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Domaine Serene Winemaker Comes to Charlotte for the 2006 Wine & Food Weekend

"Haunting, brilliant, thrilling, subtle" is how protagonist Miles describes pinot noir in the Oscar winning Sideways. Since the release of that movie, pinot noir, particularity domestic pinots, has enjoyed a popular resurgence. Oregon produces some of the best pinot noirs in the world, and among the state's most notable producers is Domaine Serene.

Winery owners Ken and Grace Evenstad founded their winery, which is named for their daughter, in 1989 in the Dundee Hills of the northern Willamette Valley. The talented winemaker for Domaine Serene is Tony Rynders, who will be in town for the Charlotte Wine & Food 2006 Weekend, April 20 through 22. The Domaine Serene dinner, one of 17 vintner dinners around town, held at Barrington Restaurant is already sold out. I had the opportunity to speak to Rynders about his wines last week.

Rynders, a native of Wisconsin, majored in microbiology in undergraduate school, but his love of wine began when he worked in the restaurant business as a teenager. A job in wine retailing and European travel led him to California. "You know, this was 1989 and in California the wine business was sucking wind and it was January -- probably the worst time to find a job -- but I got a job in a winery. After 18 months I decided if this was what I was going to do, I needed to get a degree." Rynders was then accepted into the prestigious University of California at Davis Viticulture and Enology program, and received his master's in enology in 1993. In graduate school, Rynders found the focus was on the chemistry of wine and the science of winemaking, but he adds, "you need to supplement that knowledge with real life experience."

He began his tenure as winemaker at Domaine Serene in 1998. Since his arrival, the winery has undergone explosive growth by increasing the number of vineyards. He noted that the original winery was located in a former glove-making building that the first winemaker, notable Ken Wright, set up. "The winery produced 10,000 cases in that building, but only three bottles: two pinots and a chardonnay. Now we have a new building and produce 15,000 cases with an additional four single vineyard pinot noirs, three chardonnays and a syrah. The Evenstad is a blended pinot noir from five sites -- all estate grown now. We have completely replaced the vines [since the winery's founding]. Now we have 100-percent estate grown fruit." Rynders also noted that the new winery's capacity is 20,000 cases.

But the philosophy behind Domaine Serene is not the bigger the better. In fact, the production is meticulous. All the grapes are hand picked, hand sorted and the fruit is moved from fermentors and tanks to barrel as gently as possible using gravity. "Consistency is what we are looking for. One of the comments about our wines [since his tenure] is the consistency -- that you know what to expect. The Evenstad is not our cheapest wine, but it defines the brand."

Rynders said some wineries "skim off the top" to produce high end wines, but he has the "luxury" to use whatever juice is needed to maintain consistency. To that end in 2001, Domaine Serene did not produce any of their single vintage wines since Rynders chose to use that juice in the Evenstad Reserve. "Our main focus is to make sure we are delivering to someone's expectations so someone will say, 'That's a really great bottle of wine for the price'".

Oregon's Dundee Hills, where the winery is located, produces outstanding pinots; however, recently there has been a backlash against the idea of America terroir, or sense of place. Rynders remarked that this backlash is "only coming from the French". He said, "Wine tastes of a certain place. I'm sure, they [the French] started this terroir as a marketing tool. In fact, I work with the vineyards every day. Pinot noir thrives here and has profound expression. Pinot noirs can not be terribly happy. They have to struggle, be challenged." He further said that each of his vineyards has distinctive dirt and a distinctive taste. He added that the differences of terroir can be masked by a warm season or a rainy one. "In warmer weather the taste is compressed: In rain, the flavors are diluted. There is better expression in cooler weather."

Rynders explains his philosophy this way: "I believe I am a steward to what Mother Nature has given me ... I can't make the wines any better than the fruit coming in the door. The process tells a story. Each vintage is like a book that starts when the grapes start growing and climax at the harvest. Ninety percent of the quality of the wines occurs in that four to six week period.

"I'm not in an ivory tower. I get in there and do it. This is the most creative part and why I'm attracted to wine making. I can marry creativity and science. It's along the lines of cooking -- using your mouth and nose -- little tweaks here and there. I think if one enjoys food and cooking you'd have a good shot at being a good winemaker."

What's Rynders favorite wine and food pairing? Blue Crab and avocado with the 2003 Etoile Vineyard chardonnay that he had at a recent wine dinner, and sushi with pinot.

New to Domaine Serene will be "one super duper pinot noir," the Monogram, charted out at new price point of $200. Rynders laughed and added he can't afford $200 a bottle, but still promises to deliver on value -- even at that price point.

Have a restaurant tip, compliment, complaint? Does your restaurant or shop have news, menu changes, new additions to staff or building, upcoming cuisine or wine events? Note: We need notice of events at least 12 days in advance. Fax information to Eaters' Digest: 704-944-3605, or leave voice mail: 704-522-8334, ext. 136. To contact Tricia via e-mail: [email protected].

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