My relationship to Oregon pinots has been rocky. Too many are the loud guy at the end of the bar—too big, too noisy, too spicy, too showy. But a friend with a passion for these Willamette beauties worked to change my mind, and his work has paid off. Every once in a while, a spectacular bottle—Kapow!—just blows my mind. After several trips to Oregon and lots of tastings with winemakers and growers, I’ve come to appreciate these well-made, nuanced, elegant wines—especially the ones that make me think “that is a great pinot.”
The 2014 Willful Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley hits all of the right notes for me as a blow-your-mind good wine. The label notes that “willful” means “determined; pertinacious; unruly; wild.” And while those words could describe winemaker Pam Walden’s journey, they’re not the words I’d use to describe the wine. I’d call it “elegant, balanced, refined, beautiful.”
Walden has had to be willful in the past decade to get these wines to market. After a split from husband and winemaker Aron Hess (former winemaker at Rex Hill and co-founder, with Walden, of Daedalus Cellars), she kept making wine. After Hess’s untimely death in 2013 left her alone with their two young children and a wine business, she kept making wine. And in the face of it all, she’s founded—and become—Willful Wine Company.
She’s had great training and mentors along the way, not to mention her late husband was an Oregon rock star. But on her own, she’s making a name for herself. Walden made the first wine from the estate’s Dundee Hills vineyard in 2011.
The 2014 vintage is generally considered a particularly good one in Oregon with good acidity backing up rich fruit. It was no exception with this wine, which critics loved.
On the nose, there’s bright red fruit, berry, spices, and moderated alcohol. In the glass, great red fruit balances with dark spices and orange peel, with a richness and hint of green in the finish. Notes say this is a 100% Pommard clone, which accounts for the rich cherry and ripe plum, but the balance in the bottle must be the result of the winemaker’s steady hand.
In addition to the Willful pinots, Walden makes a second label, Jezebel, which includes whites from the region as well as a few unusual Willful wines from varietals like a Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. With Walden’s playfulness and skill, I would wager some of these Willful wines would be worth it.
Critics have loved their current releases. Wine and Spirits magazine gave their current release, the 2018 Willful Pinot ($26), 91 points, calling it the year’s best U.S. Pinot Noir. I don’t always agree with critical consensus, but this time they got it right.