Starting a vineyard and making singular wines from a new area by relative “unknowns” is not for the faint-hearted, let me tell you.
The Grande Dalles. To the chagrin of our neighbors in the Columbia Valley AVA, we laid out and planted 20 acres of The Grande Dalles vineyard just minutes outside The Dalles, Oregon, but in feeling worlds away, in 2006 with cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, and sangiovese (Brunello), and some blending varietals like syrah and cabernet franc. Much crying and cursing (mine, and I’m guessing our neighbors’) has since ensued. Our inaugural 2008 release is now out, and like the mail, more vintages just keep coming.
Stephanie LaMonica. That’s me. From Oneonta, in upstate New York, I am more of a martini/manhattan kind of gal, and both wine and farming are fairly new to me. Truth be told, I’d never have gotten into the wine industry, but in 1991, after having discovered Ory-gon in a bookstore in Albany, New York, I went West, looking for big, open skies, mountains, rivers, forests, and occasionally Sasquatch, meeting Scott in 2000.
Before Scott, my wine experience spanned cheap California cooking wine, and then some tasting along Lake Geneva in Switzerland; in short, all mixed up, if non-existent. I did have a brief look into the farming industry though, teaching English to Hispanic farm community members in Washington state as part of my graduate school program in applied linguistics, and that, other than becoming a Mama just over three years ago, was one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done in my life.
Yet I’ve always been an adventurer of sort: I was an exchange student for a year in Finland; summited Mt. Hood, Oregon’s highest peak; have lived and worked a number of years in Germany; have run back-road 24-hour relay races; was a participant in a 24-hour mountain bike race, schlepping along as pro Team Gary Fisher raced past me in the dark; and so I try my best to look at this—the vineyard we planted, and the wine that comes from it—as one great adventure. More truths: since planting the vineyard, I’ve vacillated between enjoying our new endeavor, and absolutely wishing I could just run away. But I’m still here, supporting my man and doing my best to make our family business work, and slowly, slowly, I learn to find joy through it.
A brand writer by trade, I am the brand and marketing voice behind The Grande Dalles, although I’d rather be writing children’s stories, having submitted a number to publishing houses, I’m waiting for that day when my muse returns. Drawing from my 10+ years of writing for international giants like adidas and Nike, and more regional big names like Umpqua Bank and Provenance Hotel Group, I write this blog, The Uncultivated Life, have written and helped design our website, and I continue to learn about wine, and more about the wine industry, and to that I often feel like Margaret Mead, looking in on and trying to understand the behaviour of some lost tribe. While at other times I feel like Lisa on Green Acres, minus the accent, and jewels, having been plucked reluctantly from a more “comfortable” life, to make a go of it in the wilds of the wine world.
If you ask me what I really love about all this, I’ll tell you the meadowlark’s song out on our land, the big sky all around, the raw nature of our vineyard, and the vanishing link of land, people and wine that The Grande Dalles strives to renew. Don’t ask me what I don’t like.
Scott Elder. My husband, and big dreamer (often to my chagrin) of our husband-wife team has spent nearly 20 years exploring the beauty and intricacies of wine. His palate and perspective, shaped with the guidance of a noted French wine merchant, continue to influence the decisions he makes in growing our grapes and making The Grande Dalles’ wines.
Scott was raised on a Kansas farm, going on to receive his PhD in chemistry at Cornell University, in Ithaca, NY. He really didn’t experience wine until he was at Cornell, and it wasn’t until he moved to France for a postdoctoral position that he discovered his love for wine and the special relationship between land, grape and winemaker. It was while in France that Scott was taken under the wing by the local French wine store owner, who taught Scott the nuances and intricacies of what makes a wine of place.
After returning from France, Scott had another postdoctoral position at UC Berkeley, where he again found himself at finger’s distance from California’s wine industry and he continued his education. Finally landing a “real job” as a scientist at the US National Energy Lab in Washington State, Scott lived on Red Mountain and had easy access to the growing wine scene and its top producers.
It took Scott another 16 years to realize that it was “now or never” if he was going to get out and make his wine. Only a few days after deciding this, Scott moved to Ireland on a two-year work assignment, and it was there in the long, dark, lonely winter that he began to read the vineyard books that I, his then future wife, had given him. The internet is a beautiful thing because he was able to find out nearly everything he wanted on soil, climate, topography, and land ownership while living 5,000 miles away from Oregon. I, with Georgina, my cat, was soon able to move to Ireland and Scott was very happy. The vineyard and wine planning continued and then one Saturday afternoon, Scott walked into our little Irish kitchen and exclaimed to me, “There’s no way we can afford to plant a vineyard and make wine, it’s gotta be one or the other.” Scott was never interested in doing one or the other because he believes they are inseparable, and then I had the truly fateful reply (which I now deny), “Well, let’s get the vineyard planted and then we’ll figure out how to do the wine.”
Not long after, we flew back to Oregon, got married and honeymooned in Roseburg in southern Oregon so we could look for vineyard ground. Even though it was time well spent, we flew back to Ireland a little skeptical of whether Roseburg was the right area for us. It was on that trip we were introduced to and met our future vineyard consultant, Leroy, a 70+-year-old vineyard veteran with 50 years of vineyard experience. Through additional learning Scott decided that the area around The Dalles was even better matched to what he was looking for in a vineyard site for many reasons, so about 6 months later he traveled 5,000 miles back to tour The Dalles area and knew that was the spot. Over months of effort and dozens of solicited land owners, Scott finally found someone who might sell some land. We moved back to Oregon and after only brief negotiations over the land sale (another much-to-my-chagrin moment), it all hinged on finding irrigation water and we did. Over the following 6 months we developed the vineyard – electricity, irrigation, roads, deer fence, trellis, and planting. Looking back Scott says “I don’t know how we got it done, a lot of luck I suppose.”
Samuel Elder. Our partner and son. Loves to run down hills as fast as his little chunky one-year-old legs can carry him. Not a good thing out on our hillside….Now that he’s getting older, (will be three this year, in 2011) he probably wishes his mama (me) did not have my nose so much in a computer working on our family business, and just tooling around. He doesn’t know she (still me) often wishes the same — the tooling around part.
Jack. Our dog, and hole digger extraordinaire, although I try to keep that from Scott. A dog has to be a dog after all, n’est-ce pas?
DISCLAIMER, or, WHY WE LIVE IN A SHOE BOX: No outside funds other than our own went into the making of this vineyard. No family fortunes. No family farm conversion. No prodigal son returning home to take over the wine business. No government backing or lottery dollars. No investors (although we did try). No retirement savings (we’re too young). No cash-ins on Antiques Road Show. Nada. Just us. — We have, since writing this Disclaimer, moved into a larger home, still in the same North Portland area — but that’s only because our bank has been so kind to provide an operational loan, giving us some financial breathing room, sort of.