It's not easy to write about a friend's wine. How do I convince people over email that I'm not just shamelessly plugging for a personal favor? Luckily, we have no journalistic standards here for conflicts of interest, and if you don't believe my pitch, then I'll get more of her wine for myself — she only made 40 cases for the whole world. But if you'll indulge me, allow me to explain why, friendship aside, Jess Miller is my favorite winemaker in the U.S.
Jess Miller, in the face of all her accomplishments, could be the Martha Stoumen of Oregon, or at least as well-known as the prolific and quirkily spaced-out Joe Swick, who makes wine at the same crude, shared facility she uses in Newberg, Oregon. Though she doesn't make enough wine to have their reach (and, as a native midwesterner, she seems nearly allergic to self-promotion), the wines don't suffer as a result. Arguably, they are better, since she's putting all her labor and attention on just a few barrels. And, most importantly, the heart of her project is based on the tenet that I believe always makes the best wine: a passion for being in the vineyard.
After tasting it from the barrel last August, I've been dying for her 2018 "LBJ" Pinot Noir to arrive in NY and have been trying to secure as much as possible. Well, it's here, it's awesome, and it's, of course, crazy-limited. Yeah, forty-cases-for-the-whole-world limited. We got a few of them, but don't expect them to be here in August. Or maybe even next week.
After working for Alice and Olivier De Moor in Chablis, Jess moved to the former Clos Roche Blanche vines under the tutelage of the former owner Didier Barrouillet and new owner Julien Pineau. As she honed her skills in the vineyard, her mentors supplied her with one of their treasured texts on pruning. Jess was enamored enough with it that she translated it into English from French, creating a reputation as an expert on pruning along the way. To take her next step, she moved to the Willamette Valley in Oregon. For Jess, the farming comes first, and that to me is the secret to her fantastic wines — but how does that work when you don't own any land?
Oregon is still a small and dynamic wine community with a lot of new, young voices. I once heard a joke about the difference between the California wine scene and the Oregon scene: when someone makes it big in California, they buy a jet. In Oregon, they buy a North Face fleece. However, less money involved also allows for greater access. Oregon is a very positive, thriving community, and Jess is a symbol of that to me, since I can't imagine her being able to do what she does elsewhere. Jess spends most of her time visiting multiple vineyards under her care, and she's known to help out at places like the esteemed Johan Vineyard. Some of the vineyards Jess works are owned by retirees who bought a property with vines but don't know what to do with them, for instance. Another of Jess' clients is Shelby Perkins, the subject of a recent email offer, who hired Jess because of her pruning expertise and prowess in the vineyard. Sometimes Jess is paid in part with fruit from these vineyards, and that's the case with her 2018 LBJ Pinot Noir. The fruit is entirely from Shelby Perkins' Bracken vineyard: organic, dry-farmed, and using regenerative, no-till agricultural practices.
To me, Jess embodies the independent, earnest spirit of my favorite French natural winemakers. People who didn't grow up in winemaking families and have no property or investors, but who doggedly set out to make amazing wine anyways. They don't have an Instagram presence, or often a functioning website because they're out in the vines working. That's difficult enough in France, where they have a functional health care system and some network of subsidies and restrictions on who can own agricultural land. In the U.S., there are none of those supports. Even still, it's in this spirit that Jess Miller has found her own path in Oregon, making wine on a scale that is just above garage-level. It makes me hopeful that more people with deep commitment but without deep pockets can get their foot in the door of the wine world. More people, more voices, making small amounts of wine and forming meaningful careers and lives. It certainly makes for some of the most special wines I'm privileged to drink.
Jess Miller has proved to me that if you can sweat in the vineyards and whisper to vines like she does, you can make world-class, life-affirming Pinot Noir with just a few barrels. With any luck, next year there will be a few more.
Little Crow (Jess Miller) "LBJ" Pinot Noir 2018
Pinot Noir from the younger vines of Shelby Perkins' Bracken Vineyard in West Eola-Amity. 18 months aging in oak barrels, this is hardly glou-glou but it has a vibrant crunch that makes it immediately gratifying and works well with a slight chill. Lively cranberry, tart blackberry, sour cherry, oolong tea, and an earthy umami. The wine is balanced and sonorous, with the fine tannic structure for medium-term aging, but it resonates with life, immediacy, and irresistible vibrancy that speaks to healthy grapes from vines tended with love.