Members of the Oregon Solidarity Project (left to right): Ed King, Founder / CEO of King Estate Winery; Justin King, co-owner of King Estate Winery; Christine Clair, vineyard leader of Willamette Valley Vineyards; Joe Ibrahim, winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards; Brent Stone, winemaker at King Estate Winery; and Ray Nuclo, Director of Winery and Vineyard at King Estate Winery. Carolyn Wells Kramer for NPR hide caption change caption Carolyn Wells Kramer for NPR Members of the Oregon Solidarity Project (left to right): Ed King, Founder / CEO of King Estate Winery; Justin King, co-owner of King Estate Winery; Christine Clair, vineyard leader of Willamette Valley Vineyards; Joe Ibrahim, winemaker at Willamette Valley Vineyards; Brent Stone, winemaker at King Estate Winery; and Ray Nuclo, Director of Winery and Vineyard at King Estate Winery. Carolyn Wells Kramer for NPR Grape growers in southern Oregon believed they had already confused one of the biggest challenges during the 2018 season – Klondike Fire, which burned over 175,000 acres in July. But on September 22, they met even more devastating news: Copper Cane Wines and Provisions, a Calif-based winery contracting with many growers in the region, would be interrupted grape orders a few days before the harvest would begin, quoting smokers. "We were shocked," says producer Leon Pyle. "We knew we had a lot of smoke, but it wasn't worse than the year before, and last year's wine just turned out good." As words spread north to the Willamette Valley, Ore., Some definite winemakers refused…
Carolyn Wells Kramer for NPR
Grape growers in southern Oregon believed they had already confused one of the biggest challenges during the 2018 season – Klondike Fire, which burned over 175,000 acres in July.
But on September 22, they met even more devastating news: Copper Cane Wines and Provisions, a Calif-based winery contracting with many growers in the region, would be interrupted grape orders a few days before the harvest would begin, quoting smokers.
“We were shocked,” says producer Leon Pyle. “We knew we had a lot of smoke, but it wasn’t worse than the year before, and last year’s wine just turned out good.”
As words spread north to the Willamette Valley, Ore., Some definite winemakers refused to believe that nothing could be saved. As a phoenix rising from the wilderness ash, the Oregon Solidarity project was born. During this new coalition mark, four vineyards came together to buy abandoned grapes and create three wines – a rosé, a chardonnay and a pinot noir – which withdraws all the profits back to the growers.
After receiving email from Copper Cane, Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards began calling his other vineyard accounts to see if anyone was willing to buy extra grapes. One of these talks was that of Christine Clair, winery director at Willamette Valley Vineyards. “I was already three weeks in harvest, worked around the clock and had quite large exchanges in our own vineyard, and I was not very happy to get the call,” Clair says. “I asked him if anyone else was affected. He said to me “yes” and that he estimated over 15 growers and about 2000 tons had been interrupted. That’s when I realized how serious it was. “
Rejected orders were financially damaging to the growers. As Moore explains,” You’re not [just] losing profit. You lose the cost of producing [grapes]. “The impact also reflects the entire industry.” We work all year round and we have 24 full-time people and 60 to 80 people at harvest, “he says.
Currently, research on guaiacol and 4-methylguaiacol – chemical compounds produced by fires – when assessing taint, but there are no set standards to determine what constitutes acceptable levels.
Jim Blumling, Vice President of Copper Pipe Operations and Deposits, says The company harvested grapes from 20 growers they contract with in southern Oregon, then made a small batch fermentation. “When they went through the fermentation process, we tasted the wine and then sent it to three different laboratories to determine whether the grape had compounds that expressed high degrees of the associations that would give smoke or ashtray or soot in the wine’s taste, “he says.
Pam Danielle for NPR
Blumling claims that the company attaches great importance to its taste assessments. “If we felt that it was too much smoke and it was inconsistent with what the wine would typically taste, yes it was a bit of a knock-out factor.”
While copper tubes considered grapes unusable from their tests, “I had three other buyers and they were very happy with their test results,” Pyle says. “They had done it regularly during August and September, and they came up with exactly the opposite conclusions [to Copper Cane’s tests]. The other three buyers are very happy with the wines they are about to make.”
Clair spent the weekend brainstorming solutions, which originally scheming a matchmaking service for growers and vineyards, but saying she “just didn’t do enough tracks to Really feeling it made an impact. “Soon after, she joined Jim and Jan Bernau from Willamette Valley Vineyards, Oregon State Legislature Rep. David Gomberg and the wine writer Jim Gullo to the Rogue Valley to assess the situation. In the car, Clair started emailing Ed and Justin King of King Estate Winery about ways they could help growers. It was during these exchanges that they came up with the idea of the Oregon Solidarity Wines.
Four vineyards – Willamette Valley Vineyards, King Estate Winery, The Eyrie Vineyards and Silvan Ridge Winery – agreed to take in as much crops as short picking time allowed and would pay growers the full value of what they harvested. Grapes would then be brought up to the Willamette Valley and shared between the four properties for production.
Team worked furiously from October 4 to 12 to harvest the fruit, a very short window before grapes became exaggerated. The project added extra layers of work to an already frenetic time. “We did 7,500 wine cases in a week we never planned to do and we did it at four vineyards with four winemakers,” says Clair, who worked as logistics manager and director general of the project. “We all drove on adrenaline and it turned out to be one of the most rewarding things to be part of.”
What began as a partnership between vineyards and growers soon saw the entire Oregon wine industry as a unified front, from production to distribution. Carrie Wynkoop, founder of Cellar503, an online wine club specializing in small-scale Oregon-based wine from across the state, heard about the Oregon Solidarity project after checking in with some of her vineyard partners. “I called Christine Clair and asked how I could help, and we worked together to create a 3-pack,” she says, which is available for sale already on the Cellar503 website.
For the Solidarity winemakers, growers help recover some of the potential loss just by buying grapes was not enough, all the net profits from the sale of the wines will go to the Rogue Valley Vintners, nonprofit Oregon growers association. Clair knows Rogue Valley Vintners is the best resource to decide how to distribute the money, if it redistributes profits to growers, invests in a regional project or finances a new initiative.
Pam Danielle for NPR
The coalition’s work has also taken them outside the vineyard. “We’ve been working on matching [growers] with some low-interest operational loans through the US Department of Agriculture,” Clair says. Outreach to the Governor of Oregon resulted in the creation of a working group that will see both short and long-term financial support for growers.
While Clair says there are currently no concrete future plans for the label, she says there is a willingness among partners to continue. Their mission has touched a nerve in the industry.
Although Blumling explained Copper Cane’s reasoning to cancel orders, “We support the effort,” he says. “Everything we know is from testing and sensory is that they would not meet our standards, but at the end of the day we want the growers to thrive and flourish.”
For the four vineyards, the project created another type of union. “Usually, you don’t produce wine with your colleagues and people you would normally think of your competitors,” Clair says. “We realized what fun opportunity to do this together.”
Shana Clarke is a freelance boyfriend, sake and cocktail journalist who regularly contributes to Wine enthusiast HuffPost ] and Hemisphere and is the wine editor of inside.com . Follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @ShanaSpeaksWine and see more of her work on www.shanaspeakswine.com .