What it's Like to Grow Up in the Oregon Vineyards
The oldest vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley were established between 40 and 50 years ago, planted by the Letts, the Ponzis, the Sokol Blossers, the Campbells and a handful of others.
Today, the daughters and sons of these early pioneers are in charge of the family wine businesses, finding their own ways to stay competitive in a demanding industry. These second-generation winemakers spent their childhood summers working among the vines, graduating to cellar-rat duty as teenagers. Gradually, they came to grips with the most difficult decision of all—whether to devote their lives to the family wine business.
In the winter of 1965, David Lett, then 25, moved to Oregon with 3,000 grape cuttings and a belief that world-class Pinot Noir could be grown in the Willamette Valley. He would go on to plant the region’s first Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir vines.
Four decades later, his son, Jason, took over as both winemaker and vineyard manager at The Eyrie Vineyards. He’d intended to pursue a Ph.D. in botany and an academic career. But Jason’s thinking began to change in 1997, when he returned home to help with a particularly wet and difficult harvest. He remembers standing in the middle of the vineyard in the pouring rain and covered in mud, “grinning from ear to ear, thinking this is the best thing ever.”When Jason proposed to stay on at the winery, his folks “were a little taken aback. First of all, Dad was not going to stop making wine. But we decided it would be interesting to try working together.”
It didn’t quite work. After three years, he decided to leave again.
“Making all the day-to-day decisions was a huge jump. I realized that the career path I’d been looking for had been in my backyard all the time.”
Before he returned for good, Jason worked at Oregon State University. While there, he bred new strains of berries, set up a cabinet-making enterprise, did vineyard work at Bishop Creek Cellars and started his own label, Black Cap.
“Making all the day-to-day decisions was a huge jump,” he says. “I realized that the career path I’d been looking for had been in my backyard all the time.”
When his father’s health began to decline, the future of Eyrie was at stake. Jason’s terms to return: “If I come back, I want to be in charge.”
After months of negotiation, David agreed.
The deal came with a warehouse full of unreleased wines. David had been putting them aside for decades, determined to prove that Oregon wines could age. Each year since 2008, Jason has opened a portion of that inventory, dumping the oxidized bottles, reblending the others and rebottling them.
“Basically it’s a long, roundabout way to make sure we can release vintage wines with the same quality assurance and consistency that people expect from our present vintages,” says Jason. “It’s labor intensive, but it’s a fantastic way to circle back to Dad’s original idea and support the validity of the Willamette Valley as a source of great Pinot Noir.”
The Ponzis quickly followed the Letts into Oregon, and Luisa celebrated her first birthday in their new home. She remembers putting the first vine cuttings in the ground in 1970.
“I was the one who covered them up with dirt,” she says with a smile. “My nickname was Slug.”
The Ponzis first harvest was in 1974, when members of the Oregon wine industry could be counted on two hands, with fingers to spare. And as she grew older, Luisa began to realize that in some ways, they were outsiders.
“When I was finishing high school, it was actually quite embarrassing,” she says. “I wished my parents were doctors and lawyers with normal jobs. I was proud, but we were very different. I remember getting on the bus one day, and we had just added to the vineyard and we had all those milk cartons out there, and my friends said, ‘Are you guys trying to grow milk?’ ”
“The lab was where I saw the hard work and science come together. That was an epiphany for me.”
A self-described “science kid,” she went off to college determined to study pre-med. That began to change when her father, Dick, invited her to help with the 1991 harvest.
“He was very clever,” she says. “He put me into the lab. The lab was where I saw the hard work and science come together. That was an epiphany for me.”Thinking she needed some formal training, she apprenticed and studied in Beaune, France, at Domaine Roumier, and in Piedmont with Luca Currado. In 1993, she was awarded the Certificat Brevet Professionnelle d’Oenologie et Viticulture, at the time the only woman to earn such distinction.
When she returned to Oregon later that year, Dick handed her the winemaking reins.
“I think the father-daughter transition is much easier than the father-son transition,” says Luisa. “For the first couple of years, he was there with me. But by 1996, he was pretty hands off.”
Her wines have evolved into some of the most expressive and complex in Oregon, and the winery now produces 50,000 cases annually. The next challenges? Purchasing vineyards and pushing for a new American Viticultural Area (AVA).
“We just finished the application for a Laurelwood AVA, a sub-AVA of Chehalem Mountains,” says Luisa.
As she looks ahead to her 23rd vintage as winemaker, Luisa awaits eagerly for the day that her four children decide where their lives will lead.
Pat Dudley and her husband, Ted Casteel, were among the beginning of the second wave of Willamette Valley winemaking. They founded Bethel Heights in 1977, in partnership with Ted’s twin brother, Terry, and his wife, Marilyn. Ted grew the grapes, and Terry made the wine.
Ben, the son of Terry and Marilyn, spent many summers in the vineyard alongside his brother and cousins.
“We basically all grew up as indentured labor,” he says. “For the most part, they had us doing shoot positioning, keeping the vineyard tidy, suckering—stuff that small kids could understand. And backbreaking work for anyone over 5-foot-5!”
In college, he majored in English, intent on a teaching career. He’d grown up loving English literature, he says, because living way out in the country meant they had no access to cable TV. Reading was his main recreation.
In 1999, after four years of college and deep in debt, he decided to postpone grad school.
“As an English major without any skills to speak of, I asked my dad what I should do,” says Ben. “He suggested I apply for work in Burgundy.”
That experience transformed his life. Returning home after working the harvest in Burgundy, he suddenly found himself “very hirable.” Rex Hill brought him on board, and he quickly rose to cellar master.
“As an English major without any skills to speak of, I asked my dad what I should do. He suggested I apply for work in Burgundy.”
“I was beginning to see the whole winemaking process borne out over a full calendar year,” he says. “It was a powerful moment. The importance of the work doesn’t stop, but the pace slows.”
Five years flew by at Rex Hill. When his father announced his impending retirement, Ben jumped in.
“I started as winemaker on January 1, 2005,” he says. “I was 27 years old and very much in over my head. He put the keys in my hand and went driving away.”
A decade later, Ben oversees a 12,000-case operation, content to remain at that size.
“We are zigging where the rest of the industry is zagging,” he says. “But if we were bigger, we’d be out selling rather than here staying close to the process.
“I never wanted to dramatically change the Bethel Heights style. If you have a good piece of ground, I think you can only get in the way of it.”
Alex’s path to his current role as winemaker for his family’s 90,000-case winery was a bit more convoluted. It was in 1970 that his parents, Bill and Susan Sokol Blosser, purchased an abandoned prune orchard and set about winemaking. They fit right in with the other Oregon wine pioneers, in that they all didn’t know what they didn’t know.
He says the best times were during harvest. One late-1980s crush stands out. “A crazy young Frenchman” named Benoit came from Beaune, France, to work with them, and it marked a turning point in Alex’s thinking.
“It really hit me that I was in an industry that was more than just a lot of work,” says Alex.
Benoit insisted that winemaking was something beautiful and important, and his passion made a lasting impression.
“I remember coming down into the winery one afternoon, and Benoit was fighting with our winemaker,” says Alex. “He’d taken off all his clothes to do punch downs. It was Old World meets the New World, right here at Sokol Blosser. It left an impression that I haven’t forgotten.”
“Sales gave me a different view. You can make great wine, but if you can’t sell it, you’re nowhere.”
Following short stints at several colleges and a term in the Air Force Reserves, Alex took seasonal work at Archery Summit Winery and other nearby wineries. That was followed by a sales position at Columbia Distributing. Only in 1998 did he return to a fulltime sales job at Sokol Blosser.
“This was when I realized that I love the industry,” he says. “I’d been trying to escape its gravitational pull, but kept going back to it. Sales gave me a different view. You can make great wine, but if you can’t sell it, you’re nowhere.”
Fast forward to 2013, when winemaker Russ Rosner decided to retire, and Alex finally took the reins. He’s jumped into experiments with native yeast, different maceration procedures, lower barrel toast levels and more. The popular Evolution wines will continue as before, while the estate Pinot Gris and Pinot Noirs will be the ones, he expects, that will change the most.
Looking back, he offers this advice: “Once you’re married and settled, it’s very hard to work someplace else. Do it when you’re young and single. That really is a huge résumé builder if you want to make wine for a living.”
Following harvest in 1989 at the family’s Elk Cove Vineyards and his high school graduation, Adam decided to take a gap year before college.
He traveled through Europe and visited with some of the many wine families that the Campbells had met over the years. Still unsure about a career, he returned to study political science at Lewis & Clark College.
Parents Pat and Joe Campbell planted their first 10 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay when Adam was just 4.
“I always say that the Campbell kids were Elk Cove’s first workforce, and that’s why we all ran away from home as soon as we were able,” says Adam.
“If you don’t have that passion, it just seems like a lot of work. For me, it’s not work at all.”
On a serious note, Adam says: “My brothers and sisters like wine, and the property we grew up on. But the people who are successful truly love wine and the chance to make something creative.
“If you don’t have that passion, it just seems like a lot of work. For me, it’s not work at all. When I’m on the tractor or forklift, I’m constantly thinking about everything you can do to push the envelope on quality.”
In 1994, after he spent his junior year abroad, he decided to come back home. He took over running the vineyards, with his mom managing sales and his dad doing the winemaking. Over the next five years, a natural transition into winemaking followed.
“When you put all your love into the vineyard, you start wanting more input into the final product,” says Adam. “In 1997, I began to work with my dad on the winemaking. After I took over in 1999, he’s really never said anything other than ‘Good job, son.’ He realized he had to step away.”
Elk Cove is transitioning to 100% estate grown wines from its 350 acres of vineyard. The Pike Road label blends purchased Willamette Valley grapes with fruit from the estate’s young wines.
“My parents get to do the fun stuff now,” says Adam. “We had a great wine club dinner recently, and they got to meet the customers, have a nice dinner and get thanked by 100 people who love what they started here.”
- 1Jason Lett
- 2Luisa Ponzi
- 3Ben Casteel
- 4Alex Sokol Blosser
- 5Adam Campbell