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?
2007: Summer of Short-Lived Joy, The Big Fish, and The Rift Begins
Early on there was a lot of “What do we do? What do we do? What do we do?” as we thought we had a dead vineyard. We couldn’t wait to find out, so we bought more plants, and come spring, planted that sucker again. Leroy pulled through, although never the same as before, and our vineyard showed us our own fighting spirit was contagious. We now had a lot more plants to care for.
The Summer of 2007 found us flying high. Our vineyard was alive, we had found an investor-partner, and a “Big Fish” from the Washington wine industry (who would later show up, alive, on a 48 Hours Murder Mystery) was interested in the adjoining property. We thought we had it made. Scott had to go back to Ireland for business, and I snuck up the hotel back stairs like some common, well, maid (that’s what people with a vineyard on a budget do), relishing the time back in Europe.
Good that we could enjoy ourselves across the pond, for when we returned, issues were starting to arise. Long story short, we ended up losing both the Big Fish and our investor, which in retrospect was just fine: each wanted too much; and the great rift between the farmer who sold us our ground began.
2008 : The Fight for Our Land, Sam is Born, and Our First Vintage
Our land purchase was a seller-financed sale. Sometime in mid/late 2007 we wanted to pay that note off and get bank financing. You’d think that would be something easy-breezy. But no. The rift caused during the Summer of the Big Fish reared its head, and soon, a whole lot of legal headache ensued. After months of agonizing back and forth, where the property owner’s lawyer told us our original documents may not even hold up, Scott had reached his limit, and dropped the little “S” word (rhymes with “blue”) in early 2008. Funny how things happened so quickly after that. For within two days or so, on a snowy, late-winter ’08 Sunday in a suburban hotel room, lawyers at our side, we hammered out an agreement in a number of hours; the land was ours.
Scott kissed the ground when all was said and done, and we made up lyrics to “This land is my land,” ones that might get us in trouble if we were to sing it in public, although put into the context of the time, the words are spot-on, and provable, so we’d be safe, I think. Sam was on his way, born on a hot Thursday in July, and then our first harvest. Hooray!
The birds that had descended on our field like a Hitchcock film resurrected hadn’t taken all our fruit, and so we decided, even without having an investor, that we’d make wine. We had hoped we’d have *someone* to help us share the risk, for at this time, we were in it DEEP. We first tried to sell our grapes, but Scott had too many of what he referred to as “Beavis and Butthead” hehe responses from local wine community who didn’t want to commit until way late in the game. Understandably so; we were an “unproven” vineyard, and this our first harvest. But it was the snickering we did not appreciate. So Scott said, “Screw it.” We would make wine. It was Sam’s birth year after all, and we needed to commemorate it.
Luckily we were put in touch with a local winemaker who agreed to let us make wine at his facility. It’s not typical, that someone tells a winemaker how to make wine under a “custom crush” designation, but thankfully we found someone willing to simply ensure sound wine-making practices while allowing Scott full creative license. For while Scott had no hands-on experience per se, he knew what we wanted, and how that could be achieved through the process of winemaking; all his research and conversations with French and California experts confirmed his ideas.
Our approach was very simple: let the wine be what the season gave us, period. No hocus pocus winemaking as is prevalent in today’s market, adding/removing acid, tannins, color, etc. This guy was a big sceptic, as were all the people we had met to date out there, but he would change his mind after tasting our fruit, and our wine, yes, he would change his mind.
While things were coming along on the vineyard and wine front, Stephanie pretty much went AWOL from farming; mothering without having a “village” around her took its toll, with sleep deprivation and post-partum depression thrown in for fun. How Scott held it all together that year, you will have to ask him yourself.
2009 : The Range Fire that Could’ve Taken It All, But All-in-All Not a Bad Year
It is now our fourth growing year and Scott seems to be acclimating more and more to the rhythm of a vineyard at a distance, particularly the juggle between his day job and new role as a father. It is not easy. Leroy, our old-time cowboy vineyard consultant is now gone from the picture, and we are saddened by this beyond all measure. Health issues have claimed him, and although still on the planet, he is not the man we used to know. Soon we don’t even know where he is.
In the vineyard, Scott invests in bird netting to fix the bird issues; we have to ensconce the entire producing acreage in a net. It’s quite an endeavor. And we put in owl and kestrel houses, to attract birds of prey to help us keep the songbirds and rodents down.
Sam turned one that year, and the night before his birthday we got a phone call: a range fire out in wheat ground had spread and was in our vineyard. We were speechless, and helpless, so far away in Portland. Thankfully, the adjoining land owner, the “rift” farmer who called to relay the news, was the only one who went in to fight it. It went three rows in and stopped. The rest of the summer, particularly August and September, were very hot, and as the grapes ripened, we wondered (and worried) about whether the fruit, our hopeful second harvest, would take on any smoke smells. How the heck would we deal with smoky wine if that’s what happened? (It’s always something.) Scott spoke to an expert, who told him the physiology of the grapes was too early to take on smoke smells, so we let that concern rest.
Stephanie was “coming back,” finding her own voice and role in a dream venture (the wine) that was not hers, and finding her “mama shoes” actually fit. As the New Year approached and we reflected on 2009, we felt that all in all, despite the range fire, we were happy the stress of the legal battle had dissipated, and were able to come up with a Top-Ten List for our blog, The Uncultivated Life.
2010 until now : The Big Release and Finding our Way in the Wilds (and Hustle) of the Wine World
Everything up to this year had been leading to this year: the release of our inaugural wine. The moment of truth. And what a disappointment. And not because our wine was no good. Au contraire, people. Hell, we were told by David Rosengarten at a private luncheon at his request at The Oyster Bar in Grand Central Station after tasting our wine, how in his opinion, our ’09 Leroy’s Finest was the best American riesling he’d ever had. The best American riesling! And he really dug the ’08 Gampo.
We had the goods, it was the market, the market! And that recession that lingered across the land. And the idea that first time, unknown wine makers who don’t pay people to do the work for them or to come up with a vision know Scheisse about fine wine (where oh where would people ever come up with that idea?!).
It was this year we were to really experience the wine hustle first hand. We had some decent writeups (scroll down to 2010), but because of our low volume we were not able to rouse up a distributor, and unwilling to ship our wine to every tom-dick-and-nancy wine blog reviewer who has an opinion: we’d have no wine left to sell! We had also been told rather unabashedly by a very well-known wine critic that submitting wines for score and review was a crap shoot, and since our wine is not necessarily the flavour of the day, and, based on our experience of people who do not follow through with almost anything they say, we found the whole market indredibly discouraging, to say the least.
Out on the land it was a very cold August and September, and very late harvest, if you remember, everyone waiting for ripening to happen before the season’s first frosts set in. We crossed our fingers for that balance we look for, of acids and sugars. Boy were we lucky.
We also moved out of our tiny little farmhouse, into something more accommodating for a family of three with dog and cat. So close to a 70-acre park within the city of Portland’s boundaries, and with much more space in our modest ranch, it feels like we’re on vacation, but always with the nagging questions: How the hell are we going to sell our wine? Where are those wine adventurers who appreciate wine that, by its individual nature, specifies a place and time? How do we even find these people? And, how will we ever be able to move out to that land?
And here we are here in 2011. We had our Portland release party in February, followed by a “Columbia Valley Terroir” dinner where our wines were the focus at the James Beard House in New York, which we of course attended. Good things. Scott has made great strides in our vineyard’s weed issues (noxious weeds, not that Oregon “herb”), and we’re slowly making inroads into what feels like an impenetrable market. Our wine is in a couple of very high-end Oregon restaurants, one on the Oregon Coast, The Bay House, and one in Portland proper, Wildwood.
And we have Joel Butler, MW behind us now, Scott having met him years ago, at a wine appreciation class in the Bay Area, when Scott had a post-doc position at Berkeley. Joel has tasted all of our vintages—2008, 09, and 10—and is amazed how our young vineyard shows such specificity of wine character, like distinct wines of Europe. But it’s like the question, “If a tree falls in a forest, does anyone hear?” How much does it matter that we know it? We need a heck of a lot more people to pay heed! And buy wine! I guess all we can do is keep doing what we can, because we’ve worked so hard. We will sell our wine. We will sell our wine.
Right now the biggest hurdle for us is no distributor, and no tasting room. And a broader lack of interest in a “real” wine story, of the ups and downs and grit and hard work of two individuals who are not wealthy, not connected, but are educated, and dedicated, to making a wine like no other. A wine that simply reflects its place, and the people who make it. I tell you, if we read one more no-risk, so-my-wealthy-friends-sent-me-to-France-to-make-wine story you will hear our cry. But in the words of Ratattouille’s critic character Anton Ego, “The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations.” We may have risked it all for our wine, but there are few out there willing to put their own heads out in defense of the new, period. Few indeed.
And there you have it. Five years with a vineyard and time in the wine industry. We are incredibly thankful for the wine adventurers who have sought us out, who have discovered our singular wines, and who have returned for more. Yet our five years have been a struggle that we wouldn’t wish on anyone, UNLESS your dream and desire to step off the beaten path and create becomes too hard to ignore, as was ours, or Scott’s really. And to that, we are still able to smile (even Stephanie, after a Martini), hoist one in your direction, and say “Cheers, to all you like-minded adventurers who dare to risk it all to follow the dream deep in you, whatever that is, and not just the crowd.”
Tags: 3-phase electricity, 48 Hours Murder Mystery, American Riesling, Beavis and Butthead, birds of prey, chicken wire, Columbia Valley Terroir, custom crush, David Rosengarten, deer fence, Diary of a Start-up Winemaker, drip line, end posts, Europe, Gampo, Grand Central Station, Hitchcock film, Ireland, James Beard, James Beard House, Joel Butler, kestrel, Leroy's Finest, MW, open-heat surgery, Oregon wheat country, range fire, rodents, songbirds, The Daily Meal, The Grande Dalles, The Oyster Bar, This land is my land, vineyard consultant, weather stations