WWC 38 – Lucy Mathews Heegaard

There are 16 more entries to be published in our wine writing competition. Here is the 38th, courtesy of Lucy Mathews Heegaard.  

In my writing at both studio-lu.net and thethirstykitten.com, I highlight the heart and emotion of stories, knowing that when our hearts are tugged a little bit, we are more likely to remember what we have read. My wine writing focuses on 'the little guys' of the wine world – the small producers, often family-owned, with enormous passion for what they create. 

While my blogging work is not a monetised job, I pursue it on the side of my work editing audio, video, photographs and the written word into multimedia stories. I have been studying wine informally for 30 years. One of my fondest achievements was succeeding in getting a story I wrote about one of my favourite local retailers chosen and published on JancisRobinson.com in 2014.

OF PASSION, PLACE AND PIONEERS

A conversation with Page Knudsen Cowles of Oregon’s Knudsen Vineyards

When Cal Knudsen returned home in 1968 from a trip to Champagne and Burgundy, he was smitten with wine. His wife, Julia Lee, may not have realised then how much her husband’s newfound fascination would shape their lives. Yet four years later, she and Cal had bought a 200-acre walnut orchard in the Dundee Hills of Oregon’s Willamette Valley and were planning a vineyard.

'We were always very aware of dad’s passion', says Page Knudsen Cowles, 'and we knew [the land] was ours. We started in 1972 by planting the first rows as a family'.

Though they lived in Seattle, Washington, where Cal was a corporate executive, Cal had begun researching US wine regions after his return from France. Oregon’s cool climate and topography shared enough similarities with Burgundy that a handful of California winemakers had moved north to experiment with planting Pinot Noir there. Cal reached out to this fledgling group and began a partnership with one of them, Dick Erath.

Widely regarded as one of Oregon’s early wine pioneers, Dick had been planting vines on his own land since 1969. Using Cal’s acreage for new vines, the two created the Knudsen Erath label. Cal would commute every weekend from Seattle, driving three hours each way to confer with Dick on planting, growing, and harvesting. Living in the Willamette Valley, Dick was the hands-on steward, implementing their plans and serving as winemaker.

At the beginning of the 1970s, the Willamette Valley was rugged and undeveloped. According to Knudsen family lore, Julia Lee apparently said to Cal, 'Calvert, if you want me to come down there and be with you, you have to build me a place that I’m going to feel comfortable in!'

When Page speaks of the family cabin that resulted, her voice softens. 'They sited it way up on one side of the vineyard', she says, 'so the view is unbelievable'. With the highest elevation vines at 950 feet, the cabin looks out on the newer, southern vineyards, but has a view through the trees of where the original vines were planted to the north. Two bedrooms and one bath with no telephone or television ever installed, Page calls it 'the sweetest place you could ever imagine'.

In 1990, Julia Lee was at the cabin looking out on the vineyards when she passed away. According to Page, 'I’ve been told by Rollin Soles, who is the founding winemaker at Argyle and a great friend of my father’s – considered my dad a real mentor – that he suggested to dad to name that section of the vineyard after our mother. It had just been planted. She had just passed away. It was right where she drew her last breath.

'The other blocks are block one, block two, block three, etcetera', Page continues. 'And that’s the only block that’s named after anyone and it’s after our mother.'

The Knudsen Erath label flourished for over a decade until Cal and Dick parted ways amicably. Cal was longing to explore sparkling wine, and Dick wanted to focus on Pinot Noir. For Cal, this was the beginning of his association with Argyle winery, investing in it, providing Knudsen grapes for Argyle’s wines, and serving as winery chairman for many years. While Argyle produces two wines that are vineyard designates from Knudsen, the Knudsen family name was no longer on wine bottles after the Knudsen Erath era ended.

In 2008, Cal was diagnosed with cancer. By 2009, he was gone. His children – Cal Jr, Colin, David, and Page – had begun to learn the business and plan for the future with him, but his death came more quickly than anyone expected. While they knew they wanted to keep the vineyard, they took two years to study the business in detail before deciding what to do with it.

“We were very aware of the value of our asset in terms of it being a sustainably grown, well-tended vineyard. We knew we wanted to continue good viticultural practices so that we would be good stewards of our land', Page shares. The siblings decided that the best way to honour both the land and their parents’ memories was to put the family name back on wine bottles again. They began making wine for themselves.

Page is now the managing partner of Knudsen Vineyards, but all four siblings are involved in the business. 'It’s a great way to be together as a family', she says. Blending each vintage with winemaker Nate Klostermann is like a reunion. The siblings, their spouses and now some of the third generation convene to taste and help make decisions on what to bottle. 'And one of our collective children', she adds, 'is a junior in the Cornell viticulture and oenology program.'

Beginning with 100 cases of 2012 Pinot Noir, the family added 100 cases of Chardonnay the following year. Tasting the 2013 Pinot Noir recently, I found it elegant and balanced with bright acidity and a silky finish, classic Oregon Pinot. The 2014 Chardonnay also reflects the acidity of the region with hints of minerality and citrus. Though production has grown to almost 1,000 cases, the family is still happily in the realm of small producers, allowing them to keep a close eye on the quality that matters deeply to them.

When it comes to Oregon’s early wine pioneers, the names mentioned most frequently are those of the families from the Willamette Valley like Erath, Lett, Sokol Blosser, Ponzi, Adelsheim. Though not as famed beyond the Oregon borders as his peers, Cal’s contributions to the development of the wine industry in Oregon are well recognised by his colleagues there.

In 1973, Knudsen Vineyards was the largest vineyard in the Willamette Valley at 30 acres, and by 1976 it was the largest in Oregon at 60 acres. 'We now have 130 acres planted', Page reports. 'We’re not the largest any more, but we still are sizeable as a vineyard goes.'

With the Knudsen name gracing wine bottles again under the attentive care of the next generations, I have a feeling that Cal’s place in the realm of Oregon’s first families of wine may be given its due beyond the Oregon borders before too long. I wonder if Cal ever imagined that sharing his passion for wine with his family would lead to such a legacy.


THE INVISIBLE MIDDLE OF THE US WINE WORLD

A love note to the small distributors of America

I have a wine story to tell, and I’d like to start in the middle. That’s right, the middle. The invisible middle, in fact. Most of us think a lot about the glorious beginnings of wine – vineyards, grapes, golden sunshine on leafy vines – or the delicious end which is, of course, when the first sip hits your palate.

But on the path from vineyard to glass, a lot has to happen. And there is one figure in the process that I would like to give a special nod to, a player who is the smallest of fish in the biggest of seas, someone I would guess most people have never given a single thought: your friendly, local, small wine distributor.

If you are a wine drinker in the United States, you are impacted by a system for selling alcohol that was created when Prohibition ended in 1933. Complex and highly regulated, the 'Three Tier System' dictates that producers of alcohol (Tier I) are not allowed to sell their product directly to consumers. Instead they are required by law to sell it to a licensed distributor (Tier II), who then is allowed to sell it to a licensed retailer (Tier III). That retailer can then sell it to you, the consumer.

Though there have been changes over the years to soften the lines of separation – for instance, rules that allow wineries to sell directly to their customers now – this system largely determines what wines end up on the shelves where you shop. My point is not to argue the system’s merits (or lack thereof) but rather to shine a light on the industrious people who have started small companies in the middle tier. While they are a microscopic part of the big business of wine distribution, they have found fruitful niches specialising in small, often family-owned, wineries whose hands-on labours of love produce gems we might never discover without their help.

These 'little guys' of the distribution world go unnoticed. They do not appear in the news like their mega counterparts, such as Southern Wine and Spirits and Glazer’s Inc who made headlines earlier this year with their merger. Now known as Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits, the company is the largest distributor in the US with 20,000 employees.

Contrasting delightfully, Oeno Distribution in Minneapolis, Minnesota, has two co-owners and three sales representatives. Visiting their warehouse recently, I felt I had gained admittance to an inner sanctum. Cases and cases of wines from small wineries in Washington, Oregon, New York and Michigan (yes, Michigan!) are stacked high in the cavernous room that doubles as their office.

Anthony Abdallah, who owns the business with his sister Amy Mason, talks about how he became acquainted with wine. Working as a server at Blue Water Grill in Manhattan’s Union Square to supplement his income as an actor, he was overwhelmed by the enormous, book-sized wine list. As he tells it, the sommelier said to him, 'Pick one red and one white every night. Come to me and I’ll talk to you about them. Then, talk to your customers about only those two wines all night long.' Anthony continues, 'I started doing as she suggested and realised, Holy cow! I love this.' He went on to get his sommelier certification through the Sommelier Society of America.

Though he left New York for a job with the Omaha Theater Company as lead actor and teaching artist, he continued to study wine. When his sister, also a wine fan, wanted a change from practicing law, she suggested to Anthony they go into the wine business together.

'It’s important for me to feel like what I’m doing has purpose and value to not just me and my bank account but to the world around me', Anthony shares. 'So Amy and I talked a long time about what were going to say about why we’re doing this. Otherwise, we’re just selling alcohol. We wanted to do something to promote small, family-owned business, to promote real agriculture, and to remind people that wine is agriculture.'

They sought out wineries that were family-owned or owned by friends, that had estate-grown fruit, and that were farmed sustainably. 'We’ve done a great job', Anthony noted, 'curating wines that meet all these requirements but also are a value for what they are.' Having sampled some of the wines Oeno represents, like the Riesling from upstate New York by Ravines Cellars, I can attest that 'delicious' must have been a requirement, too.

Page Knudsen Cowles of Knudsen Vineyards in Oregon, works with another of Minnesota’s small distributors, Libation Project. Producing only 1,000 cases a year, Page was glad that Libation was willing to take their account. She likens small wine distributors to independent booksellers who are able to focus on limited production runs and more unique offerings than bigger companies usually can do.

Tyler Melton is among five sales representatives at Libation and works with Page’s family vineyard. He says, 'Bigger companies typically have to worry about continuity, about being able to provide the same wines any time of year and have them available year after year' because the large retailers they supply want to satisfy mass-market tastes.

'We believe', he continues, 'that good wine runs out. And when good wine runs out, it just creates more buzz for when the wine gets released the next year.'

Moving from working at an independent retailer to the distribution side, Tyler shares what he said when he interviewed at Libation: 'I’m never going to sell what you guys tell me to sell. I’m going to only sell stuff that I’m passionate about, and that I think is important for people to have in their stores or on their wine lists.' While a speech like that would not get you hired in a lot of places, it was music to the ears of Libation’s owners.

Jessica de Kozlowski, who is a wine buyer for a Minneapolis area retailer, formerly worked for a small distributor. She says, 'The small distributors do a great job of finding diamonds in the rough... We end up getting really beautiful art in a bottle through what they bring to us.'

Further, she notes, 'When you get into sub-AVAs and microclimates, you find incredible wines that stand out from the more typical fare on the shelves. But in those small niches, the production is not nearly big enough to interest the big distributors, for the most part.'

'With small distributors, it’s more about building relationships with people', Jessica emphasises, 'passing on their stories, and educating buyers on the vineyards and regions. The small distributors do that for us as a retailer and we, in turn, provide that for our customers.'

As Anthony explains, 'We have close relationships with our wineries. The buyers we bring our wines to get to meet the owners, they get to meet the winemakers. It’s very personal with us.' And it’s personal for the wineries, too, Jessica points out, 'Their product is literally their blood, sweat and tears. It’s not just a job for them, it’s often their family tradition.'

We are fortunate in Minnesota to have many small distributors, but there are at least a few in every state in the US. And I am certain that no matter where you are, you will find these traits amongst the small distributors in your area: a passion for wine, a commitment to sharing the stories of the wineries, a focus on long-term relationships, and a quest to find undiscovered treasures.

In honor of these unsung heroes, I propose an experiment: Go to your neighborhood retailer, ask who their favorite local distributors are and what wines they carry from these companies. It is very likely that you will promptly be on the receiving end of some entertaining stories both about the wines and wineries and probably about the distributors who brought them in their door, as well. Best yet, you will leave with some delicious things to sip.

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