Family wineries are the soul of Willamette Valley. Life there is community minded, a place where farmers raise families as well as vines. As international praise continues for the wines of Willamette Valley, the valley stays true to its farming roots.
It all began in the Dundee Hills of Willamette Valley – where David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards met and married Diana Lett in 1965. Today the wineries maintain the farming family attitude, avoiding chateaux or museum-style wineries. Instead you will find modest homes and farms. The urban dweller may view this as a simpler life – bound by family with a focus on making quality wine.
I have been enamored with the family farming community of Willamette Valley since I began writing about the region. In July I will be traveling there, to visit wineries and attend the International Pinot Noir Celebration, for the first time. My itinerary includes visits to four wineries that constitute my understanding of farming families in the valley. Each of these wineries illustrates how family, past and present, inspires their approach to life and winemaking in Willamette Valley.
Youngberg Hill embodies Willamette Valley’s family farming lifestyle. Proprietors Wayne and Nicolette Bailey are raising three daughters with the same quality of life they experienced growing up on Iowa farms. Wayne Baily told me Youngberg is a “working farm – meaning we are making ends meet by working on The Hill.” He continues, “The girls are learning a work ethic with responsibilities that will serve them well the rest of their lives. They are proud that they have wine named after each of them and that they had some involvement in that process.” Wayne is both grape grower and winemaker at Youngberg Hill – a common-place in this farming community.
Wayne and Nicolette extend their love of the grape to hospitality through The Inn at Youngberg Hill – a nine-room bed and breakfast. This also impacts the lives of their daughters. “Our girls have grown up not knowing the meaning of the word ‘stranger’. If they didn’t recognize [someone] then they must be guests and act accordingly,” Wayne Bailey shares.
Youngberg Hill’s portfolio includes multiple Pinot Noirs, Chardonnay, Syrah, Pinot Blanc, and Pinot Gris. I have tasted and enjoyed their 2014 Natasha Pinot Noir “tart red fruit, spice, herbal;” 2014 Jordan Pinot Noir “balanced, earth, spice, fruit”; and 2015 Aspen Chardonnay “ripe orchard and stone fruit, crème brûlée, balanced, restrained.” Visit the Youngberg Hill web site to learn more.
Vidon Vineyards derived its name from its owners – Don Hagge and his wife Vicki Lewis. Hagge’s passion for Vidon was shaped by his North Dakota farm upbringing as well as his post-graduate work in France – succumbing to the spell of Burgundy. “The Willamette Valley family reminds me of the old farm community in North Dakota. Everyone works together to make Oregon wines world-class,” explains Hagge. Lewis shares with me that she and Don met and acquired the acreage in 1999 -married in 2000. Elaborating, “It all started from there. I couldn’t figure out how I ended up picking rocks on a weekend while walking alongside an ancient, idling, Allis Chalmers tractor – heaving them in. On Monday I’d be back in my fancy-pants corporate office picking dirt out of my nails. My friends thought it was hilarious.”
Today Hagge enjoys assisting winemaker David Bellows, as well as mowing and tilling the vineyards on his tractor. Lewis explains, “The farming part of the grape community is wonderful – supportive and always willing to help, advise, and lend equipment. We’re all grape slaves and probably bonded because of it.”
Vidon Vineyards crafts Viognier, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, Tempranillo, and Syrah. In keeping with an Old World style, they employee minimal intervention winemaking practices. I have tasted the 2014 3 Clones Pinot Noir “bright red berries, white tea, spice, smooth;” and 2015 Chardonnay “elegant orchard and stone fruit, spice, rich texture.” Visit the Vidon Vineyards web site to learn more.
Alloro Vineyards is a result of David Nemarnik’s passion for wine, food, and farming. He explains to me, “I grew up with an Italian-American mother, Croatian-born father, and four siblings. My Sicilian grandmother was also a big part of my childhood experience. Sunday dinners at grandma’s are fond memories. [My family] impressed upon me a lifestyle of artisan food and wine production.”
Nemarnik claims, “I was fortunate to understand and appreciate my innate passion for farming and the process of hand crafted food and wine.” He took that passion and realized his dream of owning a farming estate – vineyards occupy only 33 of the 70 acres at Alloro – the remaining is a working farm with livestock, gardens, orchards, and nut trees.
Nemarnik’s passion is shared by his daughter Justine, a freshman at Cal Poly San Luis Obismo studying Crop Science and Horticulture. A proud father, Nemarnik brags “Justine raised a herd of registered Hereford cattle and has been on the back of a horse since she was little. Justine also shares a passion for cooking, and has become very popular by sharing her creative crock pot/dorm room meals with students on her floor.”
Alloro Vineyards makes quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling, and dessert wine. I have tasted their 2016 Riesling “stone fruit, citrus, floral, off-dry, high acidity;” 2014 Riservata Pinot Noir “dark berries, spice, herbal, black tea, rich, textural, bold, long;” 2014 Pinot Noir “red fruit, earth, spice, depth, rich;” and 2015 Chardonnay “ripe orchard, stone, & tropical fruit, spice, elegant, round, restraint.” Visit the Alloro Vineyards web site to learn more.
Lenné Estate was built on a foundation of family and love. Steve and Karen Lutz met when he owned a pizza restaurant and she was his food rep for Sysco. Lutz explains to me he eventually sold his business to move to England with Karen “who wanted to be closer to her father [Lenny] who was older and becoming ill. After a year we decided to return to the states and Oregon, where I had gone college. Her father subsequently died and left her a little bit of money which we used to make a down payment on the property.” Lenné Estate is named in honor of Karen Lutz’s father.
Eric Bruce, Lenné Estate Hospitality and Sales Manager, shares with me how Steve and Karen epitomize Willamette Valley perseverance. He explains, “The land that became the Lenné vineyard lies on a twenty-and-a-half acre hillside site in the northern Willamette Valley, near the town of Yamhill. It was a perfect site… so ideal that the vineyard almost failed before it could live up to its promise. The vines grew, but in the terrible soil they grew slowly… very slowly.”
Bruce continues, “During those early years Steve sunk every available minute into the vineyard. He drove the tractor, tended the fruit, pruned and tied the vines … and much more. Karen joined the effort as well, helping out on the site, and with the funding. When the third and … fourth season passed without significant high-quality fruit, hope began to waver.”
Lutz continued, “ was the year that almost broke our back.” However, “in 2005 when I put a thief into the barrel and had a first taste of our Pinot after it had gone through malolactic fermentation, I came home to Karen that night and told her not to worry, that the wine would make everything work.”
Today Lenné Estate is praised for their award-winning Pinot Noir. I have tasted their 2014 Estate Pinot Noir “red fruit, spice, elegant and contemplative;” and the 2015 Estate Pinot Noir “bolder, more body/depth, darker fruit.” Visit the Lenné Estate web site to learn more.
According to Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill, “Over fifty percent of the vineyard/wineries in Willamette Valley are ‘working farms’.” Like so many in Willamette Valley, Wayne and Nicolette “chose this way of life to work the land, grow wine grapes. And to grow them in a responsible and sustainable way.” After learning more about these wineries and tasting their wines I am eager to visit them in July. The quality of life embraced by wineries in Willamette Valley – focus on family, community, and farming – is alive in every glass of wine I enjoy from this region.