St. Innocent, Willamette Valley

St Innocent label

Country & RegionAmerica, Oregon
Appellation(s)Willamette Valley
ProducerMark Vlossak

Mark Vlossak grew up tasting wine at the side of his father, who imported fine wine on the side for a group of buddies in a wine club (the container truck would pull up to the house in Wisconsin once a year and all these guys would unload the wine, distribute it among themselves, and throw a party). After a postgraduate degree in medicine, he moved to Oregon to practice pediatrics. In 1983, he re-discovered his passion for wine, and this led to school at UC Davis as well as a two-year apprenticeship at Oregon’s Arterberry Winery. In 1988, Mark founded St. Innocent Winery, named for his father, who was born on All Innocent’s Day and christened with the middle name of Innocent.

Mark has a European sensibility when it comes to wine. Ten years after starting St. Innocent, he went to Burgundy. There, in a defining moment, he came to understand that the innate qualities of great Pinot Noir do not come from the more-is-better philosophy that guided and continues to guide many in the new world. Intensity of extraction, for example, does not result in a more powerful wine. He’s come to believe that great Pinot Noir is created when exactly the right balance of fruit, tannin, and phenolic components are captured during the fermentation of perfectly ripe fruit. Perfectly ripe, of course, is a wildly subjective phrase, and it helps to know that Mark is firmly in the less-is-more school, and this informs his harvesting decisions. He’s into nuance, layered richness, balance and finesse rather than brute strength.

St Innocent cellars

He works with the Pinot family—Pinot Noir, Blanc, and Gris—and some tasty Chardonnay from Dijon clones. He focuses intently on viticulture and discovering top vineyard sites. A committed terroirist, his guiding philosophy is to tailor vineyard work to each site so that the attributes of each are expressed in its wine. He looks for balance between leaves and fruit in his vines, he works with low yields, and he harvests according to how the grapes taste. As often as possible, just to keep himself honest, he travels to Burgundy and Alsace for extensive tastings.

From 1994-1999 he was the winemaker at Panther Creek, but these days he’s full time with St. Innocent. In 2007 he moved out of the tiny winery he had built in a little industrial park in Salem (a practical place without a shred of romance) to a state-of-the-art facility deep in the Eola-Amity Hills. The facility is the Zenith Vineyards, and St. Innocent bought an interest in this LLC during its conceptual phase, allowing Mark to design the cellar from start to finish. Here, for the first time, he’s got his own vineyard. Altogether, he makes wine from seven sites, listed below.

Mark Vlossak of St. Innocent

Mark’s father helped his kid at every harvest up to 2014. He went to his great reward in 2015. That’s him in the photo with the big black horn rims, Mark to one side and Terry and Mimi Castell on the other. The photo was taken chez Marc Tempé.

The Wines

Villages Cuvée
Pinot NoirBase of this wine comes from the Pinot Noir plantation at Vitae Springs vineyard, but in a given year any number of single-vineyard cuvées (or individual barrels) can be declassified into this cuvée if they don’t make the cut.
Zenith (Eola-Amity Hills AVA)Pinot NoirIn 1989, Mark made his first single-vineyard bottling—an O’Conner Pinot Noir from a vineyard growing in the foothills between the Bethel Heights and Christom wineries. He continued to make wine from this site for 10 years, until the vineyard was leased to another winery. In 2002 the vineyard was sold, replanted and expanded, and today it’s known as the Zenith Vineyard. It is now Mark’s estate vineyard, comprised of 9 blocks totaling 13.5 acres, roughly 20% of the total (the rest of the grapes are sold to other wineries). These blocks are planted to 4 clones of Pinot Noir on 2 different root stocks, and early results show the elegant fruit and smoky profile of the old O’Conner wines. Once all the blocks have come of age, annual production will average 1,700 cases.
Momtazi (McMinnville AVA)Pinot NoirBiodynamically farmed Momtazi Vineyard is in McMinnville AVA, Oregon’s western-most appellation. Viticulturally, the defining influences are enormous elevation changes in this vineyard, the daytime warmth and the nighttime cold, and the poor soil. Momtazi’s vines grow alongside the Van Duzer pass that cuts through the coast range to the ocean, opening up a cold wind corridor. Mark buys grapes from 11.5 acres, more than half of which comes from the highest parcels with the most meager soil, and face south-southeast rather than the prevailing hotter southwest exposure of the vineyard. The wine is darkly-fruited, powerful, and intense. Along with Freedom Hill, this bottling of Saint Innocent Pinot Noir is the most structured of the range. 1,500 cases annually.
Pinot Noir Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley AVA)Pinot NoirMark has made wine from this vineyard since 1992, but it’s been replanted due to phylloxera. This is as far west as the Momtazi vineyard, but to the south, and is part of the general Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area rather than a subset AVA. Saint Innocent oversees 7 acres of Pinot Noir divided between mid-slope and top of the slope parcels, and bottles roughly 1,000 cases each year— most of which, for now, goes into the Villages Cuvée.
Pinot Blanc Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley AVA)Pinot BlancFrom 3 acres of Pinot Blanc, of which roughly two-thirds made in tank and one-third in older barrels. 500 cases annually.
Chardonnay Freedom Hill Vineyard (Willamette Valley AVA)ChardonnaySaint Innocent oversees a terrific 6-acre parcel of Chardonnay. Planted to several Dijon clones. Wine is made in older barrels. 1,000 cases annually.
Shea (Yamhill-Carlton District AVA)Pinot NoirWith the Dundee AVA, the Yamhill-Carlton District AVA is the most protected from the cold Pacific winds, and this tends to emphasize fruit above spice and structure in the wines. Mark’s Pinot Noir from this well known site is a layered, round wine that ages well. Saint Innocent oversees 2 parcels here. One is 4.5 acres and planted to 2 clones of Pinot Noir; the other is 2.3 acres and used to be planted to Pinot Gris until phylloxera got it. 900 cases annually.
Temperance Hill (Eola-Amity Hills AVA)Pinot NoirFarmed organically. Sits on top of Eola Hills between Bethel Heights and Christom Wineries in Eola-Amity Hills AVA. It is cold, low-yielding, and late to ripen. Wine is intensely aromatic, fresh, and earthy. Mark has 3 blocks here totaling about 9 acres, but 1 block is planted on its own root stock and is dying from phylloxera. 600 cases annually.
Justice (Eola-Amity Hills AVA)Pinot NoirJustice is farmed by Ted Casteel (and increasingly these days, as Ted retires, by his daughter Mimi), the highly respected viticulturalist at Bethel Heights, and most of the grapes from this 23-acre vineyard go to that winery. Mark controls a small 2.33-acre parcel, a gem in his portfolio because he considers Justice, young though it is (vintage ’08 is its eighth leaf), to be one of the best sites he knows. The elusive "Eola spice" shines through in Saint Innocent’s Justice Pinot Noir. Vineyard located just over the east ridge of Eola-Amity AVA and grows on a mix of volcanic and sedimentary soils. 350 cases annually.
Pinot Gris Vitae Springs (Willamette Valley AVA)Pinot Gris Like Shea and Justice, Vitae Springs grows around the 650-foot elevation on hills to the south of Salem. Mark buys Pinot Gris here, controlling 5 acres. First Saint Innocent bottling was with the 1993 vintage. Today, Mark makes roughly 750 cases a year in steel tanks and models his Pinot Gris on Alsace, looking for a textured mouth feel.