American Wine Story banner, vineyard shot and quotes from press

Launched our Kickstarter campaign to finish the music video for The Wind Kept and put on a concert for its premiere at the Whiteside Theatre in Corvallis. Great working with Glenn Alexander and Santiago Uceda on this project.

Tad Seestedt of Ransom Wines & Spirits was told that he was crazy when he talked of leaving New York City and heading to Oregon without knowing a soul, with a vague notion of returning to an agricultural lifestyle in the wine industry. But after three years of planning, he headed west in 1993, and now his plans are finally coming together.

We recently interviewed Tad for our documentary project and learned that slow and steady can really sometimes win the race.

Tad Seestedt of Ransom

Ransom now produces gin and whiskey from barley he grows on his certified organic farm on the edge of the Coast Range, and he also produces a line of Oregon wines from area vineyards, with his own vines in the ground on his 40-acre farm outside the small town of Willamina, Oregon.

Lucy the distillery dog

It’s been a long road paved with credit card and bank loans, but Ransom has arrived and Tad’s mother has stopped calling him to ask when he’s planning to start law school. With distillery dog Lucy by his side, Tad spoke to us about his path to independence in the wine and spirits business.

And my favorite quote from the conversation: “Making good wine involves science and focus and love…and maybe a little bit of superstition.”

We recently spoke with wine writer Katherine Cole to help us frame some of the larger themes in our current documentary project. She took some time away from her current book project to meet us at the Southeast Wine Collective, an urban winery that fosters some up-and-coming winemakers in an urban space that borders the lively restaurant scene on Division street in the Southeast Portland neighborhood.

Katherine Cole in the cellar at the Southeast Wine Collective

Katherine’s voice combines the authority of an expert with the passionate of a true aficionado…on camera she shares that same spark that many of the winemakers we’ve talked to who’ve jumped into this business.

Tom Monroe is one of those who took a leap of faith. Along with his wife, Kate, he founded The Southeast Wine Collective as a home for not only their own Division Winemaking Company, but a number of other incipient brands, winemakers who might lack the capital necessary to plant their own wine estates in Yamhill County, but who’ve got no shortage of enthusiasm and commitment. A few of them were hanging out in the tasting room while we talked with Tom about leaving behind his career in the financial industry in New York, heading for some manual labor gigs in the Loire Valley before deciding to settle in Portland to launch a vision for an urban winery he first conceived in graduate school.

Thomas Monroe behind the bar at the Southeast Wine Collective

We find fascinating wine people at every turn, and it’s tempting to keep on shooting, but we’ll soon be settling into the editing phase of the project.

Last Saturday we shot the live motion portions of our upcoming music video project, ‘The Wind Kept,’ with guitarist Brave Julius. With an amazing, cinematic song to work with, our hard-working crew and artist Santiago Uceda directing, we’re looking forward to an amazing final product. We hope to debut the video on March 16, 2013 at a benefit concert for the restoration of this amazing theater.

Here are a few production stills:

Actors Dominique Valdovinos and Matthew Flood

Glenn Alexander

Glenn Alexander

We’re trying to cover as much of harvest this year as possible, with shoots at Rex Hill, Cardwell Hill, Brooks Winery and more. The weather’s been great this season, though the rains have started and winemakers are eyeing the weather. It’s an exciting time of year to be in the vineyard and on the crush pad.

Chris Williams of Brooks Winery sorts Pinot Noir clusters

Like any good suburban neighbors hatching a scheme over beers and barbecue, Thomas Jefferson hatched a scheme with Filippo Mazzei, an Italian patriot living on the next hill over from Monticello. Mazzei was an Italian patriot from a well-known wine family. They decided that they’d form a company to produce fine, European style wines on American shores.

But a revolution intervened, and though grapes were planted, they were either trampled by British horses or died due to disease and neglect. Wine was never made.

But now there’s a flourishing wine industry in Albemarle County. We traveled east to connect some of the dots and gather more footage for the film.

For the next set of interviews for Vino Veritas, we traveled east, to Virginia, to learn a little about the birth of the wine industry in America. Most think of the West Coast as the original home to American wine, but in truth early colonists were required to plant vinifera, and Thomas Jefferson even was a partner in a fledgling wine company with his Italian-born neighbor, Filippo Mazzei.

Andy Reagan is now winemaker on Mazzei’s former estate. The vineyards are new…now grafted on disease resistant American rootstock. But Jefferson’s dream of fine wine production in Virginia lives on after a hiatus of a pair of centuries.

And another Italian vigneron now tends the vineyards on Monticello. Gabriele Rausse helps to produce an estate wine at Monticello while also consulting with area wineries and producing his own label of Virginia grown wine. Gabriele’s connection to Jefferson goes well beyond horticulture, though, as he’s found a philosophical resonance in the words of the founding father.

And yet another Italian-born winemaker is heading production at Barboursville Vineyards, one of the oldest and most recognized wineries in the state. Luca Pascina grew up in Italian wine country and knew he wanted to be a winemaker at a very young age. And he’s settled into the lifestyle and landscape of Virginia, where the challenges of weather and excess rain don’t keep him from producing award-winning wines, or even deciding that they should skip a poor year if that’s what it takes to maintain their reputation of excellence.

We captured interviews and and tried to uncover the early roots of American winemaking in an effort to connect this story to what we’ve been covering in the Midwest and West Coast. We’ll share a video of extras from the trip soon.

Back in February we captured a fantastic pair of interviews from different vantage points on the wine industry. So far we’ve been mainly talking to winery owners, growers and winemakers, but the oenological universe is much bigger. We stopped at Cork, an innovative bottle shop on Portland’s trendy Alberta Street where we talked with owner Darryl Jonnides and PDX-based wine writer Katherine Cole.

Katherine Cole

Katherine brings a fresh voice to wine writing. From her column in the Oregonian to her book on biodynamic wines, she covers wine with the eye of a trained journalist, but with a passion of the oenologically obsessed. She’s not afraid to admit that some wines even reduce her to tears. We talked about how she found her way to the food beat and also discussed the state and future of the Oregon wine industry.

Darryl talked about his path from environmental attorney to restauranteur and now owner of a wine shop with a sustainable bent and a customer-driven mindset. We discussed the role of the retailer in the industry as well as trends and Cork’s unique organizational model where wines are arranged by price rather than varietal or style.

Darryl Jonnides

I can’t believe it’s taken me four months to get a blog post up, but we’ve been busy shooting and planning for the home stretch on the documentary, plus a few other projects. Look for a few more posts on recent interviews, including a trip to Monticello and Virginia’s wine country, plus an overhaul of the website. Cheers!

Our latest interview for the documentary took us to the technical side of winemaking. Elizabeth Clark didn’t set out be a winemaker. A lifelong wanderer with a background in Math and Russian, she’s almost surprised to have found herself in the wine industry since 2000. After working for a catering company in Oregon’s wine country, she was herself drawn to the cellars of the numerous wineries in the Willamette Valley, and eventually convinced legendary Amity winemaker Myron Redford to give her a shot.

She’s now worked her way up from cellar rat to winemaker for Airlie Winery in Oregon’s Coast Range. And in a state where pinot noir is the dominant variety…and in a business where red wines are often given preferential treatment over their pale cousins…Elizabeth isn’t afraid to unabashedly pledge her allegiance to white varietals, in whose subtlety and variety she finds more intrigue and challenge.

Elizabeth knows blending…and her biggest challenge is Airlie’s Seven, which combines seven different Willamette Valley whites. The goal is a balanced wine where no single variety dominates, and all of the flavors play nice together in an ideal combination of food friendliness and drinkability.

We had a chance to talk about the science of blending for Vino Veritas. Wine is blended for any number of reasons, not just to produce new creations like Airlie’s Seven. On the day that we spoke, Elizabeth was combining different lots of pinot gris. Blending is a painstaking process where science meets instincts, and an Excel spreadsheet is only there to augment the winemaker’s judgement.

Elizabeth’s blog is an approachable and interesting conversation about winemaking where she teaches customers and others in the industry about her craft. Blending is only one of the winemaking processes we hope to cover in the finished film.

Three Crows filmmaker Justin Smith’s new documentary, Relentless, is coming out this winter. It traces a year in the life of a team of OSU engineering students who build and race a formula car on an a grueling international circuit.

Justin captured the personalities behind the team and followed them to Germany and the UK to document the highs and lows of the competition.

By his own reckoning, Chris Czarnecki, executive chef at the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon, is “living the dream.” He can’t imagine anything else he’d rather do than head the kitchen in a fine dining restaurant surrounded by the local bounty of the Willamette Valley, not to mention some of the most noted pinot vineyards on the planet. While cooking in the Army in Iraq gave him valuable perspectives on stress and heat, growing up in a culinary family laid the foundation for his life’s work.

Chris Czarnecki

A fourth-generation chef, Chris took over the helm upon his father’s retirement in 2008, and since he’s been balancing maintaining the restaurant’s famous standbys with the invention of new dishes that allow him to pursue his creative impulses. He devotes two morning a week to kitchen experiments where he carries on his father’s “Freestyle Cooking,” a term Jack Czarnecki coined long before “fusion” was mainstream.

Chris Czarnecki in the Joel Palmer House wine cellar

Chris draws plenty of inspiration from the impressive wine cellar beneath the historic home that is stocked with more than five hundred different pinots, most of them from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. He’s even created his own label through a partnership with Stag Hollow Vineyards in Yamhill County.

Shrimp being prepped in the Joel Palmer House commercial kitchen

Because you can’t make a film about wine without talking about food, I interviewed Chris about his experiences as a chef in the midst of one of the most noted wine regions in the world. He provided a chef’s perspective on food, cooking and pinot noir.

When talking to one of Oregon’s original wine growers, I learned something about the human pioneering spirit, namely that it never diminishes. Dick Erath started selling Oregon wine from a card table in his garage. Now he lives perched on a hill with a view of some of the most noted vineyards in the world, evidence of an industry that he helped to build.

I asked him if he ever thinks about his role in founding a new and celebrated wine region.

“Nope,” he says without hesitation.

And I believe he answers this way partly due to his confidence and humility, and partly because he doesn’t take the time to reflect. He’s too busy following his curiosity.

Now that he’s stepped aside from heading the wine label that he built from the ground up, he’s no less enthused about the pursuit to which he dedicated his life. Only he’s returned to his roots. He’s making wine in his garage, one barrel at a time. “You can experiment more when you’re working with small lots.”

And he’s not really retired from his other life pursuit either: he’s still working on building new wine regions from scratch. He partners with the Bostocks in Arizona, where they’re searching for just the right varieties to bring that rising wine region into wider acclaim. A few days after we met, Erath planned to travel to the Puglia region of Italy to investigate different, rare varietals that might fare well under Arizona’s harsh conditions.

Dick Erath’s pioneer days are far from over.

Spending a few days in Arizona wine country gave me the bug almost more than anywhere else I’ve been. They’re just starting out, just figuring out what works and what doesn’t, and it’s the closest thing I’ve seen to capturing that incipient, pioneering spirit that must have been present in the early days of Oregon.

Here’s a wrap-up of the trip with some vignettes of the folks at Charron and Dos Cabezas, who graciously opened their wineries to me and shared their stories.

We’re excited that a clip from Vino Veritas is in this year’s Wine Spectator video contest. We’re hoping that folks following the project will take time to vote early and often until September 18th.  We’re honored that they chose our piece and appreciate the interest in the project.

You can vote here

A trip to Arizona wine country is full of contrasts. You climb out of a valley baking at 117 degrees, where massive dust storms swallow mountains, and you round a bend and see a sign welcoming you to Arizona wine country, rolling green pastures in all directions and nightly monsoons slipping over the mountains to drop curtains of rain on vineyards, delaying the harvest.

Arizona Wine Country

Everything in AZ winemaking is exactly the opposite of what you expect. In the Sonoita AVA, the problem isn’t too little water, it’s too much at the wrong time. The problem isn’t the baking heat and desiccating winds, but winter cold and spring frost. Of course, you’ll find a few expected challenges when making wine in the extremes of Arizona: snakes in the barrel room, for one.

And here you’ll also find winemakers working without a net. They’re defining a region, building it from scratch, trying to find what varietals will work the best in some of the country’s highest, driest and southernmost vinifera vineyards. You’ll find folks like Susan and Milton Craig of Charron Vineyards, who purchased a merlot vineyard between Tucson and Sonoita, where vines are tended next to prickly pear cacti. They’re refugees from the world of IT where they faced a constant struggle against “outsourcing” and “offshoring.” Making Arizona merlot is a job that can never be shipped overseas.

Todd Bostock and son Griffin

And in Sonoita, you’ll find Dos Cabezas Wine Works where Todd Bostock and his wife Kelly run a family operation with big ambitions, not only to create a legacy in wine for future generations of the Bostock clan, but also to prove that world class wines that evoke the unique character of the landscape where they were crafted are possible in Arizona. They want to prove the value of an entire wine region. And if releases like their Pronghorn Vineyard “El Campo” blend are any indication, they’re well on their way.

We’ve captured some great stories in Arizona and discovered that it’s a region with even more stories to tell. I’ll look forward to another opportunity to talk to folks in this region down the road.