Oregon fills the gap

Rainbow over Brick House

Burgundy's loss is Kent's gain. A shorter version of this article is published by the Financial Times. Jim Halliday took the picture above for Brick House.

As proved by Fever-Tree and Amazon, commercial success is all about spotting an opportunity. A&B Vintners is a rather smaller operation than either of these. Based in the Kent countryside, it employs three members of the Arnold family and right-hand man Simon Davies, who have enjoyed enormous success by quietly filling a gap.

Their speciality has been importing hand-picked, domaine-bottled burgundy into the UK. But during the last decade, as demand for this strictly limited commodity kicked in, prices started to spiral upwards and out of the reach of many of their customers. They were not Chinese plutocrats with limitless budgets but, mainly, British wine lovers who had developed a taste for handcrafted wines made on a small scale from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Could somewhere other than Burgundy supply a satisfactory substitute?

One of the early finds of John Arnold, co-founder of A&B, was a young grower in Chassagne-Montrachet who was initially ignored by the French wine writing establishment but is now revered, Pierre-Yves Colin. He had broken away from the family wine business Marc Colin to set up on his own, with his wife Caroline Morey, who had done the same thing. Pierre-Yves Colin-Morey wines, which I first tasted in 2007 in their kitchen, have proved sufficiently compelling to see the couple able to build their own ambitious winery and glamorous tasting room with a view over the vineyards to the village of Chassagne.

It is common practice in Burgundy and elsewhere to welcome interns from other wine regions during harvest. In 2011 former CBS foreign correspondent Doug Tunnell, from Oregon in the Pacific Northwest – where he had established the respected (certified biodynamic) Brick House wine estate – came to work the harvest with the Colin-Moreys. He brought some Oregon wines with him and showed Pierre-Yves just how good Oregon’s Pinot Noirs could be.

This was confirmed to Arnold and Davies by several other of their Burgundy suppliers such as Vincent Dancer of Chassagne and Jean-Marie Fourrier of Gevrey-Chambertin; Fourrier had once worked at Domaine Drouhin, the Oregon outpost established by the Drouhin family who have a 140-year history of wine production in Beaune in the heart of Burgundy. Fourrier, another youngish producer who has shot to stardom, is a real Oregon fan and was a regular at the annual International Pinot Noir Celebration there that, pre-COVID, was a mecca for lovers of the red burgundy grape from all over the world.

In 2015 imports of Oregon wines into the UK were still tiny. Ever since the early 1980s the fastidious Cotswold Master of Wine Mark Savage of Savage Selection had been importing the wines of The Eyrie Vineyards, a pioneer of Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley, south of Portland, which is now the heartland of Oregon wine country. And Roberson of Kensington have been importing the dependable wines of Bergström for at least a decade. But otherwise, Oregon wines had made remarkably little impact on the British wine market even though quality had been rising all the time.

Arnold and Davies thought they should see what all the fuss was about. Over lunch in February when he presented some of their finds, Davies described their plan of attack. ‘We just sent a load of emails to wine producers there and people sent tons of samples.’ The pair of wine merchants sat themselves down with all these bottles in a booth at the Chelsea restaurant Medlar and tasted their way through, putting them into three clusters of bottles: Yes, Maybe and No.

There were so many Yeses that in August 2015 they bought plane tickets to Portland and, even now, Davies is boyishly excited by the memory of his first visit, citing a couple of early foreign scouts of the Burgundian wine scene. ‘We felt like Kermit Lynch or Anthony Sarjeant must have felt in the 1970s. We could sign anyone! In Oregon they’d never met anyone from UK before. And, best of all, you could find premier cru quality at village-level wine prices.’

Bingo. A&B had discovered how to satisfy their customers with remarkably Burgundian wines from a corner of the United States 5,000 miles away. Oregon has proved the most remarkable success for them. Their customers have lapped up the wines to such an extent that A&B imported three 40-foot containers of Oregon wine last year alone. They still have the field virtually to themselves in the UK where, as London’s crowded Burgundy Week tastings every early January testify, there is no shortage of burgundy lovers.

Lawyer François Feuillat is sufficiently embedded in the Burgundy wine scene that Volnay grower Frédéric Lafarge stays with him when in London. But Feuillat has become one of A&B’s many enthusiastic customers for Oregon wines, and comments:

There are now several regions producing serious Pinot, and I love them all, but Oregon comes closest to the elegance and savouriness of Burgundy. Also there are plenty of terroir differences within the region to get to know – a wine nerd’s dream! The wines aren’t cheap but Burgundy makes them look cheap. Instead of a premier cru Volnay, nudging £100 a bottle nowadays, I can open a £50 bottle from the Dundee Hills that is equally delicious and interesting.

‘My old traditional wine merchants seem less and less interested in selling me what I want, implying I don’t spend nearly enough money with them to have the privilege of paying them a fortune for allocations of sought-after wines. Their loss is A&B’s gain. John and Simon are not only great salesmen but also they trust their palates. They know my tastes and make personal recommendations with total conviction and honesty.

‘So when they told me I should try some Oregon Pinots and Chardonnays, I listened – and I haven’t looked back. They invited me to dinner at Medlar with Dick Shea of Shea Wine Cellars and some mature examples of his wines and I was hooked. I visited the Willamette Valley that summer and A&B recommended hotels and introduced me to some of their producers. I met fascinating people making wines of real character. Now I buy wines from half a dozen Oregon producers through A&B who know what I like.’

The sheer size of A&B’s portfolio presumably reflects the size of demand – and the extent to which they have cleaned up in the UK market. Exclusivities so far are Abbott Claim, Arterberry Maresh, Bethel Heights, Brick House, Cameron, J K Carriere, Coattails, Crowley, Domaine Roy & Fils, Goodfellow, Patricia Green, Mimi Casteel’s Hope Well, Hundred Suns, Lavinea, Martin Woods, Mills Wine Company, Morgen Long, Sequitur, Shea Wine Cellars, Suzor, Thomas, Trathen Hall, Trisaetum and Vincent Wine Company.

Davies is continuing to visit the state and further signings are on the way. He claims that ‘spending time on the ground in Oregon and hanging out with the growers after hours means we get on the inside track and get tip-offs about the most exciting estates in the state’. He is already well regarded by leading Oregon wine producers. Michael Etzel, ex brother-in-law of American wine critic Robert Parker (with whom he founded Beaux Frères) and who is now doing his own thing under the Sequitur label, has called A&B, ‘amazing ambassadors for Oregon wines’.

According to Doug Tunnell of Brick House, ‘Simon is gracious, discreet and unassuming. He has a good sense of humour and is supremely adaptable. I’ve seen him fit in around the fire pit with a gaggle of burly Oregon winemakers who have had a bit too much of their product. I’ve also enjoyed meeting him for a business lunch at a white-tablecloth restaurant during which he charmed me out of the last few cases of a strictly allocated Pinot Noir. We love doing business with him.’

A&B prefer to concentrate on the sort of hands-on operations which have so far been the hallmark of the Oregon wine industry (although as more and more outsiders invest in it, this is changing). Discussing one new producer for instance, Davies commented, ‘they weren't right for us. I think if you were a London merchant signing producers from afar, it would look like a great option. If you’re really immersed in the people, the region and the land, you might come to a different conclusion, as we did.’

Other UK merchants are slowly cottoning on to the quality and value available from Oregon. Justerini & Brooks now import the wines of Walter Scott, Berry Bros & Rudd have Lingua Franca and Corney & Barrow have signed up 00 Wines.

Initially Oregon was considered a monovarietal state, specialising in Pinot Noir that was rather fresher and more Burgundian than California Pinot. But the quality of Oregon’s Chardonnays, convincing answers to white burgundy, has been rising fast and A&B are selling more and more Chardonnay as well.

Let us hope that Oregon wine prices don’t go the way of Burgundy’s.

Some Oregon recommendations


Bergström, Old Stones 2019 Willamette Valley 13.1%
£31 Roberson

Walter Scott, Cuvée Anne 2017 Willamette Valley 13%
£36.16 Justerini & Brooks

Goodfellow, Richard’s Cuvée 2019 Ribbon Ridge 11.8%
£41.68 A&B Vintners

Crowley, Four Winds Chardonnay 2018 McMinnville 12.5%
£44.60 (2019) A&B Vintners

Sequitur, Woodstock 2019 Ribbon Ridge 12.2%
£50.68 A&B Vintners

Morgen Long, Seven Springs Vineyard 2019 Eola-Amity Hills 13.0%
£50.68 A&B Vintners

Arterberry Maresh, Maresh Vineyard 2018 Dundee Hills 13.0%
£53.68 A&B Vintners

Hope Well 2018 Eola-Amity Hills 12.5%
£59.68 A&B Vintners

Pinot Noirs

Hundred Suns, Old Eight Cut 2019 Willamette Valley 13.2%
£24.88 A&B Vintners

Illahe 2019 Willamette Valley 13.5%
£26.95 Lea & Sandeman

The Eyrie Vineyards 2017 Dundee Hills 13%
£33 Savage Selection
, £37.68 Latimer Vintners

Walter Scott, Cuvée Ruth 2019 Eola-Amity Hills 13.5%
£36.16 Justerini & Brooks

J K Carriere, St Dolores 2016 Chehalem Mountains 13.5%
£44.68 (2018 and 2019) A&B Vintners

Brick House, Les Dijonnais 2018 Ribbon Ridge 13.3%
£50.68 (2017 and 2019) A&B Vintners

Bergström, Pré du Col Vineyard 2018 Ribbon Ridge 13.1%
£80 Roberson

Domaine Roy, Quartz Acorn Vineyard 2017 Yamhill-Carlton 13.4%
£80.68 A&B Vintners

See our over 100 articles about Oregon. International stockists on Wine-Searcher.com.