The Straight Dirt, Our Story

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When it gets to a certain point, you know one day when the phone rings it will be to tell you. But just because you expect it, doesn’t make it any easier when the call arrives. We got that call yesterday: Leroy had passed away.

Leroy Rasmussen, 82 years old. The first person who ever really believed in our endeavor with a clear conscience. A man whose entire life had been in the vineyard, until his health took him from it. Leroy Rasmussen, whose own Red Hill Douglas County AVA riesling cuttings are the reason for our Leroy’s Finest wine. Leroy Rasmussen, our straight-shooting, salt-of-the-earth cowboy vineyard consultant is no more.

Some time ago we had lost track of Leroy–his health deteriorating so that he was moved very quickly from the area, back to more his home place of Nebraska. After some e-sleuthing, I did locate him and we corresponded with his wife last holiday season. I had high hopes that Leroy might recover, but he did not.

Until I can get more of my thoughts in line, where my emotions are not getting the best of me as I write, I’ll leave you with this story of Leroy, one I wrote last year.


Leroy Rasmussen, The Grande Dalles Cowboy Vineyard Manager


 We often think Leroy’s life is the stuff made for Hollywood: upon his return from the Korean War, a young man from the dusty ranges of Nebraska sets out on his own, taking his family to California. The initial plan falls through, and he gets into the grape business. It’s the 1950s. And in his lifetime, he not only teaches a young Marvin Shanken—pre-Wine Spectator—the word malolactic fermentation, he plants 1000s of acres in Sonoma, and then, years later, establishes a single-vineyard AVA—Red Hill, Douglas County—in Oregon. Leroy was a true salt-of-the-earth man, and out-of-the-box thinker. And he was our “cowboy” vineyard consultant.

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This year marks our fifth year anniversary since planting the vineyard. If you have been reading our Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker series on The Daily Meal, you will have come across this — I posted one year each day last week. If you have not, it’s all right here for your reading enjoyment. Hold on, here we go.

2011 marks the fifth anniversary of our little vineyard on the frontier. It’s been five l-o-n-g years since we took the plunge and transformed a steep and distinct hillside out in the middle of wild, windy Oregon wheat country into a vineyard going on its 4th vintage, to make wine like no other from only the grapes we grow. Can that be right? We planted in 2006; at the end of our third growing year in 2008 we had our first harvest; then 2009, 2010, and holding our breath for 2011, which is our 6th growing year. Yes. This will be, if all goes well, our 4th harvest.

We thought you might enjoy a tiny peek in on those five years, for what happened along the way—to us and to our land—is as much a part of the wine as the grapes we make it from.

2006 : The Planting, and the Big Freeze

After months of preparation that began pretty much the day after we stepped off the plane in October, 2005, from Scott’s 2-year work assignment in Ireland, we planted The Grande Dalles vineyard. We had already found water and dug the well in 2005, so that was off our to-do list. But early 2006 was busy, busy, busy, as we laid out the vineyard, walking that hillside and holding up markers, person unseen because the terrain was so curved in areas.

Scott put in weather stations, a deer fence went in, we had a surveyor out to help us set rows evenly, 3-phase electricity was brought in from miles away, and Scott placed numerous orders for the supplies we would need for the vineyard, the grapes not the least of it. The bigger things we collected were drip line, wire, end posts, and center posts, and between Scott’s squabbling with our vineyard manager over inches of ground (Scott’s a farmer at heart, and does not like to waste a bit of land) we decided on the vineyard’s boundaries. In April 2006 the end posts were set, Scott holding every single one of them as they were tamped 5 feet into the earth on a terribly cold and blustery day.

If you want to get a decent first growing year, you have to plant as early as you can, and every day you lose is every day less for the plants. The big pressure for us was getting water to the top of our hill before the plants arrived. We sort-of made that deadline, and the plants arrived. But to make absolute sure water could successfully reach our hilltop again and again meant we had to stage all 17,000 starts for a week or so, securing them behind chicken wire so local deer couldn’t feast. As soon as we knew we could depend on bringing water up a good 400 feet from the well down in the valley below, we were ready to plant, and plant we did, in early June, 2006.

It was a joyous time, for the most part, as we placed all our hopes and dreams into that hillside. But Stephanie was beginning her slip away, as relationships and characters, and all the weeding we did by hand, began to take their toll. And by December, all our jubilation was soon dashed when we got the news that our vineyard was most likely dead from that unexpected freeze in October. To add to that, our then vineyard manager, our one and only with no ulterior motives who believed in us, had emergency open-heart surgery. It was around Christmas, and we thought we had lost both of them, Leroy, and the vineyard. What would 2007 hold? Read the rest of this entry »

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Or, how we used Google Earth to unearth our dream in The Dalles.

I can’t remember how much we’ve told you all about how we found our place out in The Dalles. Here’s the letter I just sent off to Google, about how Google Earth played a major part:

Hello Google,

My name is Stephanie and I’d like to share a story with you:

While you were putting your Data Center in in 2006 in The Dalles, my husband and I were planting a vineyard just east of town, the property found using Google Earth while we were living in Ireland years earlier.

From a distance 1000s of miles away, my husband, a scientist by education and farm kid at heart, pored over the Oregon landscape, his dream of a vineyard having come alive in the dark, blustery Irish winter. There was absolutely NO WAY he could’ve researched the best location for our family farm without Google Earth; you might be able to trust someone else in finding a new house from a distance, but you can’t trust someone else with finding your dream!

He gathered data—degree growing days, temperature highs and lows, etc.—and then transposed it across the maps he had collected, from the locales he discovered using Google Earth. Like a modern-day e-explorer, he was looking for the undiscovered gem, a hillside that would grow the wines he had envisioned, developed from his decades-long love of wine. He soon had assembled a list of properties and then enlisted a realtor—still while we were living in Ireland—to go knocking on the land owners’ doors. On the very next day after we returned to The States, we met the one land owner willing to sell us some property. And what was once a pile of maps and data sourced through Google is now this:

found at

45°35’36.87″ N
121°02’25.74″ W
Since we’ve planted out in the “undiscovered” wilds of Wasco County’s wheat country, our wine has been celebrated at a dinner at The James Beard House in New York, praised by one of America’s most noted wine experts, Joel Butler, MW, and now others are following in our footsteps, possibly opening up a new wine-growing area outside The Dalles: we know of two individuals who, after having waited and watched to see if we might have success, have begun vineyard development in the vicinity, all thanks to Google Earth.

Most people use Google Earth simply to find restaurants, or peek in on their childhood home miles away, but not us. For us, using Google Earth has changed our lives, or at least our life’s direction, for we used it to find our dream.

We thought you should know.



We’ll see if we hear back! Stay tuned!

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Why We Make Wine


It’s a story that has been 20+ years in the making, maybe even longer. I mean, after all, Scott is the son of farmer of a farmer, and now here he is, a farmer himself, with a son.

If you’re interested in the whole story, it’s right here.



“There’s no better time than a dark, blustery Irish winter to dream the dream of sunshine, grapes and wine.”

That was my opening line in our letter – or something like it – way back in 2005 when we were living in Ireland, courting our not-yet-on-board cowboy vineyard manager who we had met some weeks earlier while we were honeymooning in Roseburg, Oregon. How? What? Ireland? Yup, Ireland. The land where this whole wine adventure really took off.

Scott’s work brought us there for a 2-year assignment — mine was shortened because I had to prepare the cat for travel to a rabies’ free land. So in Ireland we were, and it was then when the wine dream that had been growing in Scott for decades really bit him in the behind. Alone on those winter nights, between late night pub phone calls (I got some pretty funny ones), he began to read the books I had given him over the years, and he was hooked. It also helped that we had just gotten back together only weeks before he was to depart for Eire, and that I agreed to join  him on his assignment — the tipping point was being reached, no turning back — we were committing to each other, see how that goes?

Scott Reading About Limestone, Prompting Our Honeymoon in Roseburg

So, it’s to Ireland I raise my glass today, not necessarily in celebration of that guy who supposedly set all those heathens straight, but to that little green penny of a country, that colorful, cheerful, rural land, the location that so inspired Scott’s dream, or at least reminded him that Irish winters are ridiculously grey and wet.

Besides the steer and sheep and the occasional pheasant, my favorite backyard Ireland view.

Slainte, Ireland!



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A spot-on article by Oregon Wine Press. Thank you, Stu Watson.  You’ll have to enlarge to read, hold down apple key and + key  for a mac, control key and + key for a PC.

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We need to update our website with these little goodies.

Z!nk Magazine, October 2010. Zink is a modern publication geared toward fashion, beauty, and lifestyle, standing heads above the magazine crowd as it seeks out only those people, items, places and ideas that lead, not follow.

And then the other one is:

Market Watch, Fall issue, 2010. Market Watch, published by Marvin Shanken of Wine Spectator, is the drinks industry’s key resource for business information, trends, new businesses, merchandising, etc.

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A list of 10 things a person should have at their disposal when venturing out into the Wilds of Wine.

One of the great things about where we live in the Pacific Northwest is all the hiking that surrounds us. The Cascade Mountains are essentially at our doorstep, Mt. Hood the closest to us in Portland, as well as the vineyard (30 miles or so, as the crow flies), Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams near by to the north, and then all the peaks in central Oregon: Mt. Jefferson, Three Sisters, Broken Top…. Not to mention all the opportunities in the Columbia Gorge – Dog Mountain, Table Mountain, Ruckle Ridge, Mt. Defiance, to name a few. Before the vineyard and wine, when times seemed much simpler, and we had the time and car and energy to head out into nature, I was a rather avid hiker, even enrolling in and completing the Mazama’s Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP) in Scott’s and my salad dating days. The Mazamas are the second oldest climbing group in the West, founded on the pinnacle of Mt. Hood in 1894, and their BCEP a primer for physical conditioning and basic climbing—rock and snow/ice—techniques to get you to the top of some peaks—along with a seasoned Mazama climb leader, of course—at the end of the course.

One of the key things that gets hammered into you in the Mazamas Basic Climbing Education Program is what’s called the 10 Essentials. They are what every climber should carry with them, no matter what the duration of your hike, day or overnight, car-camping or wilderness rambling, to help you in a pinch, and keep you prepared for outdoor’s unexpected twists and turns. They are:

  1. Map of where you are hiking
  2. Compass (I carried one, but still really don’t know how to use one, no fault of the Mazamas, I would even skip lukio in Finland whenever we had our Orienteering gym class. I don’t know why I have such an aversion to the compass. Odd.)
  3. Whistle
  4. Waterproof matches and a fire-starter
  5. Knife
  6. Extra food/water
  7. Extra clothing
  8. Sun protection (extra glasses, lip and skin balm/cream, and hat)
  9. Flashlight with working and extra batteries
  10. First-aid kit

Based on this, I’ve assembled my own list of 10 Essentials that everyone should have at their disposal when starting a vineyard, for going whole hog into the wine business, for even, like in hiking, as much as you think you know where you’re going, there are a ton of unknown variables that can cause you to alter course, or terminate the mission altogether. Here they are, in no real order:

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The rest of the story.

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