An Interview with Jessica Cortell - A Scientist in the Vineyard

Jessica Cortell, owner of Vitis Terra, is an absolute force and we're grateful to have her collaboration in farming Seven Springs. Get to know her background, vineyard philosophies, and journey to Seven Springs better through our one-on-one interview here. 

Tell us a bit about your background. 

It’s a long story! I grew up on the Oregon Coast. When I was a young kid, I was really into plants. We all had to help my parents out with the family-owned Rhododendron Nursery, so I started out working with plants. I had a garden when I was five, and I was the only one of us five kids that took care of it all summer. When I graduated from high school, I went to Oregon State University and studied horticulture, and I ended up doing both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree. I wanted the master’s to be in wine grapes, but it ended up being on whole plant physiology of Marion blackberries. I was still interested in grapes. In 1990, I got my first vineyard job at Croft Vineyards working with Dai Crisp. I ended up finishing my master’s and got really interested in the health benefits of fruits, berries, and plants, so I worked with an herbal supplement company for several years. This was interesting, because they were certified organic, and we grew about 200 different plants. I helped the company get a contract with Kroeger. We also dried the herbs, milled them, and processed them into capsules, tinctures and salves. 

In 2000, I took a position with OSU as the Viticulture Research Assistant. I was helping with research programs and helping supervise graduate students with projects on wine grapes. In 2002, that program was struggling, so I decided to go to the food science department and started my Ph.D with Dr. James Kennedy. My Ph.D research project was a systems approach investigating spatial variability in soils and how it impacted vine vigor, fruit, and wine phenolic chemistry. 

How did you get into vineyard management specifically?

When I finished my Ph.D, I decided I wanted to work in the wine industry rather than as a professor at a university, so I spent a few years at Premier Pacific Vineyards  as the Viticulturist for around 600 acres. In 2009, I was laid off and there were basically no jobs available, so I started my own vineyard management company named Vitis Terra Vineyard Services in 2010. The people at Johan Winery helped me get it started, and through connections, I was able to start managing Antica Terra and several other vineyards. My team and I are still managing Antica Terra. 

How did you start working with Raj and Sashi? 

Sashi is friends with Maggie at Antica Terra, so he got my number from her and called one Sunday afternoon and I was like, yeah sure, I’d love to manage the vineyard! This was in 2014. I remember saying, “I had your Syrah down in Los Olivos after we were tasting all day.” After taking a sip, my sister and I just stared at each other and said, “Wow!” I remember wondering who the winemaker was and reading a blurb about him, so it was amazing when he called. This was around the time when Evening Land Vineyards transitioned fully into Sashi and Raj's hands. 

What do you find most unique about Seven Springs / how is Seven Springs different from other sites that you work with? 

It’s east facing, so it does seem to be prone to mildew, so we must keep a very close eye on it more so than other vineyards. I live on the other side of the (Eola) Hill, on the west side, and the wind patterns are very fascinating, because it can be calm at my house then I can drive over to ELV, which is only a 10-minute drive, and have crazy winds blowing through the barn and blasting down the hill through the vineyard. In the Eola Hills, there are quite a few [sites] that are east facing, and they are often considered preferred sites because fruit is protected later in the day, so that helps maintain really nice fruit flavor, acidity, and color, simply because of the fact that it’s not getting blasted by heat. Our hottest time of day is often from 5-7pm, so at peak daytime heat, Seven Springs is pretty well-protected from the sun. It also gets a lot more morning sun, so that can help keep some of the delicate aromatics and color. 

What are the differences in working with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay?

I love Pinot Noir. If you’ve ever made your own wine, I can say Pinot Noir does have its challenges. I think that’s what makes it interesting. It is more challenging to grow good fruit and make excellent wine from it compared to other varieties. I feel like the property has the potential to make great Chardonnay and there are many opportunities to improve what we’re doing. I like working with both varieties. Gamay and Chenin blanc are also favorites. I would like to plant more of these varieties. It’s important to think about what it is that you want to achieve. Maybe there are more opportunities to do experiments and fine tune this and that, and think, “Oh this is the wine that we are trying to make - are there things in the vineyard we can do to help even more?” 

Are you a big wine drinker at home? 

Lately I’m trying to moderate my wine drinking, haha. I think it’s always hard to find that moderation, although I do love wine, and I kind of go through phases of what I like. I can say that I really like Pinot Noir that is not high alcohol and not overripe, especially when there’s really a vibrancy and life to it – red fruit, violets, and really nice aromatics. I think there are some expressions out there that are just too heavy, and when you have that 14% alcohol, you end up losing a lot of those delicate aromatics that you can have in Pinot Noir. That’s why I'm excited to work with Evening Land Vineyards because I know Sashi is really in touch with trying to make a type of wine that’s very much alive and vibrant. 

For a while, a couple of summers ago, it was all about Riesling for me. This summer, I went back to some rosés. I’ve been interested in white blends with a few varieties lately, and Chardonnay, always Chardonnay. I’m interested in trying different ones from around the Valley to get an idea of what people are making, though I don't necessarily have one favorite. I do have two vineyards. One I own and one is a purchase option, so hopefully I can do the purchase shortly. I’m also in the process of starting a small label. 

You farm Seven Springs biodynamically. Do you enjoy farming in this way? What are the pros / cons? 

We do work with a few certified biodynamic and organic vineyards (not all are certified) and we play around with a lot of the concepts, but I’m not dogmatic. If someone tells me just do this because that’s what the book says to do, I won’t. I’m trained as a scientist. I’m much more into being open minded and taking a bunch of different practices and integrating them together. So yes, we do biodynamic composts every year and we do have horns that we bury, but we’re not 100% biodynamic. We’ve got practices in place, but we’re not certified biodynamic. We’re toying around with it. We’ll keep playing around with that, but I like to think that we’ve got more of an integrated approach: regenerative agriculture, etc. I prefer to think of how we can integrate these into a farming system and always learn from what you did as you go forward adjusting, fine tuning, and trying new things, rather than just sort of being stuck into “this is how we’ve done it for five years so we must do it in the future this way.” It’s easy to be like that, but we need to adjust as the vineyard changes from season to season. For me, it’s about being open to ideas, integrating various practices and being flexible with how we use them and how we problem solve as challenges come up. 

What is it like working with Raj and Sashi? 

It’s been great working with them. Hopefully we can start having more discussions about what directions they want to go in the vineyard. The more I can interact with them, the more I can have an idea of how to fine tune the vineyard.

Tell us a bit about how Seven Springs has evolved over the years. 

I think the way I approach it is really trying to understand the soils, the vines, and the nutrition and how the environment in any given block is impacting the fruit. For example, at one point we were taking all the pruning wood out of the vineyard and burning it, which normally removes organic matter and potassium, but it also adds to climate change (smoke) and is labor intensive. I did a sample and questioned why we were doing this, as the vineyard is very low in potassium and that’s affecting how the fruit is ripening, so we need that wood in there. We need the potassium for the vines so that they ripen properly. 

In short, we must focus on nutrition and ensure that fruit is ripening uniformly so that flavors are developing while sugars and acids are adjusting. Also, we’ve been changing some of the leaf pulling. We had been pulling leaves and removing the laterals. It was tedious, but also sometimes it was over-exposing the fruit, so this past year we went away from pulling a lot of laterals. Typically, I like to pull some leaves from below the fruit for air flow, but this year the canopy was balanced, so we only pulled from the head to open it up. 

What was the 2021 vintage like at Seven Springs? 

I am excited, especially after 2020 - I was sick to my stomach and in tears! There were so many challenges with pickers, pandemic, and fires, so all I can say is that I’m so happy that 2021 was so much better. The harvest was really nice and the fruit was really beautiful, balanced, and clean. It’s going to make some beautiful wines. The 2021s are just going to be super lovely in terms of the flavors and aromas and balance. Even with the hot weather at times the wines are concentrated with lots of acidity and not too high in alcohol. 

What’s next for Seven Springs? Any experimental plans on the horizon? 

Certainly. I'm interested in playing around with regenerative agriculture and the concepts of not cultivating and experimenting with planting flowers around the vines. I’d like to get away from cultivating under the vines, which attracts high populations of voles. Also, we are thinking of ways to try and reduce vole damage, which is a big issue at Seven Springs. This winter, I'll be able to talk to Sashi about plans for replanting and developing new acres. It would be fascinating to plant some new varieties or clones, but that’s up to Sashi. I’m excited about being involved in the replanting and seeing what they’re interested in planting. Knowing Raj, he’s probably interested in planting all sorts of things. 

Any last thoughts? 

I really think they need to get some Kunekune pigs to graze the vineyard! I have piglets in my vineyard, and they are good grazers. There’s lots of wildlife at Seven Springs (cougars, deer, resident bobcats) so having sheep there is risky compared to pigs. There is a beautiful hike down to the waterfall. It is such a special place.