Diary of Start-Up Winemaker: Our Five-Year Vineyard Anniversary
2011 marks the five-year anniversary of our little vineyard on the frontier. It’s been five l-o-n-g years since we first took the plunge and transformed a steep and distinct hillside out in the middle of wild, windy Oregon wheat country into a vineyard that would 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, because 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. Each day this week I'll add a year, so you won't get overwhelmed and want to run for the hills, the way we want to, at times. Here we go.
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 of 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?
With a vineyard planted in the “unproven” wilds of wheat country outside The Dalles, Ore., Scott Elder and Stephanie LaMonica struggle to promote their label, The Grande Dalles, and make a go of selling their wine. From the start, the couple has set out to do things their own way, with the belief that staying out of the crowd is better than being lost in it. These posts share their ups and downs.