From Far-Away Norway

By Karl Klooster

Wine is a truly international commodity. Even a relatively small winegrowing region like Oregon boasts vineyard and winery owners who have migrated here from Europe, as well as other areas of the world.

France, Italy, Switzerland, Portugal, Iran and Japan are all represented by talented industry members, along with Norway.


That Scandinavian nation is way too far north for winegrapes to be grown successfully. What’s more, alcoholic beverages there are sold exclusively through the state-controlled Vinmonopolet, so imports are exorbitantly expensive.

For a Norwegian to venture from the North Sea to the Northwest with the intention of establishing a winery, then, is far from your run-of-the-mill “driven by a passion to make great Pinot Noir” Oregon wine story.

As Dag Johan Sundby tells the tale, wanderlust led him to travel the world. Along the way, he acquired a love of fine wine that compelled him to exchange his roving lifestyle for a more settled one in the Willamette Valley.

In 2004, Sundby decided to devote some time to experiencing more of the U.S. He wound up spending most of it with Ray McCall, an old friend and business partner of his father’s.

They played golf and sipped Oregon Pinot Noirs. The former, he said, was below par. But the latter was anything but.

Oregon Pinot became their passion. Before you knew it, the two found themselves traveling to Northwestern Oregon in search of vineyard land.

January 2005 was the unlikely time of year that Sundby and McCall came across just what they were looking for. The weather may have been wet, cold and dreary, but the acreage on Highway 99W, four miles north of Rickreall, brought a bright ray of sunshine to their quest.

It was no coincidence that the property they chose was adjacent to that of another fledgling winery, Left Coast Cellars. Its owners are friends who told them this choice property was available.

With their decision, Johan Vineyards was born. Regrettably, McCall fell ill and wasn’t able to participate in the new business. Dag’s father, Nils Dag Sundby, then decided to join with his son to make this exciting American investment truly a family affair.

Giving it a uniquely Norwegian touch, they adopted the legendary Oseberg ship, an elaborately decorated ninth century Viking vessel, as their logo. Representations of the mythical Yggdrasil ash, or World Tree, adorn the top of promotional materials.

Six months after acquiring the property, Sundby decided he needed a stronger grounding in business; so he enrolled in the International MBA program at the University of Denver.

It was a fortuitous move in more ways than one. Not only did he further his education, he also found the love of his life. On a flight back home for the holidays in December 2005, he sat next to a young woman named Alison Hall who lived in Denver.

They hit it off. When he returned from Norway, they started dating.

The couple married in August 2008. Alison has since earned her law degree and sat for the Oregon bar exam.

They are now awaiting the results, as well as application of the finishing touches to their new home, in the final stages of completion at Johan Vineyards.

Sundby is obviously not the kind of guy who settles for second best. His aim is to produce the finest quality wines possible. To help him realize that goal, he brought in two men named Daniel.

Vineyard manager and winemaker Daniel Rinke honed his skills in California, first at Domaine Alfred on the Central Coast and then at Rhys Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains. He was enticed by Sundby to come to Oregon.

A native Oregonian, Daniel Cooper worked in corporate marketing management for 20 years, and then decided to strike out on his own in 2002. Having spent many years in California, he, too, had been seduced by the lure of fine wine.

Sundby presented Cooper with the challenge of building a premium brand from scratch, within the context of a totally hands-on environment and the opportunity to get involved with the winemaking end as well. He readily accepted.

The two Dans are charged with raising and bringing to the marketplace Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Vin Gris, a rosé blend. Of the 1,000-case total from the 2006 vintage, 670 cases feature Pinot Noir.

Sundby plans to more than double before topping out at an annual production of 2,500 cases. The grapes will come entirely from the winery’s estate vineyards, which currently stand at 85 acres.

Johan Vineyards’ 2006 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, its second year, went on the market in August 2008. The warm vintage yielded a lush, ripe wine loaded with mouthfilling fruit and berry flavors, all at a relatively modest $35 per bottle.

The Johan team has worked on major projects throughout 2009. In addition to construction of the Sundby home, 24 acres of vineyard were planted between April and June and a winery, for which ground was broken in January, was ready in time for this year’s crush.

The new tasting room opened Oct. 1, right in the midst of harvest. Complementing their neighbor, Left Coast Cellars, it is open seven days a week from noon to 5 p.m.

Johan Vineyards appears to be an exciting addition to the Oregon wine scene. Its founder may also be the industry’s only native Norwegian.

But not to worry, communication-wise: Sundby speaks English so well you’d think he was from Astoria or Lake Oswego rather than Asker, a suburb of Oslo. 


Johan Vineyards

Address: 4285 N. Hwy. (99W) • Rickreall
Hours: Daily, noon–5 p.m. (Closed in January/February)
Information: 866-379-6029;

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