Iris Vineyards: Reaching Its Full Potential

Iris vineyards oregon

Iris Vineyards in Oregon’s Southern Willamette Valley

When Aaron Lieberman took the job as head winemaker for Iris Vineyards in Oregon’s southern Willamette Valley in 2008, little did he know that in 2020 he’d be doing pre-fermentation thermovinification treatment (that’s heating the wine must till almost boiling) on his Pinot Noir bottlings to remove smoke components from the wine, as well as post-fermentation treatment, including racking off the lees and replacing them with white lees to soak up smoke compounds.

But such is the winemaker’s life in a world of climate change and devastating wild fires. The current realities of the world  have forced winemakers like Lieberman to practice wine-salvaging techniques in order to save some of their harvests, and thank god for people like him.

Aaron Lieberman winemaker at Iris

Iris winemaker Aaron Lieberman

According to the 2020 Vineyard and Winery Report published by the University of Oregon, 62% of Oregon’s grape growers reported fire impact as did 18% of Oregon wineries. Lieberman and other growers and winemakers are learning to adapt to this “new normal,” which almost definitely includes more wildfires.

Both Lieberman and the report noted that lessons have been learned from their southern neighbors in Napa, Calif., where wildfires have ravaged the wine industry for longer. Specifically, Lieberman practices micro fermentations, whereby he picks grapes early, ferments them dry, and then analyzes them in order to make the decision on what to pick and what not to pick. He then allows the selected grapes to ripen as much as possible before harvesting them.

Lieberman also noted that the color of the grapes is a key factor in mitigating the smoke effect. Because smoke taint is in the skins of grapes, white grapes and those that require a lighter pressing can provide a small assurance that there will be a crop in spite of smoke in the air.

Freeze is another factor Oregon winemakers must face. The frost-prone parts of the Willamette Valley experienced snow and freezing temperatures in May of 2022, and it doesn’t look good for some of the grapes. Lieberman thinks that loses could be as much as 50% of the average in such areas.

A Tasting of Iris Wines

Iris Vineyards wine bottles

Iris Vineyard’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris

Recently the International Food Wine and Travel Writers Association, or IFWTWA, hosted a Zoom tasting with Iris Vineyards’ Lieberman to discuss the winery, its history, and to taste a couple of Iris’ wines.

Those of us on the Zoom call did not know about the treatments the red wine has received. I personally formed my opinion of it knowing nothing about its lineage. The 2020 Iris Vineyards Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a soft, cheery bottle, well priced at around $23 retail, that I would recommend to anyone. It’s typical Oregon Pinot Noir, with notes of bright fresh cherry and cranberry, a bit of earthiness, baking spices, and super soft and smooth mouth feel, with just 13% alcohol.

I had no idea that this “little wine that could” started life with the disadvantage of smoke taint in the wine skins, but Lieberman, like a surgeon, performed his treatment and saved it from being dumped, and also saved Iris Vineyards from even greater financial loss. I applaud his wine making and find it commendable that Lieberman could produce such a lovely wine under such abysmal conditions.

We also tasted the Iris Vineyards 2020 Willamette Valley Pinot Gris, which had a less troublesome upbringing than the Pinot Noir, as it was not affected by wildfire smoke. This lively, refreshing Pinot Gris again typifies the variety grown in Oregon. I find Oregon PGs so much more flavorful and substantial than most on the market. This one had notes of apple and citrus, was bright and cheerful, and retails around $17. I would recommend this to anyone, especially as a summer sipper. This wine was awarded Best in Show (Double Gold) at the McMinnville Wine Classic.

Iris Vineyards History

aerial view of Iris Vineyards

Iris Vineyards is committed to reforestation and sustainability.

Iris Vineyards is in an isolated part of the southern end of the Willamette Valley, just north of neighbor King Estate, which is the southern-most Willamette Valley winery. Iris is situated on 870 acres, 37 of which are planted to vines, which were planted in 1996 (the land was purchased in 1992). The vines are at about 1000 feet elevation, which is instrumental in keeping the grapes’ acidity at refreshing levels. The winery produces 14,000 cases, making it a medium-size Willamette Valley winery — the average winery there produces less than 5,000 cases.

The owners, husband and wife Richard Boyles and Pamela Frye, are natives of Eugene Oregon, come from a farming background, live on the vineyard, and are committed to community work, and also to reforestation of their land. Sustainability is a priority for Iris, and their vineyard manager has been with the property for longer than Lieberman. While not certified due to the restrictive nature of attaining such, the winery does follow guidelines including minimal herbicides and use of organically certified treatments.

In addition to Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, the Iris estate buys Chardonnay and Viognier grapes from other Willamette Valley growers. They also purchase grapes from warmer regions in the south, i.e., Applegate, Umpqua and Rogue Valleys, including Viognier, Temparanillo, Syrah, Merlot and GSM blends. Grapes are also sourced from northern Oregon, specifically the Columbia Gorge and Walla Walla AVAs (but only from the Oregon side!). Oregon wines are stricter than other AVAs, and 100% of the grapes must be from the state, and 85% from the stated AVA.

From Tasting Room to Wine Bar

Iris closed its on-site tasting room during the Covid pandemic, but has just opened (officially June 2, 2022) an off-site “wine bar” (not a tasting room!) on historic Main Street in the town of Springfield, Oregon (yes, the Springfield of Simpsons fame!). An old rough-and-tumble town that is seeing a renewal, Iris will be part of the emerging hospitality industry in Springfield, located just east of Eugene, and will serve wine-based cocktails as well as bottles and glasses of their wine. Wine cocktails initially include a Negroni, a Manhattan, and a Gin & Tonic. I don’t know what these taste like, but I will surely check them out on my next trip to Southern Oregon.

Areté Reserve Wine & Sparklings

In addition to the Iris Vineyards label, which comprises 90% of production, the owners also produce the Areté reserve label, which consists of  their estate-grown “finest expressions” of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, and sparkling wine. The term is ancient Greek for, loosely, “living up to one’s full potential,” a philosophy that both the owners and winemaker adhere to.

Winemaker Lieberman says his favorite wine to produce is sparkling, which is done in the traditional method. The entire production is done in-house.


As consumers, most of us don’t question what goes into a bottle, the human and environmental side of the story. I hope this post sheds some light on that, and I suggest that if you’re looking for wines that are well priced, exhibit bright fruit, are acid driven, with lower alcohol, and that are food friendly and ethically produced, take a look at Iris Vineyards.

Useful Links

Iris Vineyards Web site:
For more on thermovinification, see the article Thermovinification Heats Up Interest from
Until next time,