Life of a Start-Up

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Where has the time gone? Seems like only yesterday we found that little owl tucked beneath the vines on our hill. Since then, the wheat harvest all around us has come and gone, and so has summer, for the most part. Now the bird netting is up as we await the ripening of our very fruitful (!) crop.

We might have almost 2X the yield this year, this even after cluster thinning, and as this glorious weather continues, unless a cloud of locust descends, or Mt. Hood erupts, or a range fire sweeps across the dried out landscape, or an iceberg suddenly scrapes its way to our hill, or a major weather shift freezes the place–I’m not ruling ANYTHING out!–we might have a really great harvest. Notice my hesitation to commit to even the expectation of “should” as in “we should have a really great harvest.” Farming is fraught with the unknown. And for us, that can get real dicey because we don’t doctor our wines in the winery to make the season pretend to be what it may not have been. Nope, the year along with the cooperation of our meticulously picked out hillside HAS to deliver, and so far, so good.

Let’s see, what else. Well, we’re very excited to say…we now have a Seattle wine distributor, Cru Selections! And one in Boston, Genuine Wine Selections! And our very first guy who believed in NYC, Ice Bucket Selections, still believes! Woohoo! You know, since we happened to do everything essentially ass backwards in this industry, meaning, we put all our moolah into our vineyard and then waited for it to grow vs. the low-cost, low-risk approach of phone farming (aka purchasing grapes) and throwing something together in the short term while an acre or two gets or doesn’t get planted here and there; and then with our gently tended grapes made very focused, non coca-cola, divisive wines (read, highly singular), it’s been a long haul trying to find people who understood the wines and our endeavor. We’ve had to go through DOZENS of inquiries and a shocking amount of effort for what turns out to be deflating follow up (why people don’t tell you upfront is beyond me). Thankfully the persistence has paid  off a bit, for now we have three distributors who represent very wine-forward markets on both sides of the country. So THANK YOU Ice Bucket Selections, Cru Selections and Genuine Wine Selections  for believing. It’s a start. We hope SOON to find more. Universe, hear me now!

Finally, we’re getting ready for a trade trip to NYC. I KNOW! So close to harvest, right? What were they thinking? Well, in all honesty, this straight shot of sunshine we’ve been enjoying for some time could not have been predicted, and when duty calls, in the end, we still have to sell the stuff we grow. Looking forward to a weekend BACK to NY (we just returned from upstate visiting my parents only last week), but this time in NYC. Sam looks forward to the doughnuts and yellow taxis.

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It’s no surprise, I am a stay-at-home Mama who, in between lunches and snacks and during naps and when Scott comes home, attempts to get stuff done for this business. Things I do include posts to this blog; photographing the land and whatnot; posting those pics; writing and researching newsletter content; laying out the newsletter and programming it for online viewing; FaceBook and twitter chitchat; setting up our e-store; resetting up our e-store; working on ideas that continue to get our story and wine out there; fulfilling requests (send me your labels, we need pictures of you, some wine pictures, please, a shelf-talker would be nice etc.); keeping up on blogs and responding if I have something to say; designing imagery for use in newsletters/shelf-talkers/etc.; and probably much more that I can’t recall, or have conveniently forgotten for varying reasons.

It’s the same with Scott, who, with a full-time job has to organize  and coordinate a plethora of vineyard and marketing and sales stuff in his “smoking breaks” or before he leaves for work, of if there’s still time when he comes home, to do it then. It can be crazily overwhelming at times. But we do it as best we can.

So I thought I’d invite you into my last project — a bottle image photo shoot, complete with my little helper, Sam — to give you an upclose look at being out there and trying to “live the life”:

 

Excuse us, Piggy Pig, While We Set Up the Shoot

Now We're Getting Fancy

My Helper, Busy At Work

The End Product -- We'll Take It!

Even if we had the resources, I suppose I wouldn’t want it any other way; we’re like Pearl Jam, in the early years, doing it all ourselves and keeping it from the heart, and real. That’s how we like to do it.

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Somewhere between jumping head first into the wilds of the wine world when we planted a vineyard in 2006, and sucking up our resolve to make wine from the grapes we farm and figuring out how to reach beyond the throngs of average to sell a wine like ours (still working on this), I’ve had the feeling as if lifted in a great wave, with legs still running as I try to find my footing before it crashes me on the shore. Instead of surrendering, and just riding that wave to the sandy beach that is right within reach, I remain doubtful, and work to stay upright in an almost panic mode, getting miserably tired doing so.

Having made it on shore, a sea turtle rests.

Watching sea turtles last week on what I hope will remain our annual South Pacific splurge (until Sam gets old enough for us to weather a 14-hour flight to Europe, finances permitting!), I got a whole different perspective AGAIN (I wrote about my first encounter with Sea Turtles in 2010). Bounced and pummeled about in the great oceans they call home, these turtles just go with it. Sure, they’ll steady themselves in the surf with their flippers, but it’s the simple confidence evident in their movement — be it coming on shore, resting in the ocean, or chomping sea grass while someone snorkels near by — that is striking. There doesn’t even seem to be a surrender on their part, to the shifting of the currents, to the pull of the tides, or the curiosity of large, obscenely white, two-legged fish floating over head, but a sureness that on their journey, THIS is exactly what they need to be doing, it’s all part of it.

I don’t know if what we’re doing on our end is exactly what we need to be doing — we need to sell wine and time is running out; we’re not doing it fast enough. I’d like to think it’s not because we’re trying to swim upstream while everyone swims down, but the fact is, that’s exactly it. That is the nature of our journey. We’re fighting a current; to surrender would push us along the same path as everyone else, and that is not who we are. Yet we need to land somewhere. We need sureness, like that small sea turtle who knows she can cross great expanses and be OK. Maybe it’s just a shift in how I think — instead of having my legs rotor through the lift of a wave, I tuck in, and just go with it? Maybe.

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nov2

Oops! Didn’t realize it has been so long since I last posted. I pretty much took some time off to do Mama things (cards, cookies, and cadeaux) and actually got them all done for once, with very minimal duress–a very interesting result from stepping a moment (or in this case, a month) away from the wine biz/start-up/swimming-against-the-current fray. Hmmm.

Anyway, while 2011 is still only yesterday, I’d like to leave you all with a month-by-month visual of the sights and colors of the The Grande Dalles and our Uncultivated Life (note the yellow boat serving as wade pool in front of our Campeau) out in the wilds of the wine world.

    

January: We released our wines at the rustically swank James John Cafe in North Portland. Chef Owners Suzanne Bozarth and Aaron Solley would accompany us to New York in March, to the James Beard House.

February: It’s a quiet time out on the hill, but still much for little vineyard gnomes to discover.

March: “Columbia Valley Terroir” unveils itself at the James Beard House in NYC: featuring our wines and sumptuous regional Northwest Solley and Bozart fare.

  

April: A slow start, but the land starts to warm and the greening of the hill begins.

May: Guerilla roadside Wine Stand at the Old Garage during Memorial Day Weekend in the Hood (Hood River). Best line of the weekend asked by someone who drove in, got out, and then quickly left after asking: “Is this legal?”

  

June: Wine in hand, an evening walk out on the land. Sam! Get out of Dave’s wheat!

July: Fire season. Thankfully this was not on our property, but still causing much damage to someone else’s across the way. Reminded us of the 2009 range fire that headed straight toward us, stopping three rows in our vineyard. As the story goes, the Old Coot was the only person who went in our vineyard to fight it. Still need to thank him.

  

August: Wasco County Fair! Aptly themed, “Barn in the USA.” For the second year we sponsored a Demolition Derby car. Yeah! Hot day out there in South County in that fairground valley. Whew!

September: Still warm out on the land. In this picture, because we didn’t quite make it to our Deschutes River swim spot, the little boat had to do.

  

October: Harvest. We made it. And we made it into Google Earth’s One World Many Stories campaign. The only wine story IN THE ENTIRE INDUSTRY to do so.

November: A seasonal quiet begins its descent, along with some early snow.

December: While the last hues of Fall in the Columbia Gorge peep through the mist, our wines are beginning to shine in New York City, and at some Michelin-starred restaurants to boot! Where exactly, you ask? Annisa on Barrow Street. Blue Hill NYC on Washington Place. Dovetail on West 77th Street. Henry’s on Broadway. Penn Wine and Spirits at Penn Station. First & Vine on First Ave. Yippy skippy!

As thankful as I am for our accomplishments in 2011, there are still many miles to go before we can sleep. Many miles. So, while I look forward to 2012 and all the exciting things we have planned, I wish you all a prosperous and healthy New Year and from time-t0-time, to step off the beaten path, for it is what often makes all the difference.

~ stephanie

 

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Here’s something different for a change: Our story through numbers.

0    the # of wines and wine regions we strive to emulate

1    the # of vineyards whose grapes go into our wine, and that one happens to be one we farm and own, planted from bare ground, no trees harmed in the process

2    the # of people with firm (enough) resolve, to make a wine unlike any other out there

3    the # of inaugural release wines, because the birds flew off with the 4th one

4    the # of actual wines, once the birds are under control

5    the # of years since planting out in the sunny wilds of Wasco County, Oregon

6    the # of years since we set back down on US ground with feet running to purchase land, drill a well—we mean, drill a well, THEN purchase land (we made a $20K gamble before we bought a thing)—order the vines, and ready the ground for a 2006 planting

7    the # of varietals planted on our south slope: cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, sangiovese (Brunello clone), riesling, syrah, petit verdot, cabernet franc

8+7*    the # of producing acres on the south slope, 35 total planted on both south and north sides on our 160 acres, but they’re not on the wire due to funding

9    the # of locales as of today in Oregon and New York City, where you’ll find our wines. In Oregon: The Bay House (Lincoln City), Wildwood (Portland), White Buffalo Wines (Hood River). In NYC: Blue Hill, Henry’s, Anissa, Dovetail, First & Vine, Penn Wine. And it’s always available on our website…(just a gentle holiday plug)

10×90**    the # of square footage of a tiny farmhouse that a man, woman, cat, dog, and small child lived in for some years so we could fund the dream

*I had to get creative on some numbers…

**Another instance of this creativity…

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My jaw dropped and eyes teared when I saw the devastation of that little cold snap we had last week. “Holy crapola” was all I could say, again and again, as we drove into the vineyard, and saw all those fried sangiovese leaves along the farm road.

Holy crapola. The dark clusters, only last week comfortably housed under a fall canopy, looked so desperate now as they clung to the plant, cringing below the now crispy leaves. “Get us out of here!” they seemed to be calling from behind the net. “Help!”

Help us!

Granted, this cold snap did not kill anything other than the leaves, and not even all the leaves across the board; the vineyard’s hillside got it in different places. Definitely at the bottom where it’s the coldest, and hit and miss across the midsection and top. Click on this picture to enlarge and you can see the line of “normal” looking yellowed autumn plants, and the dark, fried plants at the bottom.

Our Vineyard Gnome Surveys

What did this occurrence mean for us? It meant we had to make decisions that would otherwise not have had to be made if it were not to have happened. Like speeding up harvest, for example. We were out picking the cabernet sauvignon last weekend, as planned, which also fell prey to the cold, but it was the sangio we were still waiting for. Turns out another cold snap is moving in (and why shouldn’t it? It is the first of November, after all — like everyone else, we are a good three weeks behind harvest) and to mitigate the risk of sangio ice-wine, where the berries actually freeze on the vine, we picked it today. So it’s pretty much a done deal out there.

What a year. There are worse things, like the bank telling us our funding stops here, which they did. Yesterday. While ketchup may do just fine with a fried vineyard, I’d prefer a stiff drink for that news. And a good, warm fire for us to gather around, while we enjoy this evening’s last bit of sunshine in Portland for a while. We’ll figure it out, with ketchup or not.

 

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Once again, I’ve been absent. Just not in me to write a thing about our endeavor. Why? I think the wind got knocked out of me after I detached a bit and read through The Grande Dalles’ five-year vineyard anniversary post. Holy crap. We experienced all that in five years?! Then I found out the universe was under hold of Mercury Retrograde, so that put it all in perspective, my lack of interest,  AND I started reading William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, and am now consumed in my free time to swallow up the next sentence of the fictitious Logan Mountstuart.  I’ve also been putting off Summer’s newsletter; I have a few more weeks until Summer is no longer here, so I should make it. And there you have it.

Instead, I’ve been cultivating my little garden, enjoying my time with Scott and Sam, especially our weekend overnights to the vineyard and trips to the Deschutes River; I’ve been contemplating childcare other than myself for Sam again (it’s time!); what else….we went to the Wasco County Fair mid August, which was a great time, not really sure how our sponsored Demo-derby car did; had some family guests (Scott’s parents), and for the most part, I am enjoying what Summer we are having.

And oh, yes. On a lark and a feeling that someone just ought to know, (about how we used Google Earth to locate our ground) I wrote to Google about our endeavor – I told you all about this. Well, we entranced and inspired the right people, and now things are rolling; we’ve been contacted by Google’s PR firm, Cutline Communications, in San Fran and have just been interviewed by a local newspaper, and we found out we will be featured in a Google Earth marketing campaign, a story they’re highlighting to celebrate Google Earth’s history, set to launch September 28th! Not bad, with Mercury Retrograde and all that.

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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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If you haven’t already figured out in my posts, our wine life does not reflect the care-free days and ways people imagine a wine-life to be. We are a small, start-up, practically self-funded, and do much, if not most of the work ourselves. I am in charge of this blog and all writing, and the website. Scott takes care of the vineyard and wine side.

So I spent Friday morning before Sam woke up fretting over The Grande Dalles website. I was reading my daily dose of Wine Business  and came across The Winery Website Report’s Why Winery Websites Stink, part Deux. So I’m there shaking my head “Oh, yes” thinking of all the misinformation (people using the word “estate” wrongly and misleadingly, for example) and similar gobbledygook (where it’s hard to tell one site from the other),  I’ve encountered, and thinking how I hope ours might be refreshingly to the point (like our wine! ha!) and honest. Oh, how smug I was in my thinking, and I should’ve stopped there, but I kept clicking the links, the one that brought me to Part I of Why Winery Websites Stink, and here’s what I read, a quote attributed to Sean P. Sullivan and the Washington Wine Report:

90-95% of winery websites stink because they say little about the winery and even less about the wines. They provide largely generic information rather than specific information about who you are andwhat differentiates your winery.

Now, I don’t know which websites this guy was looking at, because the ones I visit and peek in on go on and on at times, almost rote like; I can’t read the stuff, but that’s just me. I do not classify myself as a “wine geek.” And, I should tell Sean P. Sullivan that just the landing page of a winery should speak LOADS about who the people are, what their wine is like, and so on and so on; such is the power of a well-thought out brand, not a me-too experiment. But then I went to our site, and wondered (worried, really), “Do we say enough?” I believe we’ve captured the essence of the grit and the grande, of who we are (Scott, “Eternal dreamer,” Stephanie, “Recovering pessimist,” for example), and through our minimalist approach we speak volumes. We do know who we are, and we show it. I won’t worry about that.

More fretting, though, ensued when I started reading more about SEO (search engine optimization) and that’s where I need to spend more time. For example, if you were to type “Tempranillo Oregon” would you find us? Got to page #10 on a Google Search and nada. And same with Brunello or Sangiovese. Yet we are there for “’08 Gampo,” and “’08 Home Place,” but that doesn’t help us when people don’t know what our proprietary wines are composed of. Sigh. Something more to put on my to-do list: optimize search engine tags and what not. It really does feel like a game of Tag to me, everyone out there searching for the best hit, and us, trying to get caught.

 

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Our latest installment on The Daily Meal. We (mainly me, Stephanie) write a bi-monthly piece called “Diary of a Start-Up Winemaker.” What we(well, I)’ve written to date are HERE.

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We’ve only been “in business” for just under a year, and are working on finding like-minded wine adventurers who appreciate wine like ours, as well as our endeavor. It’s a crowded, crazy market these days, as you all know, but we’re slowly reaching some of you individuals who dare to step off the well-worn route, or should I say, you’re discovering us, as true adventurers are apt to do.

Carl found us through Scott’s parents, out in Missouri. He was so interested in The Grande Dalles that he purchased six bottles of our inaugural wines: two ’09 Leroy’s Finest, our bone-dry Riesling; two ’08 Gampo, our sangiovese blend; and two ’08 Home Place, our tempranillo blend, just like that. Since his order, we’ve exchanged a few chit-chat messages, so imagine our surprise, when he told us he’d be out in the Pacific Northwest (a rare visit, he said) and wanted to meet! Our first fan from afar wanting to come and learn more! We were thrilled.

So off Sam and I went — Scott had to stay in Portland, holding down his day job that keeps this dream alive — to meet Carl.

Read the rest of this entry »

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