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Leah Jørgensen: Wine’s Self-Proclaimed “Pirate Princess” Goes Rogue

Leah Jørgensen: Wine’s Self-Proclaimed “Pirate Princess” Goes Rogue

Free-spirited winemaker Leah Jørgensen followed her early love of Loire varieties to become Oregon’s premier Cabernet Franc producer in a sea of Pinot Noir.

Leah Jørgensen

You’ve chosen to grow Loire varieties when everyone around you in Oregon is growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Why?

One of my first wine jobs was in distribution in Washington, DC—a great city for selling wine. That role introduced me to Joe Dressner of Dressner Selections. I got to work with some of the most beloved wines from the Loire Valley. They made a strong impression on me.

Simply put, I trusted my instincts back in 2009 when I started out. I didn’t see the need to put myself in crazy debt and stress in a category that is so heavily saturated. I was working at Shea Wine Cellars at the time, apprenticing under then-winemaker Drew Voit to help craft one of the most coveted Pinot Noirs in the world. I understood at that pivotal moment in my career that there were only just a handful of wineries that were making truly special versions of that grape. There’s a lot of mediocrity in that varietal category, and pressure to hit lower price points in a changing market. I decided that if I couldn’t get the best Pinot Noir grapes available, then I would not be able to make the quality of wine I aspired to make. 

I kept going back to my favorite Loire Valley wines. No one—until me—was making Cabernet Franc their main focus and purpose in Oregon; I had the opportunity to work with the best fruit in the state. 

How did you decide where to source your fruit?

I identified and contacted growers in Southern Oregon whom I believed were growing the best blocks of Cabernet Franc in the country. They enjoy more days of sunshine than the Willamette Valley can offer, and it’s what exceptional Cabernet Franc really needs to develop deep flavor. 

I secured long-term contracts, articulated my vision, and defined my parameters in the vineyard. I wanted to be clear that I wasn’t producing a big, disjointed, splintery version of the grape—overextracted and then aged in new oak. That was missing the profile of Cabernet Franc and how it needs to be treated with a more feminine touch. Who better than a female winemaker to show the softer, elegant, ethereal side of Cabernet Franc? My wines are “hands-off” with minimal manipulation and gentle care for each ferment, each barrel.

I played with the name “Loiregon” early on, but, I never intended to simply pick a region I loved and play copycat. Instead, I embarked on a quest to discover what Oregon Cabernet Franc was about and might become. If you were to open up my Cabernet Franc next to one from the Loire, California, or Italy, only a handful of wine professionals might identify my Oregon version. But, that is my goal: to lead the exploration on world class, cult-status Oregon Cabernet Franc.

How do your vineyard sites in Oregon influence your wines?

I mentioned needing enough time on the vine to fully ripen. Certainly, with global warming there might be some changes in variability for full ripening in the Willamette Valley one day. But, I really haven’t found evidence of any place in Oregon at this point that can truly bring forward expressions of Cabernet Franc like the Rogue Valley and Applegate Valley. 

Leah Jørgensen in the vineyard

I work with a particular site—Crater View Ranch—that is full of ancient marine fossils and ocean-floor blueschist from a tectonic subduction from 250 million years ago. This event pushed these ocean fossils in a fan shape to as far as the Cascade Range in Southern Oregon. So, while we talk about the importance of the Missoula Floods in the Willamette Valley and Columbia River Gorge, Southern Oregon has its own marvelous geological history. The Loire Valley, too, was once underwater 100 million years ago. We can use these geologic similarities to understand how best to grow certain Old-World grapes here in the New World.

What inspired your Blanc de Cab Franc? I believe it is one of the few commercially available in the US.

Leah Jørgensen Blanc de Cab Franc

Working with Thomas Houseman at Anne Amie Vineyards got me interested in my Blanc de Cabernet Franc project. I worked my first harvest there and one of my jobs was to manage the fermentations for the Iris White Pinot Noir in puncheons. 

Cabernet Franc, like Pinot Noir, has been used as a base for sparkling wines. These red grapes have exceptionally natural acidity and the skins don’t overtake the clear pulp. I love Crémant de Loire sparkling wines and had many versions with white Cabernet Franc as a base wine often blended with Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc. That was my inspiration. 

The very first wine I ever made for myself was one barrel’s worth of Blanc de Cabernet Franc wine. It changed my life. While I am no longer the only winemaker to produce a blanc de Cab Franc, I am the original here in the US. I press at the most gentle cycle. No saignée here. My Blanc de Cab Franc has a golden-yellow hue.

I’ve heard you call Cabernet Franc a Cinderella grape. How so? 

While its Bordeaux “sisters” Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more coveted and popular, Cabernet Franc is the real belle of the ball. Cabernet Franc has two important components that bring structure and aging potential to Bordeaux blends: natural acidity and tannin structure. It’s no mistake why the 1947 Cheval Blanc is one of the most coveted wines in the world. It’s mostly Cabernet Franc and it’s why that wine has aged so gracefully. 

Why do you pursue low-intervention winemaking? Personal philosophy, climate responsibility or both?

I practice sustainability with a minimalist approach in the cellar because it’s simply the right thing to do. I do not make enormous quantities of wine where I need to protect large volumes with necessary technologies. Frankly, it is much more difficult to make wine for a large winery than for a small outfit like mine. I am not bringing in worrisome fruit that gets riddled with mold or rot or other disease. 

The biggest challenge in working with grapes from Southern Oregon is climate change and the threat of wildfires. I have learned a lot about managing smoke taint in the vineyard and cellar. Some of my growers farm organically but do not go through the trouble and inconvenience of certification. That’s fine by me. I care about keeping things as clean as possible, but supporting a community-shared ethos is most important to me. Oregon is a leader in sustainable agriculture, and I want to be a part of that. 

Women seem to be leaders in the movement toward environmentally-conscious wines—Martha Stoumen and Tahmiene Momtazi come to mind. What are you seeing on this front from within the industry? 

At this point, if you are organic or biodynamic, that’s cool. Whatever it takes to have a focused care plan for your site will keep the work honest. I’m not convinced the certifications make better wine or come from better intentions. I think the narrative needs to be clear that Oregon is committed to sustainability first and foremost. The Oregon wine industry began with both men and women stepping up to become stewards of this beautiful place.

I can see where there’s a public interest in crediting women for paving a new way in organically-grown or environmentally-conscious wines. Instead, I think it’s really important to place the emphasis on women changing the workplace by simply being there and being exceptional at our jobs. Seeing more women in wine research is important. Seeing more women discussing winemaking and the chemistry of wine is important. The more informed women we have speaking about winemaking the better. That’s how we get taken seriously—by being smart, talented, and knowing all areas of our profession. 

How is the winemaking industry changing for women these days and how are women changing the wine industry?

I would credit women with building a deeper community among other women, which is really important for the long-term health of our industry. We need wineries that support women and their lives. I had to create a workable environment for myself in the cellar when I was pregnant with my son. The following vintage, I needed space to nurse in the winery. The #metoo movement remains very important, especially in an industry that is still heavily male-dominated. 

From a tasting perspective, women are more often supertasters. When we think of primal abilities, our female ancestors needed to be able to taste plants and fruits when gathering to ensure they would not poison their communities. The biochemistry of women’s tasting abilities tend to be laser sharp for that very reason. 

Despite these and other gifts, women have not been taken seriously in the wine world. We’ve had to prove ourselves tenfold.  I recently looked at the results of the Oregon Winegrowers Association election. One woman was elected and the rest were men. When I pour my wine at tastings, there is often the assumption that I am the marketing professional and not the winemaker or owner. I mean, my name is on the label. Much change is still needed.

I’ve heard many times that if one wants to become a millionaire in the wine business, it’s best to start out a billionaire. You were named of the top 15 women winemakers in the world in 2018, and yet the finances of running a small wine operation don’t run on media mentions. How can people best support you if they love your wines? 

I’ve been educating myself about pivoting our business during this crazy time. Right now, I need to shift from a business model that’s 80 percent distribution to one that’s 80 percent retail, online sales, and wine club subscriptions. 

In short, I need people who love Cabernet Franc to subscribe to my wine club and to buy wine online. We don’t have a tasting room, and due to the pandemic, we’re not taking private appointments. We still offer curbside pick up for those living nearby or visiting Oregon wine country, and we offer shipping to most sites.

How is this year’s vintage coming along?

Great! Steady does it. I’m scaling back this year because of the pandemic, but I hope to make it down to the vineyards in Southern Oregon next month with my toddler in tow. The pandemic is really affecting everything for growers and winemakers. We’ll see how things are shaping up as the fruit develops.

Is there anything you’d like to experiment with or explore in the future you haven’t been able to do yet with your winemaking?

I have a little secret. I’ve got a small amount of sparkling Gamay Noir rosé that is on tirage right now. My first and probably last sparkling wine. It’s taught me an important lesson: I enjoy drinking sparkling wines more than making them. 

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.