Willamette Valley Winemaking, the Communal Way
Old World tradition meets New World spirit at Oregon’s cooperative wineries.
In France’s winemaking regions, nearly every village has a winery cooperative. The local co-op is a place where the whole community drops in to fill their carafes.
Some Oregon winemakers have borrowed from Old World traditions to form their own cooperatives. But here, some of the more interesting, sought-after and often experimental wines are being produced in what one winemaker refers to as “commune wineries.”
The roots of a shared winery — in which small, individually licensed producers crush, age and bottle their wines using the same equipment and facilities — were first planted in the U.S. in Oregon, with the opening of the Carlton Winemakers Studio in 2002.
Founded by Eric Hamacher, his wife, Luisa Ponzi, and vineyard owners Ned and Kirsten Lumpkin, this studio concept was pioneered out of a desire to provide state-of-the-art equipment and facilities to boutique winemakers, including Hamacher. The innovative model gave other incipient producers the opportunity to make small lots of wine without hefty initial capital required to outfit a winery of their own.
Over the years, the Carlton Winemakers Studio has become one of the Willamette Valley’s most beloved stops for oenophiles touring Oregon wine country. Acclaimed winemaker Andrew Rich, there since the beginning, is one of the success stories. From its early days as an incubator for up-and-comers such as Rich, Carlton has grown to include nationally renowned winemakers Isabelle Meunier and Ehren Jordan, who value the camaraderie of a communal setting.
Take a 30-minute drive through undulating land and you’ll find another treasure trove of small, independent vintners at August Cellars. The namesake winery and eight “tenant wineries” operate out of the facility, including many of the state’s most revered, such as Crowley, Ovum and Idealist. From spring to fall, the tasting room offers a flight of the tenants’ current vintages.
In sharing facilities, these wineries give upstarts the chance to enter the market small, with more attention paid to quality and craft and less to reaching prohibitive bottom lines. This model makes it financially viable to hone their own winemaking styles independently, while growing and learning alongside likeminded peers.
This was the case for winemaker Brianne Day. In 2015, she opened her playfully named Day Camp on Highway 99 outside the town of Dundee, sheltering 10 budding brands, including her own Day Wines. Lacking in capital and in some cases extensive experience, but with no shortage of ambition or enthusiasm, many of the winemakers who operate out of Day Camp enjoy the focus on experimentation.
“Since we are all new and trying new things, I like that we have a collaborative winery think tank,” Day says. Winemakers here are taking a less traditional route for the region, working with grapes such as Primitivo, Malvasia and Muscat, employing winemaking techniques such as whole-cluster carbonic maceration and producing fashionable pétillant-naturel (natural sparkling) and skin-contact orange wines. Stop at the new tasting room (opening in January 2017) to sample a rotating selection of these innovative wines.
A similar situation is happening in the heart of Portland at the Southeast Wine Collective, where Willamette Valley vintners crush grapes from nearby vineyards. This dynamic, shared-space, urban winery cum wine bar was founded in 2012. Surrounded by restaurants and shops on popular Division Street, about 60 percent of the space is occupied by founding winery Division Winemaking Company, while nine other brands share the rest.
Co-owner Tom Monroe explains that his motivator is creating community. “Being a part of a vibrant neighborhood, within a thriving city, the goal has been to bring together local folks who want to share in the experience of making wine and in turn share those wines with the community.”
He also finds reward in helping the other winemakers, providing a sounding board throughout the process, and also pouring their wines in the onsite wine bar.
One such winemaker is Corey Schuster. His Jackalope Wine Cellars launched in the first vintage of the Southeast Wine Collective, and then moved to Day Camp in 2015 as his company grew and demanded more space. “I didn’t feel like I knew enough to be on my own in a space, and loved the idea of having other winemakers around to observe and learn from. The other benefit was the chance to be on the wine list in the bar, which really helped me to gain exposure.”
You see this comradeship even as wineries expand operations and occupy their own spaces. Today it’s not uncommon for more established wineries to foster smaller, upstart winemakers by sharing knowledge, renting crushing facilities and even pouring other wines in their tasting room. You see this throughout valley, from Oregon Wine LAB in Eugene to Brittan Vineyards in McMinnville, where the winemaking team crushes grapes for a number of labels: Fairsing, Youngberg Hill and de Lancellotti.
These sentiments hark back to the spirit of community among winemakers since the early days of the state’s industry, and blend it with Oregonians’ appreciation for high-quality, craft-made products. The variety in styles produced at these shared wineries gives visitors a chance to try a broad range of wines in one place. And since there are many resident winemakers roaming about, chances of rubbing elbows with one of them in the tasting room is an added bonus.