The Grande Dalles

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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.

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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.

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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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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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I posted  a few images on our The Grande Dalles FaceBook page,  from our latest weekend at the vineyard, and from a brief exchange with a “Fan,” the word “reverence” came on the screen. I had written it. A big word, I know, but that’s the only one I can come up with when I am out on our land.

It’s funny, because as I get closer to The Dalles on the cruise through The Gorge, I look for the classic rock station, the one our very interesting helper Richard listens to: ZZ Top, old U2, Pink Floyd…an eclectic mix of nostalgia (for me), and down the highway, and even up into the windy, hilly road to our vineyard, it feels right. Once I get to the gate, the deer-gate entrance with the sign “Please Close Gate Behind You” I let the music drift out of the car door as I pull into the turnout, put us in neutral so I can open the gate, and then again so I can close it behind us. Back in the car I do turn the music down; the windows now are up because of the dust–they may have been up for some time if we needed air conditioning on the drive–but the reverence has begun; I need some quiet as I survey the vine rows along our vineyard road. Scott’s usually waiting for us at the top of the hill, for his boy, and the quieted party in our car comes to an end.

In the evening we will have drinks, as civilized people in the wilds will do, and sometimes the music will again return to the landscape, me sitting in the car with the doors open as music cascades down the hill and outward in the fading sunlight.

But for almost the whole time we are there, there is no music, no man-made sounds other than that from the ritual tractor ride of father and son, the occasional car zipping down the road far below, or the lone plane droning above the wide, glorious land. It is the three of us (avec chien) alone under the sky, fully present in what the land gives us. And in those moments of stillness, like when I step outside in the middle of the night and surprise a hunting owl as it alights from its perch on the camper and flies silently overhead, its shape in stark contrast to the bright of the moon; or when I smell the sweet of the earth or hear the rustle of the growing wheat or that precious meadow lark song; when we all watch the kestrel hunt in the early morn before the heat reaches us, or as I smile at our vines who wave at me in the wind, Mt. Hood forever stoic out in front, the only music in my ears is that of reverence. Pure, unadulterated reverence.

 

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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.

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I posted a few pictures over on our facebook The Grande Dalles page, but I have little faith that any links I provide actually work, especially from the feedback I’ve received, SO,

Ladies and Gentlemen, we are pleased to introduce you to our newest little kestrel. We were out at the vineyard and Scott pointed out while we were eating lunch that both kestrels (the male and female) were sitting on their box. After he and Sam went off for a tractor ride and some irrigation work, I headed down the hill to check it out. Sure enough, there was a kestrel on the box. But it was a baby. I almost think I heard little squeaks from the box, but being a bit away and with Jack the dog breathing as heavy as a freight train with all his running around, I’m not sure. Supposedly a kestrel clutch is 4-7 eggs, so I cannot believe this little fella or gal is the only one. But here he/she is–one view looking south on greening wheat ground, the other westward on a fallow field, but still the same bird–and I couldn’t be prouder, that this little kestrel life has blessed our ground.

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…And Getting Pushed Back — our latest installment on TheDailyMeal.com.

It’s about how The Grande Dalles, vowing to do things differently than the me-toos out there, is not finding it easy; very few appreciate an individual wine, we’re finding.

Here’s how it beings:

“When we began to even think about getting into the wine industry, we knew one thing: We didn’t want to be like anyone else.

What was the point, we asked ourselves? Does a painter set out to be like Chagall, or a musician like Hendricks? No! And so we set out to make a singular wine based on Scott’s vision — one that had been solidified in a pre-global palate France, and growing in him for 20-plus years. It would use grapes from the vineyard we farmed, the land painstakingly chosen for the wine we envisioned. No way were we going to emulate another country or person’s style. We only wanted to reinstate what we found sorely on the wane in the industry: Wines that dare to be different because of where and who they come from. We were going to push the envelope. Little did we know how hard the industry would push back.”

Anyhoo — the whole story is available for your enjoyment on The Daily Meal here. If you like it, please do rate it with the stars next to the column, so we can keep writing for this fine online community.

Many thanks –

stephanie

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WARNING: This post is waaaay more heady than a meadowlark warbling (my last post).

Was at the best lunchtime presentation about the power of story last week, where the presenter, the creative mastermind behind the Portland Timbers advertising, Jelly Helm, a former Executive Creative Director at Wieden and Kennedy, shared some of his expertise. Even now it’s all still swirling in my head: the idea of story deficit in our culture (what we do have is way too shallow), about how the stories we’ve all depended upon as a society have been challenged and are in many cases no longer valid, the hero story — lots of heady stuff that I just LOVE, having a brand storyteller/writer background.

As I sat there and listened, I started thinking about the wine industry, the industry I now write for, and work in, and The Grande Dalles, and Scott and myself. And Steve Heimoff. What stories are now being told in the wine world, what stories aren’t, and at this junction the industry finds itself at, because it’s clear the wine world is going through something, what  scenarios will characterize the wine world and its stories moving forward?

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