Winemaker Barnaby Tuttle on making Riesling in Oregon

Winemaker Barnaby Tuttle tells Club Oenologique about his most radical experiments, his mentors (he calls them the Mosel Mafia), and how psychedelic jazz energises his winemaking

Words by Hannah Wallace

Photography by Josh Chang

Drop into Barnaby Tuttle’s southeast Portland winery, and chances are he’ll be tending bar wearing a baseball cap and rocking out to Miles Davis’s psychedelic Bitches Brew.

Tuttle, who runs Teutonic Wine Company with his wife Olga, is one of Oregon’s most interesting winemakers. Though his favourite grape is Riesling—and he makes some truly excellent Rieslings—he also makes Pinot Noir, a Pinot-Gamay blend, a Tannat, and a Pinot Noir, Tannat and Gewürztraminer blend he calls Red Fang, named in honor of a Portland heavy metal band.

Unafraid to challenge conventional wine orthodoxy, Tuttle has made wine from grapes that were kissed with smoke from the 2017 Gorge fires (he called this Rauchwein), and a medium-dry Riesling wine from grapes that had 100% botrytis. He’s even made several wines inspired by scenes in This is Spinal Tap, Rob Reiner and Christopher Guest’s hilarious mockumentary about a metal band.

Portland’s Nostrana wine buyer Austin Bridges is a big fan of Tuttle and his wines – particularly his Rieslings: “they are so unique and different, so powerful and deep,” he says. “But they are also very drinkable and good food wines. They’re top notch Riesling wines.” Right now, he has Teutonic’s 1908 Riesling on the menu (made in a dry style, as it was in the early 20th century in the Mosel Valley), and he’s bringing on the Candied Mushroom soon. The Teutonic wines are also found in restaurants like California’s Chez Panisse and Atelier Crenn, as well as New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Eleven Madison Park.

Tuttle during harvest time
Tuttle during harvest time
Teutonic Wine Company Rieslings
Teutonic Wine Company Rieslings

It shouldn’t surprise you that Tuttle had an unorthodox path to becoming a winemaker. Before discovering wine in 2000, he was an ironworker and worked in a wrecking yard. Wanting to save up for a trip to New Zealand, he got a job waiting tables at Papa Haydn, an upscale restaurant/cake shop in Portland, Oregon. “It was a lot more money than at the wrecking yard,” says Tuttle, now 51.

One day, the manager took him aside and said he’d need to take a wine class if he wanted to keep his job. Tuttle, who grew up working class in North Portland, showed up to the class in his Plymouth Barracuda. “I didn’t belong,” he says. But it was at one of these classes, taught at Great Wine Buys, that Tuttle had an epiphany that would change the trajectory of his life. He had always dismissed silent tastings as “pretentious nonsense,” but was amazed when they yielded similar tasting notes from 80% of his classmates.

The moment that really blew his mind, though, was when the instructor organised a side-by-side tasting of three Oregon Pinot Noirs, all from the same producer but from three different vineyard sites in the Willamette Valley. Even though he was just beginning to train his palate, Tuttle could taste differences between the three wines. “The instructor said, ‘That’s this thing called terroir.’”

The concept of terroir—which Tuttle says was “the coolest thing I’d ever been told”—changed everything. He began devoting himself to tasting wines from around the world. A year later, in 2001, he was promoted to wine buyer at Papa Hadyn. In 2005, he and Olga bought a vineyard in Alsea, Oregon (about 20 miles from the coast), and Tuttle started making his own Riesling.

You have a particular interest in German-style wines. How did you come to grow and make Riesling?
When I was the buyer at Papa Hadyn, I needed some Mosel wine and I heard about this guy Ewald Moseler. He brought in 14 Mosel Rieslings, and I bought everything in the bag and said to Olga, “I’m gonna have to figure out how to do that.” It scared the shit out of her because she knows I follow through on crazy shit. I planted a vineyard a short time later, in 2005. That was the Alsea vineyard.

What was it about those wines that excited you so much?
I had already been into cool-climate wines. Dirty, natty are fashionable now – but those wines took it to the next level. Their acid was off the hook, they pair with food really well, and they last a long time.I used to buy a 1979 Riesling from Moseler for $19.

Wines from Teutonic Wine Company

Did people like German Rieslings at Papa Hadyn?
Not always, but it was like helping an old lady cross the street. It doesn’t make any money, but it’s the right thing to do. I loved selling it and it’s fun, but it isn’t the easiest path.

I think people are apprehensive about sweet wines. I call it sugar shame. They think, “You’re an idiot, why are you drinking sweet stuff?” You have to tell them, “No, it tastes good to me.” 

Riesling is confusing because a lot of the high-tone aromatics add to the perception of sweetness and if it smells fruity, people think it’s sweet. It may have 12 grams of acid and a tiny bit of sugar. There’s this Chardonnay: Rombauer. It probably has 14-15 grams of sugar and 5 grams of acid, so the sugar profile is way sweeter, but when people taste it in a buttery Chardonnay they don’t taste the sugar. You have to educate people in a way that’s super respectful to them. The people who I want to educate the most are people like me, who didn’t grow up with privilege.

One more thing about Moseler – I got to be super good friends with him. He took me to Germany in 2007 to meet all these Riesling producers, and one of them became my mentor: Harald Junglen of Weingut Ackermann. I have so many friends over there—I call them the Mosel Mafia. I’m this crazy American with a passion for Riesling. When I’m there, I’ll wake up in the morning and start working with whomever I can.

The people who I want to educate the most are people like me, who didn’t grow up with privilege

Tell me about one of your early failures and what you learned from it.
There are so many. When we planted the vineyard at Alsea, I was a purist. This revolution in wine hadn’t happened yet. There were a lot of good Oregon wines – Eyrie, Cristom, Cameron – but there were also all these Pinots that had to chase this Parker profile that was more like Syrah than Pinot Noir. There was that expectation of dark red or purple. A lot of these guys were using enzymes and new oak or oak chips. Some of those wines are probably objectively really good, but I don’t need the sales rep to pour me 15 wines that taste like the same thing.

A lot of the institutionalized things people were telling me, I was rejecting.In France and Germany, you’re not allowed to irrigate your vines—just a little bit of water the first year. I liked these wines so much more. So I planted Alsea, and I said, “I’m not gonna irrigate. Bugger off!”

But they were right. Being very provincial growing up on the west coast and never spending a summer anywhere else, I thought that the dry summers we get here were like everywhere else in the world. Luckily the farmer next to me ran some sprinklers through and saved my vineyard.

I irrigated the first year and let it ride after that—no more irrigation.

Did you have a lack of money at first? Have you had any outside investment?
Oh, fuck. We had no money. We still have no money. I mean, everybody says they have no money and then the check comes after dinner, and it’s $300 per person so you have to cough it up. I’m like the Top Ramen queen. I know how to make things stretch.

After I left Papa Hadyn, I got hired on at Laurel Ridge Winery in Carlton and was promoted to assistant winemaker. I was mechanically inclined. I started fixing all the machines, dialing in the bottling line. Susan Teppola [the owner] let me make my wine there as a privilege. Then I outgrew the space. We got a tiny bit of family help and stripped every nickel out of our house. I could make more money waiting tables, but I wouldn’t get to have this quality of life. 

I could make more money waiting tables, but I wouldn’t get to have this quality of life

You’ve done some interesting wine experiments. Tell me about the most successful ones. 
The Candied Mushroom is my favourite thing in the world. We’ve been able to do it two years in a row—I was fortunate enough to have 100% botrytistwice. It may not happen again. I’m at the mercy of nature. I mean for dessert wines, it’s a desirable thing, but I’m finding that a lot of the things people are taught to believe are not always true.

Last year, you sent a couple of your wines in to a cannabis testing lab to see if they contained terpenes [the aromatic components in plants that give them their particular aroma and, in the case of cannabis, contribute to the type of high you experience.] Why did you do this?
I don’t like to speak in absolutes, and I kept telling people that this wine shares things with cannabis. I knew it was true, but I just wanted to have it on paper. I think it was the Muscat that came back, and it had the same profile as Lemon Sour Diesel.

Is that a strain you particularly like?
It’s an okay strain. I like heady, cerebral stuff. I don’t like to go numb, I like to be tripped out. 

What are your favourite wines around the world?
I like most wines. I typically don’t like Sauvignon Blanc, but once in a while I’ll have it and love it. Olga and I recently had a Sauv Blanc from our friends at Division Wine (in Portland) and we looked at each other and said, I hate Sauv Blanc, but I love this!

Pinot Noir I love. Chenin Blanc from the Loire (but also from Tom Monroe and Kate Norris’s Division and Jeff Fischer’s Habit Wine). Nebbiolo, Valtellinastuff. It’s the region right up against Switzerland. They have a distinct strain of Nebbiolo called Chiavennasca, and it’s kind of like Barolo but with the finesse of Burgundy. A super mineral, Alpine wine.

I’m finding that a lot of the things people are taught to believe are not always true

Your winery doubles as a jazz club. How does your interest in jazz inform your winemaking?
Smoking weed and listening to jazz is probably the impetus for the Candied Mushroom. But it’s just like anything else: it’s music that takes you out of your safe space. Something that challenges you. I’m one of those people who when he gets curious about something he chases it really hard. 

Do you listen to jazz when you make wine?
A lot. We’ll put Slayer on and country, too. But a lot of psychedelic jazz. I didn’t listen to jazz before the winery. We kept making it sound better and better.

I hadn’t smoked pot in 25 years, and then Olga and I had these big dinner parties, and I’m like “Wait! No one is on their phones, on their computers! This is probably what it was like for my parents in the ’70s. Sitting around the sound system, eating, smoking, drinking.” In that context, it was like “Wow, I get it now. I need to know everything about this music.” I just threw myself out there and started meeting jazz musicians.

How often can people hear jazz at Teutonic now?
Three times a week: Wednesday and Friday nights, and then we have jam sessions on Sunday. There is a word in jazz: motherfucker. It’s the highest compliment: when someone in jazz thinks someone is a very skilled musician. Miles Davis started it. So Wednesday night is for the motherfuckers, and Friday nights are for the younger guys. It’s more of a hip-hop party vibe sometimes. It’s all up-and-coming—people who are taking lessons from older people. Then a jam session on Sunday at 4PM.