Ghost Hill Cellars Pinot Noir Blanc 2014, Willamette Valley
Cost: $24-26
P eople who make great wine tell you it all starts with the vineyard. They take care of the land where the grapes grow and the grapes take care of them.
The Bayliss family has been taking care of its land for four generations and 111 years. And all that work is paying off now.
They have about 15 acres of pinot noir grape vines in the Yamhill-Carlton district of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, from which they produce outstanding pinot noir, rosé and pinot noir blanc.
My wife Teri and I visited their Ghost Hill Cellars with two other couples during a nine-day trip to Oregon. I have been with Steve, Sandy, John and Dorothy on other trips and we always manage to have fun and find good wine. Unfortunately, our other traveling friends John and Edith from Savannah couldn’t make it this trip.
We found some outstanding wineries, so I will be writing about them from time to time over the next several months. We visited 10 wineries in three days and had dinner in Portland at a restaurant owned by a family who runs a winery, so we had a good sampling of Oregon wine.
I was blown away by how good all the pinot noir was. I have been impressed by Oregon pinot noir before, but I have never had so many great wines in such a short period of time. This certainly is one of the best places in the world to grow pinot noir grapes. The soil and weather combine to create perfect conditions.
Ghost Hill Cellars makes great pinot. In fact their 2012 vintage received 94 points from Wine Spectator. If you can find it you are in for a real treat, but I thought their best value was the pinot noir blanc followed closely by the rosé.
Pinot noir blanc is made the same way fine Champagne is made, but without the bubbles, using red grapes to make white wine. It is made from 100 percent pinot noir grapes, whole cluster pressed and sent to a stainless steel tank to settle.
Then the higher quality juice was sent to another stainless steel tank where it was fermented to complete dryness. The wine developed a rich, full flavor by aging it on the lees, with frequent stirring.
The 2014 Pinot Noir Blanc has a mineral note on the nose, but rich round flavors on the palate. The lush fruit is balanced by fresh acidity to produce a superb wine.
We tasted six wines at Ghost Hill, and all were well made. All are made in the Old World style, as in Burgundy. The wines are elegant and restrained rather than over-the-top fruit.
The Pinot Noir Blanc 2013 was as good as the 2014, but there were some vintage differences. The 2014 was bolder, but the 2013 had great texture and mouthfeel. The 2013 had intense aromatics, with notes of strawberry, pear and apple.
Ghost Hill Rosé
I love the 2015 rosé. The grapes were whole cluster pressed, and the juice stayed on the skins for 24 hours. The deep pink color was attractive.
The process of making the rosé is interesting. While making the pinot noir blanc, the winemaker realized he would have a good amount of juice at the end that would have too much color or tannin for the blanc. He placed the darker juice in a separate tank, where it settled. The juice was racked off the sediment, inoculated and fermented to dryness.
An equal amount of juice was taken from several of the pinot noir fermenters before fermentation started. This is the Saignée method of making rosé. This juice was fermented separately off of the skins of the rosé. Then both wines were combined at filtering to create a slightly off dry wine. You get a real pinot noir flavor, but with more lightness.
We also tasted the 2010 pinot noir, which had a great nose and a smooth finish. It is a good sipping wine with a good mouthfeel and texture. It had a great lingering finish
I loved the 2013 pinot noir Bayliss-Bower vineyard. It had a wonderful fresh fruit flavor, with lots of exuberant fruit. It is an elegant, complex wine.
This is their traditional blend of four clones of Pinot Noir; 45% Pommard, 20% Dijon Clone 777, 20% Dijon Clone 114 and 15% Wädenswil. The Pommard clone continues to be the foundation of their estate wine. This vintage is an excellent picture of the elegance of their older vines blended with this vintage.
Tasting at Ghost Hill is fun. Drenda Bayliss conducts the tastings in a cabin built built by husband Mike and their son Michael from reclaimed wood from their old barn. The bar was built from wood from the floor where the alter stood at a nearby Trappist Abbey. Handmade glass from the abbey also is in the cabin.
Drenda Bayliss pours wine in the tasting room while Mike looks on.
As Drenda poured she and Mike talked about the challenges of farming their land. Drenda had a lot of adjusting to do.
Her father was in the military so the family moved a lot. The last move was from a spot in Los Angeles near Disneyland to the Willamette Valley.
“It took 4-5 years before I accepted living in the middle of nowhere,” said Drenda.
“I don’t know,” said Mike with a twinkle in his eye. “Have you?”
The bar in the tasting room was made with reclaimed wood.
Winery: Ghost Hill started in 1906 when brothers Daniel and Samuel Bayliss bought the Willamette Valley property from the family who originally got the government land grant. They cleared the land so they could farm it and later added a dairy operation.
Samuel used to take the milk on a paddlewheel steamer to Portland where he would sell it. Each trip would take three days.
“We’ve grown just about everything here at one time or another,” said Mike Bayliss, the fourth generation to work this land.
Mike’s father, Samuel D., planted other crops and added sheep. Mike and Drenda became more involved in the farm in the 1970s and ‘80s, adding hay and cattle.
After Mike took a class on winemaking in the ‘70s he thought about planting some grape vines.
“I talked to my dad and he said, ‘no way’,” said Mike. “I didn’t own the land so I couldn’t do anything, so I just kept on farming.”
But the idea never died.
Brenda and Mike Bayliss outside their tasting room.
When Mike and Drenda’s daughter Bernadette got married in Hong Kong Mike and son-in-law Cameron Bower started talking over a drink in the bar.
“He asked me how the cow business was,” said Mike. “I said, ‘It stinks.’”
The family wasn’t making much money at farming, but they wanted to keep the land in the family. Bower suggested they plant vines. He had a friend in Australia with a winery, and it seemed like good use of the land.
The idea struck a nerve in Mike and the family decided to forget about the cattle and plant grape vines. They still grow some oats and wheat, but grapes are the main focus.
They started planting in 1999 and finished the first four acres in 2000. They planted more vines in 2001 and in 2006. There are now 15.5 acres of vines on the 234-acre property.
Bernadette Bower
“We have an excellent plan to plant 90 acres,” said Bernadette Bower, co-owner and director of sales, who I met at the Watershed restaurant in Atlanta. “We do want to plant some whites, but it’s not a top priority.”
Ghost Hill Cellars produces about 1,000 cases per year, and there is room to grow. Only about half the grapes grown on the property goes into Ghost Hill wines. The rest is sold to other wineries. But Mike and Drenda say they don’t want to grow too much, probably to no more than 5,000 cases.
They would like to build a tasting room on top of Ghost Hill to take advantage of the great views there.
Ghost Hill Cellars is a true family operation, with Mike, Drenda, Bernadette, Cameron and Bernadette’s brother Michael, each playing a role. The fifth generation of the Bayliss family is growing up now and there are hopes they will continue the family tradition.
“Growing up there, we had no neighbors,” said Bernadette, who lives in Houston now. Her husband works for Exxon Mobil. “I was like I’m getting out of this place and have neighbors.
“Now I want my kids to live there someday, and my grandkids.”
The family also has many stories to tell. Bernadette said her grandfather used dynamite to create a basement under the house. “When he did it my great grandfather was asleep on the couch and the blast bumped him off the couch.”
Winemaker Eric Hamacher has gained acclaim as one of the most respected Oregon winemakers. He believes in minimal intervention and handling, using wild fermentation yeasts and gravity blending and bottling. The wine is made at a custom bottler.
Hamacher was hired for the 2015 vintage when the previous winemaker was deployed with her National Guard unit and was not around for the harvest. He had previously bought grapes from Bayliss for his own label.
“My attempt is to sculpt consistently complete wines through close management of the vineyards and careful blending at the winery,” says Hamacher. “I believe the best wines are still made by resisting the temptation to do something. Good grapes with gentle and minimal handling describe my winemaking philosophy.”
An old barrel is part of the bar in the tasting room.
Ghost Hill Cellars has been recognized for sustainable viticulture practices and is dedicated to restoring and maintaining healthy watersheds to protect salmon in the local rivers.
And there really is a ghost on ghost hill. A miner traveling to Portland with his gold in the late 1800s camped for the night at the top of what is now known as Ghost Hill. A thief killed him and his horse and stole the gold.
Some of the original settlers said they saw the miner looking for his gold, and some neighbors now refuse to go on the hill. Horse bones and a saddle were discovered on the hill, but the gold was never found.
Goes with: We had this wine while tasting several Ghost Hill wines, with crackers to nibble on.
But I think it would be a great wine for fresh fish, shrimp, chicken on the grill, chicken alfredo, or any creamy dish and creamy cheeses.
Willamette Valley is full of scenic beauty.


  1. Jan and Gary Wilmes Reply

    We had a chance to meet Bernadette in Singapore when we were visiting our daughter, Laura Wilmes and her family! Laura sent bottles of the Pinot Noir to us for Christmas one year-just delicious! Would love to try the Pinot noir blanc. We are in Ky. We are in two wine clubs fro Ca. I will go to the websight and check it all out.Very good article.

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