What: People who make great wine tell you it all starts with the vineyard. They take care of the land where the grapes grow and the grapes take care of them.
The Bayliss family has been taking care of its land for four generations and 111 years. And all that work is paying off now.
They have about 15 acres of pinot noir grape vines in the Yamhill-Carlton district of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, from which they produce outstanding pinot noir, rosé and pinot noir blanc.
My wife, Teri, and I visited their Ghost Hill Cellars with two other couples during a nine-day trip to Oregon. I have been with Steve, Sandy, John and Dorothy on other trips and we always manage to have fun and find good wine. Unfortunately, our other traveling friends John and Edith from Savannah couldn’t make it this trip.
We found some outstanding wineries, so I will be writing about them from time to time over the next several months. We visited 10 wineries in three days and had dinner in Portland at a restaurant owned by a family who runs a winery, so we had a good sampling of Oregon wine.
I was blown away by how good all the pinot noir was. I have been impressed by Oregon pinot noir before, but I have never had so many great wines in such a short period of time.
Ghost Hill Cellars makes great pinot. In fact, their 2012 vintage received 94 points from Wine Spectator. If you can find it, you are in for a real treat, but I thought their best value was the pinot noir blanc followed closely by the rosé.
Pinot noir blanc is made the same way fine Champagne is made, but without the bubbles, using red grapes to make white wine. It is made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, whole-cluster pressed and sent to a stainless steel tank to settle. Then the higher quality juice is sent to another stainless steel tank where it is fermented to complete dryness. The wine develops a rich, full flavor by aging it on the lees, with frequent stirring.
The wine has a mineral note on the nose, but rich round flavors on the palate. The lush fruit is balanced by fresh acidity to produce a superb wine.
Tasting at Ghost Hill is fun. Drenda Bayliss conducts the tastings in a cabin built by husband, Mike, and their son, Mike, from reclaimed wood from their old barn. The bar was built from wood from the floor where the altar stood at a nearby Trappist abbey. Handmade glass from the abbey also is in the cabin.
As Drenda poured, she and Mike talked about the challenges of farming their land. Drenda had a lot of adjusting to do. Her father was in the military so the family moved a lot. The last move was from a spot in Los Angeles near Disneyland to the Willamette Valley.
“It took 4-5 years before I accepted living in the middle of nowhere,” said Drenda.
“I don’t know,” said Mike with a twinkle in his eye. “Have you?”
Winery: Ghost Hill started in 1906 when brothers Daniel and Samuel Bayliss bought the Willamette Valley property from the family who originally got the government land grant. They cleared the land so they could farm it and later added a dairy operation.
Samuel used to take the milk on a paddlewheel steamer to Portland where he would sell it. Each trip would take three days.
“We’ve grown just about everything here at one time or another,” said Mike Bayliss, the fourth generation to work this land.
Mike’s father, Samuel D., planted other crops and added sheep. Mike and Drenda became more involved in the farm in the 1970s and ‘80s, adding hay and cattle.
After Mike took a class on winemaking in the ‘70s he thought about planting some grape vines.
“I talked to my dad and he said, ‘no way’,” said Mike. “I didn’t own the land so I couldn’t do anything, so I just kept on farming.”
But the idea never died.
When Mike and Drenda’s daughter Bernadette got married in Hong Kong, Mike and son-in-law Cameron Bower started talking over a drink in the bar.
“He asked me how the cow business was,” said Mike. “I said, ‘It stinks.’ ”
The family wasn’t making much money at farming, but they wanted to keep the land in the family. Bower suggested they plant vines. He had a friend in Australia with a winery, and it seemed like good use of the land.
The idea struck a nerve in Mike and the family decided to forget about the cattle and plant grape vines. They still grow some oats and wheat, but grapes are the main focus.
They started planting in 1999 and finished the first four acres in 2000. They planted more vines in 2001 and in 2006. There are now 15.5 acres of vines on the 234-acre property.
“We have an excellent plan to plant 90 acres,” said Bernadette Bower, co-owner and director of sales, who I met in Atlanta. “We do want to plant some whites, but it’s not a top priority.”
Ghost Hill Cellars is a true family operation, with Mike, Drenda, Bernadette, Cameron and Bernadette’s brother Mike, all playing a role. The fifth generation of the Bayliss family is growing up now and there are hopes they will continue the family tradition.
“Growing up there, we had no neighbors,” said Bernadette, who lives in Houston now. Her husband works for Exxon Mobil. “I was like, ‘I’m getting out of this place and have neighbors.’ Now I want my kids to live there someday, and my grandkids.”
Eric Hamacher is the winemaker, who has gained acclaim as one of the most respected Oregon winemakers. He believes in minimal intervention and handling, using wild fermentation yeasts and gravity blending and bottling. The wine is made at a custom bottler.
And there really is a ghost on ghost hill. A miner traveling to Portland with his gold in the late 1800s camped for the night at the top of what is now known as Ghost Hill. A thief killed him and his horse and stole the gold.
Neighbors say they sometimes still see the miner looking for his gold, and they refuse to go on the hill. Horse bones and a saddle were discovered on the hill, but the gold was never found.
Goes With: We had this wine while tasting several Ghost Hill wines, with crackers to nibble on.
But I think it would be a great wine for fresh fish, shrimp, chicken on the grill, chicken alfredo, or any creamy dish and creamy cheeses.
Wine dinner: 6:30 p.m. Thursday, March 2, Cucina 503 Italian Restaurant, 503 Furys Ferry Road, Martinez; featuring big California reds; $75 person, $140 couple; (706) 994-0142
Wine tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, March 3, Kroger, 435 Lewiston Road, Grovetown; new wines presented weekly; free; (706) 619-3420
Wine and beer tasting: 5-7 p.m. Friday, March 3, 5-7 p.m. Saturday, March 4, Vineyard Wine Market, 4414 Evans to Locks Road, Evans; (706) 922-9463
Wine tasting: 5-8 p.m. Friday, March 3, Wine World, 133 Georgia Ave., North Augusta; three whites, three reds and cheeses; $5; (803) 279-9522