke the most profound expression of fruit and terroir.
Nearly a decade has elapsed since Croser was named Man of the Year by the British wine magazine Decanter, which lauded him as a visionary and appraised him as a "self-contained, self-absorbed, supremely confident man" who long had been "way ahead of the pack."
He's "a charismatic man who led by example," starting with his advocacy of suiting grape varieties to regions, an unprecedented step in Australia in the 1970s, noted Decanter.
His rise in Australian wine culture began shortly after he studied for his master's in enology at UC Davis in the early 1970s. Upon returning to Australia, he and his wife, a research biochemist, in 1976 founded Petaluma Winery in the Piccadilly Valley of South Australia. They named it after the Sonoma County town of Petaluma, which they had enjoyed during their Davis days.
A decade later, they began to commute to Oregon as principal partners in the Dundee Wine Co., where they established an avid following for a methode-champenoise sparkling wine marketed under the Argyle label. That introduced them to Oregon's potential, in particular for riesling and pinot noir.
"At Argyle we made some terrific rieslings from the Red Hills. Those wines, from the late 1970s and early 1980s, still are drinking beautifully. I knew riesling would grow well in Oregon. You get an appropriate balance of fruit flavor and acid," Croser said.
In 2001, however, Petaluma and Dundee were acquired by the Australian brewer Lion Nathan in a hostile takeover. Croser stuck around with Lion Nathan for four years, then started over on his own, teaming up with partners first to found Tapanappa Wines on the Fleurieu Peninsula in South Australia, where the Crosers raise sheep and grow grapes, and to establish Tunkalilla Vineyard in Oregon's Willamette Valley. (In a tradeoff for borrowing "Petaluma" from California for their original winery, the name "Tunkalilla" is imported from Australia. The name of a beach they favor on the Fleurieu Peninsula, "Tunkalilla" means in the local aboriginal Kaurna dialect "place of many smells," after whale carcasses that washed up on the sands.)
In 2005, the Crosers bought a 50-acre Christmas tree farm just outside of Salem and put in 2.8 acres of riesling. The site is especially fitting for riesling, noted Croser, because of its soils (deep and red volcanic basalt) and its climate. (A gap in the north-south Eola-Amity Hills lets cool, moist air from the Pacific Ocean meet the warm air of the Willamette Valley, reducing stress on the vines while moderating sugar levels and retaining high natural acids in the grapes.)
"It's mild at night, with a strong cooling effect during the day. It's perfect for riesling," Croser said. "It's almost a mirror image of Alsace, though a bit brighter and more humid," he added, speaking of the French province celebrated for riesling.
The Crosers have planted 5 acres to pinot noir, but they sell those grapes to neighboring Cristom Winery, allowing them to focus on their first priority, riesling.
"We want to be known as riesling specialists. That's what riesling needs," Croser said.
Tunkalilla Vineyard 2009 Oregon Eola-Amity Hills Riesling
By the numbers, for the 2009: 12.9 percent alcohol, 11.5 grams sugar per liter, 380 cases, $18.50.
Context:In the dwindling days of summer, pair all of the Tunkalilla rieslings with seafood, perhaps with a mango salsa, and casseroles that take advantage of tomatoes, zucchini and other produce from garden or farmers market.
Availability: Corti Brothers in Sacramento stocks all three rieslings.
More information: Visit Tunkalilla's website, www.tunkalillavineyard.com.