Mark Vlossak, Zenith's Winemaker

Mark Vlossak’s stellar reputation precedes him

He is known as one of Oregon’s most talented winemakers, a worldwide ambassador of Pinot Noir, and the founder of St. Innocent Winery, established in 1988. His wines have garnered some of the highest scores ever awarded to Oregon wines. What else can we say about Mark Vlossak? Quite a lot, it turns out.

We first met Mark in 1993 at the International Pinot Noir Conference (IPNC). This conference is an amazing opportunity to taste the best of the world of Pinot Noir – yes Oregon, but also California, Burgundy and New Zealand. It was there that we first recognized Mark’s talent and passion. His St. Innocent Pinot Noirs were our favorites of IPNC.

A year later we invited Mark do a winemaker dinner at our home at Cannon Beach for our Summit Wine Club friends. Mark has a certain intensity about him. Kari found out that he feels very strongly about the salad dressing you will be serving with his wines! Our group of New Jersey wine geeks were dazzled by Mark’s wines – we all became instant St. Innocent fans.

Fast forward eight years to 2002. By then my cellar had more St. Innocent wine than anything else!  We were hosting a dinner party at our home in Chicago and decided to open a double magnum of 1991 St. Innocent Pinot Noir from the O’Connor Vineyard.  After hoarding it for years, it seemed like just the thing for our party of twelve. The wine was sublime. To this day I can still recall how it tasted (even if I could not tell you who was at dinner that night). The next day I sent an email to Mark telling him how amazing our 11 year old double magnum of 1991 St. Innocent O’Connor Vineyard Pinot Noir.

Six months later, my job in the Chicago Loop was eliminated and I was thinking about trying something very different – maybe something creative! Yes, we could go back to New York to be a Securities Analyst again, but I had thoughts of starting a Chicago wine distribution business for my beloved Oregon Pinots. I called Mark to ask him about my idea, which he quickly shot down – he implied I might get my legs broken.  But he also remembered my love for O’Connor Pinot Noir, and remarked that O’Connor Vineyards was for sale. Maybe we would be interested in buying it?  Sort of an outrageous throw-away type of comment, but… 

We love wine country, we love Pinot, we love Oregon, and wine people were some of the most fun to hang out with. We knew Mark had made great wines from O’Connor Vineyard, what harm could come of looking?  A weekend in wine country would be fun!

After our first visit on September 10, 2002, we made the decision to buy O’Connor. But we were firmly in the camp of being “just a vineyard.” I thought we could master the process of vineyard management.  Managing a vineyard is not so much about special knowledge and deep arts. It is more about making checklists and being vigilant– characteristics that played to my management strengths. And we had way too much respect for the art of winemaking to presume we would ever make wine.

We knew that wineries with non-winemaker owners were frequently a revolving door for winemakers.  As a winemaker achieves some recognition, offers will come to strike out on their own with their own label. Besides, we were not looking for the “job” of running a tasting room and marketing wine. We made a bet with a close friend – he insisted we would have a winery within ten years – and we were willing to bet that we would not.

In 2006, we forged a deal with St. Innocent and Mark Vlossak which would change the whole dynamic. Mark wanted stability in his fruit supply, and, having worked with O’Connor fruit from 1989 through 1998, he liked the idea of getting it back. We loved the idea of having Mark make wine from our vineyard. He agreed to make up to 1,000 cases of wine for Zenith Vineyard, in exchange for fruit provided to St. Innocent.   St. Innocent is committed to making wine for us for the duration of our business relationship – which we hope will be measured in decades. Now we don’t just have a winemaker, we have the winemaker who made those amazing O’Connor Vineyard Pinot Noirs all those years. We have Mark, who is 100% passionate about making great wine. We have Mark, who The Wine Advocate twice named “Wine Personality of the Year.”

So how do you manage a great winemaker like Mark Vlossak? You don’t.  Mark has full stylistic and creative control to do the best job he can with the fruit we provide. In a sense, we’ve won our bet (though I did have to pay). We are not winemakers, but rather trust Mark to do what he would do for St. Innocent–to make outrageous wines for Zenith Vineyard—and how he does that is completely up to him.  Almost completely – we do push the limit from time to time… Ask him about the two new Francoise Freres barrels for the 2011 Zenith…

Our production is small. We didn’t want the job of selling wine so we decided that with a great winemaker, outstanding fruit, fair prices and limited production, the wine will “sell itself.” Zenith Vineyard wines are not distributed broadly. You can buy the wine from our tasting room, our website and “list,” a few Oregon retailers, and at our events facility. We intend Zenith Vineyard wines be a pure expression of the best Eola-Amity Hills fruit we can offer, made by the best Pinot Noir winemaker we know, in our new state-of-the art gravity-flow winery.

We hope you enjoy the fruits of our collaboration,

Tim & Kari Ramey (with Mark Vlossak)