Scott Flora of Native Flora — The contrarian winemaker

Meeting with winemakers, I learn something new every single time. But when I sat down with Scott Flora of Native Flora in the Willamette Valley in Oregon, some of the things he spoke about seemed to contradict what I had generally heard from others or studied in books. I was fascinated by his contrarian approach. But Scott is not a contrarian just for the sake of it. Through logic and empirical research he has drawn conclusions for the practices he has chosen and the resulting wines speak for themselves. I wrote about Scott Flora’s approach in the Napa Valley Register, which you can read here.

Every winemaker has their own way of doing things. Most winemakers when asked where a vineyard should be planted will tell you south-facing. But not Scott Flora. Ask a winemaker if a warm-climate grape such as Malbec can be planted in a region known for Pinot Noir, and they will likely say no. But not Scott Flora.

In fact, if you tell Scott Flora that it cannot be done, or should not be done, he will likely try it and prove you wrong. And despite being contrary, he seems to be doing everything right.

Scott Flora is the owner and winemaker of Native Flora Winery in the Willamette Valley, Oregon. A small, high-end, reclusive winery known by word of mouth, Native Flora sits on 33 acres in the Dundee Hills. There are currently 17 acres planted, with four additional acres to be planted. Native Flora has seven soil types and three microclimates on their property that sits at an elevation of 500-800 feet above sea level.

If you ask Flora to define Native Flora, he will use words such as highly innovative, pragmatic, integrated, experimental, empirical, uncompromising, willing to fail and human. He will also be quick to tell you that Native Flora is not normal or politically correct and they are not Organic, Live, Biodynamic, Tilth, Salmon Safe or Sustainably certified.

Flora may seem like a contrarian who opposes or rejects popular opinions by going against current practices. But he likes to question and challenge many norms. The word “no” to him is an inspiration. He does not believe in dogma when it comes to making wine. “If you drive a car into a brick wall at 40 miles per hour, you will get hurt,” he said. “But when it comes to making wine, some things are worth being challenged.”

From the beginning, Flora approached norms head on. When Flora and his wife Denise purchased their property in 2005, they purchased land at a high elevation. The Willamette Valley is a cool climate and they selected property 500-800 feet above sea level where it is even cooler. People thought they were crazy. But they were thinking ahead. In 2005, Scott and Denise were already considering the possible effects of global warming, and they selected property that might have been considered too cold in 2005, but today is perfect.

When it came time to plant the vines, it may seem counter-intuitive, but they planted the vines on south-facing, as well as north-facing, slopes. The belief has always been that vineyards must face south to get heat to ripen the grapes. If vines were planted on north-facing slopes, they could not ripen. But, as he explained, carbohydrate (sugar) production is driven by photosynthesis and, therefore, light, not heat, is required for ripeness. He also explained that it is about the earth’s orientation. The more extreme we go, either north or south in either direction, the days get longer because the pole is oriented towards the sun. “At our latitude in the summer, the sun rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. By orienting the vineyards north, we get sunlight, not heat.”

Everyone thought he was out of his mind, but he did it anyway. When the first six acres were planted, half were south-facing and half were north-facing. Over the next three to four years, he watched both sides and found that they ripened at the relatively same time. However, the steepest north slope gets more light and is the first to ripen. This is why the Pinot Noir made from this single block on the North Slope is called The Heretic.

Another area where Flora has marched to the beat of his own drum is pruning. The common way to prune the vines in Oregon is cane pruning. And after a few people told him that spur pruning cannot be done in Oregon, Flora decided to try spur pruning. The common way to prune the vines in Oregon is cane pruning. And after a few people told him that spur pruning cannot be done in Oregon, Flora decided to try spur pruning.

“Someone saying you can’t do it is usually my highest motivator to try it,” he said. “But I was empirical about it.” He took four rows in five blocks and spur pruned them, resulting in twice as many shoots growing vertically. These rows were harvested separately, chemistry was run and there was a pronounced uniform trend across all five samples.

Flora liked the results, so the next year he spur pruned half of each of his 18 blocks and ran the same experiment and got the same results. He converted the entire vineyard to spur pruning and said that it contributes to acidity preservation in the wine. Today, there are other producers in the Willamette Valley who are now doing spur pruning as well, a method in which the shoot of the previous season is cut back to a spur with one or two buds.

In addition to spur pruning, Flora also uses a unique trellising system as a result of his biological solution for dealing with weeds and grass. He has a herd of Southdown Baby Doll sheep who look like wooly Sherman tanks as they are heavy in stature and low on the shoulder. As they cannot stand on their hind legs, the highest level they can reach is 40 inches. Therefore, the fruiting wire on the trellises was established at 42 inches, just above the reach of the tallest sheep. The sheep work in the vineyard 365 days per year, fertilizing as they work and eliminating the need to mow or lower leaf pull.

Flora’s out-of-the-box thinking has extended beyond the planting and pruning and can be seen in his overall approach to farming. Instead of following the philosophies of sustainability, organics, biodynamics, he has taken the best from all of these concepts to create what he calls “intelligent integration” in which the earth, the vineyard, the people, the flora and fauna, the buildings and the rain all work together in harmony.

Native Flora does not use any pesticides. There are no herbicides used in any producing block. No insecticides are used; instead they established predatory populations, such as birds, that assist with mite and pest reduction. Organic and conventional fungicides are used, but Native Flora does not use copper because it is toxic to the sheep on the property. Weeds, trees, flowers and shrubs are encouraged. Watering by hand is done when establishing new vines but otherwise the vineyard is dry farmed.

Native Flora has created a healthy biome in which the entire farm is treated as a single organism where humans, animals, plants, buildings and natural resources are part of one team. The winery was built within an existing forest. 10,000 feet of geothermal pipe is running under the vineyard that supplies geothermal heat and cooling to the entire 16,000 square-foot facility (which generates an average electricity bill of only $400-$500 per month). Rainwater is collected and stored and currently they have 1.3 million gallons of water on hand and only used 20,000 gallons this year to date.

Native Flora grows three grapes on the estate—Pinot Noir, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gouges, a mutated Pinot Noir that produces a white wine. While Pinot Gouges is rare and obscure, Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc are common grapes in the Willamette Valley. Malbec and Syrah are not but that did not stop Scott from planting them both in 2006. At first, he found that the biggest challenge in growing these grapes was to get the fruit set. But, with some pruning changes, he was able to push the bud break back further and the fruit set can happen. And now he plans to plant more Malbec this year, as well as Chenin Blanc.

Native Flora is about “improvability,” it declares on is website. The quality soils get better each year, the plant nutrition improves each year and the bio-diversity expands each year. The water tables rise each year, less resources are consumed each year, the quality of grapes improves each year and the quality of wine improves each year.

Flora summed it up: “The goal is that this year is going to be better than last year but not as good as next year.” Native Flora is always looking to see how they can push the envelope and Scott Flora is not afraid to break rules or preconceived ideas to do that. Native Flora stays away from conventions as much as possible and everyone thought they were crazy. But the wines they produce are crafted with restraint resulting in high-acid wines.