Leroy Rasmussen, 1930-2012

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.

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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.

When Scott decided he wanted to plant a vineyard, we were living in Ireland, and not yet married. That soon changed; on a trip back home to The States in December 2004, we tied the knot in Bend, Oregon and then drove south to Roseburg on a search for land with limestone, and a honeymoon of sorts. There we met Leroy.

It was our last day, our trip not turning up very much of the type of land we had hoped to find, the realtor only steering us to what was available. But a very kind woman at Farm Credit Service, Margaret, said to us, “You know who you should talk to if you can before you leave? Leroy Rasmussen.” And so we did.

Leroy like most people was initially a skeptic of us and our wish to get into the wine business; he told us that in his lifetime, he had heard the story again and again: “I want to plant a vineyard and make wine, blah blah blah.” And, he told us, very few really know what they’re in for. He would know. Leroy had been in the vineyard business for almost 50 years, and had seen it all.

Leroy was born in South Dakota, but somewhere in his youth his father, a horse-race trainer, moved his family south to Nebraska, somewhere alongside a Native American Reservation. Whether it was the Santee Sioux, the Winnebago, or Omaha, I do not remember, but it was there Leroy grew up, going to school with the kids on the reservation, and learning from his father how to be a rancher.

Loving the adventure of his tour in the Korean War, Leroy returned home and soon set out on his own, driving his young family form Nebraska to California for what opportunity he had set up there—Scott thinks it was to take over an orchard, I swear it was something to do with sheep. Whatever it was, the plans fell through, and it was then a realtor spoke to Leroy: “Get into grapes. They’re the next big thing.” Leroy listened.

There Leroy was, out in Sonoma County in the early ‘50s, a young, eager man learning all he could about grape growing, with some of California’s most prolific wine names around him: Ernest and Julio Gallo, Andre Tschelistcheff, “Bob” (as Leroy referred to him) Mondavi, and others—a real who’s who list of California’s post-Prohibition wine pioneers.

At one time, Leroy told us how he planted 1000 acres a summer, three summers in a row, and brokered his grapes in an office in San Francisco’s Transamerica Building. And does the name Marvin Shanken ring a bell? Marvin Shanken of Wine Spectator and more? Leroy told us how this young New Yorker, Marvin, came out to California and how he, Leroy, taught him what malolactic fermentation was, or at least how to pronounce it. The two were to strike up a partnership of sorts, Marvin bringing together a group of investors to help finance Leroy’s own vineyard expansion. When Leroy went East for some NY wine event, Marvin showed him a time. Leroy left California when his speculation on the next big grape (merlot) went sour; economically depleted, he moved northward to Oregon.

And that’s the Leroy we met there in Elmer’s in Roseburg, our last “Honeymoon” day.

Even at 77 years old, Leroy was still out in the vineyard, with no signs of slowing down. He had a 220-acre vineyard 30 miles north of Roseburg, OR in the Red Hills, Douglas County AVA, an AVA he and a partner recently created, and plans to plant another 100 acres the following year. He had hoped to release his own wine label, but health issues said otherwise. Instead, we released our own wine with his name on it, Leroy’s Finest, the Riesling cuttings coming from Leroy’s own vineyard, transported in his old maroon truck to Rock Flour Hill.

Leroy’s contribution to our endeavor is immense. His support and ways at looking at things in less than conventional ways really showed us there is no one right way. Out in the vineyard with his cowboy hat, quilted jackets and pointed boots, or at our lunches together in the camper, we’d often hear him say, “Whatever it takes [to get the job done].” If we could find him now, we’d tell him again how much we appreciated all he did. We’ll find him—whatever it takes.

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We’ll miss you and always remember you, Leroy. You will forever be in our hearts, and your spirit forever on our hill.

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