Roses to Red Wine
By Janet Eastman
Brian Jordaan was growing roses in Zimbabwe in 2004 when he was forced off his father’s land at gunpoint. He was told by the leader of an angry mob that he would be paid nothing for his 3,000 acres. He had no choice but to accept.
Jordaan, his wife Carien and their four children – who were 7, 6, 3 and 2 at the time – escaped with 12 quickly packed suitcases.
Their destination: Of all places, Medford, Oregon, where a friend of Carien’s was able to get her a job as an occupational nurse. Without a work permit, Brian became a stay-at-home dad. He dreamed of finding a career in which he could use his hands, tap his deep knowledge of farming and perhaps the couple’s appreciation of wine.
Fast forward to today: Brian Jordaan has just bottled 400 cases of 2008 Eliana, a Bordeaux blend that debuted at the World of Wine Festival, Southern Oregon’s August wine competition in Gold Hill and won a Silver medal.
The wine represents not only uncountable hours of the Jordaan family working together on leased land, but a new beginning.
“It’s a chance to start over,” said Jordaan, age 39. “And we feel incredibly lucky to be here.”
Many of Oregon’s noted wine pros are enjoying encore careers: Bill Hatcher was a financial planner for billion-dollar corporations before starting A to Z Wineworks. Earl Jones retired as a clinical dermatologist and introduced Spanish grapes to the Umpqua Valley through Abacela. Dave Palmer was an Air Force fighter pilot, and his wife, Pamela, had a degree in dental hygiene before buying Jacksonville Vineyard and creating the Fiasco label.
But for Jordaan, producing wine is an extension of his farming, his father’s sacrifices to buy land in his native Zimbabwe, and his father-in-law’s encouragement to start a new business and reassurance to Jordaan that on that one frightful day, he made the right call.
Back in 2000, people adopting Zimbabwe’s controversial land reform policies had seized much of the minority white-owned farms. Jordaan’s farm was divided, leaving him with just 30 acres to grow roses for the European market. One afternoon, four years later, he was confronted by a mob, telling him that if he didn’t leave, they would beat him and brutalize his wife and children.
“It was 3 o’clock in the afternoon, and we were told we had until 6 a.m. to pack up and leave,” he recalled. “We went into the house, closed the doors and hunkered down in a room. I lined up my firearms and had this incredible feeling that this was it: Either I fight for my family’s life and get out alive, or I don’t survive.”
Just then, the Black Boots riot squad broke down the gate and the front door of his house and asked, “Do you want to leave freely?” Jordaan answered, “Yes.” They told Jordaan which valuables to leave behind, and the family escaped.
Recently, Jordaan decided to name his wine “Eliana” because the name means “God has answered” in several languages. The label on the back of his bottle states that Jordaan “manicures” the 2,300 vines producing his grapes. A visit to the three-acre vineyard in Ashland proves this.
The 12-year-old vines of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon benefit from steady sunshine, fine Carney clay and well-draining Brader-Debenger soils, and Jordaan’s hawk-eyed attention.
Retired attorney Stan Shulster and his classical musician wife, Katie McElrath, own the vineyard near their home and were looking to lease it when they met Jordaan. Shulster inquired about the farmer and found that Jordaan had an exemplary reputation.
“People told me what a decent, kind, innovative and hardworking person he is,” Shulster said. “I now know how hard he works because I can see the headlights of his car approaching at 2 in the morning and I see him again at 5 o’clock at night. If anything needs attending to, he attends to it.”
Before agreeing to the lease, Shulster also wanted to meet Jordaan’s family. “I didn’t want to do business with just the man but someone committed to producing something exceptional with the support of his wife and children,” Shulster explained.
After Shulster met Carien and their children, Jana, Kaylyn, Johan and Bryonie, the deal was sealed. “The children are very well-mannered, and we felt he would have the same effect on his work,” Shulster said. “We now view his success as our success.”
Jordaan signed a lease with the Shulsters in February 2008. He and his family have spent long hours in the sun, rain and frost, babying the vines.
They and their friends harvested on three different days in 2008 and Brian and Carien drove a truck full of grapes each time to Eola Hills Wine Cellars in Rickreall, which provides custom crush services. There, winemaker Steve Anderson aged the 56 percent Merlot, 28 percent Cabernet Franc and 16 percent Cabernet Sauvignon in neutral oak, then bottled it this May.
Jordaan intends to sell his very limited 400 cases at select restaurants, including Madrone Kitchen & Wine Tavern in Shady Cove, and online at www.elianawines.com.
Madrone restaurant owner Helena Darling says the 2008 Eliana has “a satisfying red ‘muscle’ and a pleasing spice that aligns it with the hickory roast beef dishes on our dinner menu.” She is also using the Bordeaux blend in an herb, plum and tomato gelée.
Today, Jordaan smiles at his new career, one that nourishes his farming soul, gives outlet to his perfectionism and could eventually support his family.
“Everything I had in Zimbabwe was just money and memories,” he said. “It was a great life, and we’re grateful for what we had, but it was time to move on. If being forced out had not happened, we wouldn’t be here making wine.”
Janet Eastman writes for national publications and covers Southern Oregon wine for www.examiner.com. Her work can be seen at www.janeteastman.com.