Beyond Pinot: Fullerton Wines Unconventional Take on Willamette Valley

By Published On: May 28, 2024

Fullerton family. Credit: Josh Chang

Fullerton Wines wasn’t born overnight. It began as a shared vision, amongst Alex and Eric Fullerton for several years. It wasn’t until a successful garage experiment in 2011 that the dream ignited into a call to action.

That humble first wine batch became the catalyst, convincing them they could craft exceptional wines that met their own high standards. By 2012, they were taking a leap of faith, producing a limited run of just a few hundred cases of Pinot Noir. Their vision was clear: food-friendly Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would be their focus, but they also embraced experimentation, determined to develop a unique house style within their winery. They understood that the market would play a role in their success, and they were open to finding their niche.

The family knew, however, that crafting exceptional wine was just the beginning; the true test would be selling it. Launching a family business wasn’t without its hurdles, but the potential rewards were equally enticing. Honesty became their cornerstone – within the family, there was no room for mincing words. This open communication ensured a consistent focus, influencing every step of the process, from vineyard care to the labels adorning their bottles. 

Their own micro-vineyard, aptly named Ivy Slope, sits on a steep southeast-facing slope. Another small plot graces the property next door, both with Chardonnay vines thriving in windblown loess soils with volcanic bedrock. But Fullerton Wines’ ambition extends beyond their backyard. They source fruit from across the Willamette Valley, crafting Pinot Noir expressions from each of the region’s ten distinct sub-AVAs. This dedication acts as a lens, showcasing the remarkable breadth and diversity of the Willamette Valley through their wines.

Credit: Fullerton Wines

The chosen vineyards vary dramatically. Elevation, sun exposure, local climate variations, the influence of coastal winds, and the very composition of the soil itself – all these factors come into play. From volcanic basalt and marine sedimentary soils to windblown loess and even pockets of Missoula flood sediment, the diversity is remarkable.  Rather than a single favorite, the winemakers find beauty in the way different terroirs shine in specific vintages, perfectly complementing certain food pairings. Every element, every shift in elevation or soil composition, contributes to the unique personality of the resulting wines. This very notion–the potential for endless variations within a single region–is a source of endless fascination for the team at Fullerton Wines.

Winemaker Alex Fullerton isn’t one for a one-size-fits-all approach. In his cellar, a multifaceted approach reigns supreme. Each vineyard block they source from becomes a unique puzzle, and Eric strives to craft a wine that accentuates its inherent strengths.  He employs a diverse set of techniques, tailoring them to coax out the most compelling characteristics of each site.  Generally, he favors minimal intervention. Sulfite use is restricted, and the environment within the barrel leans towards reduction, minimizing oxygen exposure.  On occasion, non-Saccharomyces yeasts are introduced before fermentation to limit the need for sulfites further. However, true to his preference for natural flavors, Alex avoids inoculating with commercial Saccharomyces yeast strains, preferring the nuances of native primary fermentation. 

Fullerton’s “Five Faces” Pinot Noir isn’t just a catchy name (it’s a tribute to the family – Filip, Alex, Eric, Caroline, and Susanne). This Willamette Valley blend, like their “Three Otters” offerings, is a love letter to the region’s diversity. The same vineyards contribute each year, but the final product reflects the vintage’s personality. Volcanic (45%), marine sedimentary (45%), and loess (10%) soils are all brought together, spanning the valley’s temperature extremes. Each bottle pays provides a snapshot of the Willamette Valley in that specific year.

Polk County’s Mt. Pisgah AVA offers another glimpse into the region’s nuances. Their Croft Vineyard Pinot Noir hails from this new, small AVA. Situated amidst marine sediments and ancient basalt, Croft holds the title of Willamette Valley’s oldest certified organic vineyard. Cooler temperatures and surprisingly calm winds set Mt. Pisgah apart. Less wind exposure means later ripening and extended hangtime for the grapes, resulting in wines rich in flavor, plush tannins, and slightly less acidity.

Credit:Matt Wieland

“Lux,” Fullerton’s reserve Chardonnay, draws inspiration from the 13th-century Fullerton family motto, “Lux in Tenebris,” which translates to “Light in Darkness.” This philosophy finds a dual expression in their reserve wines: Lux, the Chardonnay, embodies the light, while Tenebris, the Pinot Noir, reflects the darkness. More than just a name, Lux is a culmination of the vintage’s finest Chardonnay barrels, meticulously chosen to showcase the vibrant, multifaceted character of Willamette Valley Chardonnay. This wine aspires to be a versatile companion, enjoyed on its own or paired with a variety of culinary delights.

For the wine enthusiast seeking a deeper understanding of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Fullerton Wines offers a unique passport to discovery. Their “AVA Flight” tasting experience takes visitors on a whirlwind tour, showcasing Pinot Noirs from six distinct AVAs within the region. This side-by-side comparison allows guests to savor the subtle nuances that differentiate each growing area.  Beyond the wines themselves, the Fullertons create an encapsulating narrative, educating visitors on the interplay between geology and microclimates. 

Beyond the familiar Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Fullerton Wines pushes boundaries. Expect playful experimentation with pet-nats and amber wines, alongside bolder reds.  A touch of sweetness awaits with their Sauvignon Blanc dessert wine. With a commitment to exploration and a dedication to education, the family offers an unforgettable journey into the vibrant terroir of Willamette Valley wines.

The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative reporting.

Wine Recommendations

2019 Pinot Noir, Croft Vineyard-  presents a classic Willamette expression with black cherry and cassis fruit, accented by blueberry notes and a touch of minerality. Though undeniably charming with its smooth texture and modest tannins, a vibrant acidity promises graceful evolution for those seeking aging potential.

2021 Pinot Noir, Momtazi Vineyard – entices with a classic explosion of red fruits on the nose. The palate is smooth and charming, showcasing silky tannins and a lingering finish that echoes the initial burst of fruit. 

2021 Pinot Noir, Björnson Vineyard- impresses with its focus on balance. Lively acidity cuts through the wine’s substantial mouthfeel, avoiding any sense of flabbiness. Tannins are present but restrained, acting as a supporting structure rather than stealing the show. The fruit profile leans towards the dark side, dominated by notes of blackcurrant with a hint of raspberry adding complexity.

2019 “Lux” Chardonnay- offers a straightforward profile of citrus and orchard fruit, with notes of lemon, orange, and apple. Crisp acidity provides a refreshing framework.This drinks well now and should find favor for summertime enjoyment

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .