A NOTE ABOUT THIS BLOG: I visited Oregon’s incredible Willamette Valley in April, tasted wines, visited with winemakers, and had the time of my life. I have a couple interviews that have aged a bit before getting around to the writing, but there really wasn’t any time stamp on them. This blog entry is for the geeks out there – too long for the newspaper and probably too long for here too. But I loved these people and their wines.)
Bill Sweat and Donna Morris aren’t unique in the Willamette Valley, there are plenty of investors who have had success in other businesses come to Oregon and open wineries.
The couple who opened Winderlea Winery spent most of their careers in financial services running branch offices for Fidelty. They had a dream of making premium Pinot Noir and went about achieving that dream systematically.
"I think we did our homework so we knew what to expect,” Bill said in April. I tasted their 2007 wines during this interview. I should add they were kind enough to pour even though they close their tasting room over the winter and had not yet re-opened.
“We had done a vocation vacation; we spent three days in a winery; we kicked the tires. We had a very nice woman open her books for us and tell us how the finances work.
“We also made wine privately at a crush pad in San Francisco. So we came in and had a sense there was agriculture, and there’s marketing and more than sitting in the tasting room drinking wine. It was such an exciting project for us to take this jewel of a vineyard that people had been working on for 30 years and see what we could do to build upon the foundation that was already established.”
They put in long hours during the 2007 harvest season. They didn’t take any shortcuts. They invested not just dollars but old-fashioned sweat equity as well.
Their vineyard is the Goldschmidt Vineyard which sits in the Dundee Hills – the red soil or terrior is the heart of the beautiful Pinot Noir made by Erath, Lange, and Winderlea – among others. The vineyard has been producing Pinot grapes for more than 30 years.
Bill and Donna did all the homework. They are the ones pouring the wine in their Worden Hill Road tasting room. And Bill is thinking of doing some winemaking himself this fall. Donna keeps the books and tries to stay current with the mish-mash of wine shipping laws a winery must contend with to be successful.
They bought the storied vineyard then landed winemaking veteran Robert Brittan to make their wines. Brittan has enjoyed a long Napa Valley career with more than 30 years making wines for Stag’s Leap and St. Andrews. He also owns vineyards in Oregon.
The couple may be new to the business but the careful planning and decision making has been rewarded with some incredible wines. They made just 1,600 cases of wine in 2006 and 1,300 in 2007. They have used the term “luxury boutique” wines to describe their goals.
“We both spent time running branch offices for Fidelity Investment,” Donna said. “I told Bill it reminded me of our first days at Fidelity and selling mutual funds to people. We were trying to give them enough information to make an intelligent decision but you don’t overwhelm with the geekiness. I find that’s true with the wines. It’s like being back in the branch and we’ve had a few friends walk in here and say it has a similar feel.”
Bill is quick to interject there is a major difference. “People are happier when you pour wine for them other than just handing them a prospectus.”
Winderlea’s wines have been well received. They have also become important contributors to the community. The Winderlea $10 tasting fee is donated to iSalad, a healthcare program for vineyard workers.
I found their Pinot Noir and the Pinot at Lange the best I tasted in two separate trips to Oregon in 2008 and again this spring.
“It’s been really quite positive,” Donna said. “Most of the people who came in last year were predisposed to the wine and enjoyed the wines. It’s so fun to pour for people. People have such different palates. It’s just like food; we don’t all love the same foods. We don’t all love the same wines. The education part is really fun for the people really trying to learn about wine. I really enjoy that.”
They made a decision early on not to make their wines available for scoring, so in some ways they don’t make it easy for visitors to like or dislike Winderlea juice. “You can’t walk in here and be predisposed to like them or not like them, you are kind of on your own. There are some wine writers whose palate we’ve learned we share so when they like a wine we typically will as well. But we know there are some wine writers who won’t like us so much so we’re not going to make a lot of effort sending our wines out.”
The couple prefers to have visitors taste their wines and discuss them in their state-of-the art, if not funky, tasting room. “We’re not going to start with ‘Robert Parker game this wine a 94 so I should like it or someone else gave it an 87 so I should hate it.’ We look more for people who think ‘I sorta like this place. It’s pretty cool. I hear good things or Lange sent us down or Erath and said we should try it.’ That’s gratifying in a lot of ways.”
The former Bostonians find working with other Valley winemakers gratifying beyond expectations.
“That’s why we have a concern about (tourist growth in the Valley,)” Bill said of the wine community. “I think one thing Donna and I have a concern about is the people who founded this industry created a community willing to help one another. They recognized they didn’t know enough individually to avoid failure so they worked together. Even to this day if you look at the folks really committed to this industry in terms of being involved, writing checks, you’re going to see the names Adelsheim, Erath, all the folks here at the beginning are still deeply committed to making this work. We came here because that’s what we loved about this area and we feel the same thing. We wanted to join this community and bring whatever skills and talents we can but not try to dramatically change it but try to move it forward on same path it’s been on.”
Their wines are available across the county but the couple continue to add new states.
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