Diary of Start-Up Winemaker: Year Five with a Vineyard
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.
<>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. Hold on! Here we go.
2010 to Now: The Big Release and Finding Our Way in the Wilds (and Hustle) of the Wine World
Everything up to now has been leading to this year: the release of our inaugural wine. The moment of truth. And what a disappointment. 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 winemakers 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 were unwilling to ship our wine to every tom-dick-and-nancy wine critic and/or blog reviewer — we'd have nothing 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 a 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 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 now 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.”
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.