Legacy of a Champion

OWP Person of the Year: Cole Danehower

By Peter Szymczak

It’s a gloriously sunny autumn afternoon, the day after Thanksgiving, an ideal occasion to savor life and wine with friends. Driving from winery to winery along the twisting country roads in Dundee’s Red Hills, we stop atop Worden Hill, site of Maresh Vineyard. Standing on the hilltop, we take in a panorama of vineyards in full golden senescence. Far off in the distance, Mounts Hood, Jefferson and St. Helens are clearly visible. The air is crisp and chilly, tempered by the warmth of the sun.

“In some ways, the Dundee Hills wine country is the heart of Oregon’s red wine soul,” Cole wrote in his book, “Essential Wines of the Pacific Northwest” (Timber Press, 2010). “It was here that the first pinot noir in the Willamette Valley was planted.”

Those words resonate within me, like a great wine with a soul-satisfying, lengthy finish. Cole loved wine and passed that passion down to me, as a father would with his son.

Friends said they barely recognized Cole during his final months. I didn’t get the opportunity to see him in his thin, cancer-ravaged state. On the one hand, I’m sad not to have been in his presence one last time, but on the other, I feel he spared me that parting visual memento, taking into consideration how in recent years, I’d lived through grueling end-of-life situations with my mother and grandparents. We kept in touch via e-mail instead.

“Don’t know when I’ll be up for a visit, frankly,” he wrote back in June. “I’m incredibly tired; I look like shit, and most days, I feel like shit. My brain is most noticeably not operating well, and it shows when I try to hold a conversation (due to a combination of painkillers, chemo drugs, and anti-chemo side effects drugs).”

Cole was always one for technology. He was the first person I knew to carry an iPhone, which makes sense considering he was the son of an engineer. His dad helped develop the first generation of mainframe computers.

Now, Cole has joined his father in the great singularity. Cole Nevan Danehower died Aug. 21, 2015, at the age of 60, losing a battle with pancreatic cancer that was in all likelihood unwinnable. Just like that, he was gone. Poof.

Cole Danehower and his wife, Andrea ##Photo provided.

Although Cole had made allusions, he didn’t disclose to me the precise nature of “health issues” before Northwest Palate Magazine ceased publishing. In a serious tone, he said he’d been consulting specialists and might have to pull back from work for a while, although that never happened.

He wrote more and worked harder. He penned his encyclopedic book about the Pacific Northwest’s wine regions, while simultaneously struggling to keep afloat his regional culinary travel magazine. Every week he devoted at least a day to tasting through as many wines as he could.

Bottles would be arranged on every surface around his office, like cast army men positioned on an imaginary battlefield. Cases of new arrivals waited in the wings for deployment; battalions of boxes shipped in from British Columbia, Washington, Oregon and Idaho, reinforcements for future tastings.

Meticulously, Cole brown-bagged each bottle and tagged it with vintage, variety and price. The uniformed soldiers stood at attention on the tasting table, awaiting triage.

Cole was a veteran of hundreds, more likely thousands, of informal and formal wine judgings, including the Oregon State Fair, Greatest of the Grape, World of Wine, Portland Indie Wine Festival, the McMinnville Art & Wine Classic, the Portland Seafood & Wine Festival and Sunset Magazine International Wine Competition, to name a few. 

He was also a World War I history buff, so I think he’d appreciate the military analogy. The process of tasting wines for review is a bit like war; it’s without question a battle of the taste buds and a test of mental focus.

For Cole, however, it seemed there was nothing he would rather be doing than tasting wines. 

“What should we start with?” Cole asked the first time we tasted together. “Reds or whites?”

I think he was genuinely requesting my preference, but I’d never before tasted wine professionally. 

“Whites?” I guessed timidly.

“Yes! And then we’ll alternate reds and whites to keep the palate fresh,” Cole merrily explained as he poured about two ounces from each bottle into the glasses set before us. We faced each other, mano a mano.

First we swirled, and then we sniffed, plunging our beaks into our glasses, taking big huffs of the aroma. Next, we sipped and slurped, trilling the liquid on the palate, swishing it around a bit more and — spit! 

Over and over, we did this. For hours.

It was fun at first, but became torturous, tedious after a while. During a bathroom break, I glanced in the mirror. Staring back were bloodshot eyes and purple-stained teeth. I looked horrible, yet happy. I was bantering about wine with a master taster.

Based on these sessions, Cole would write about 100 tasting notes for each issue of Northwest Palate. It just came naturally to him; that’s what he did.

Cole Danehower visits Craig (left) and Morgan Broadley (right) at the winery in Monroe (2004). ##Photo provided.

Here’s his description of one wine he found particularly pleasing: “Mellow butter yellow color. Fragrant notes of apple blossoms and peach combine with gentle toast and caramel tones on the appealing nose. Plush in the mouth, with an almost oily texture, the wine delivers full flavors of butterscotch-accented apple and guava fruit, with subtle tones of baking spices in the background. The fruit-sweet mid-palate gives way to a lively acidity that imparts an uplifting feel to the substantial warm fruitiness. Clean, fresh and full of flavor, this is an easy drinking and pairing Chardonnay that will go well with a cold-smoked chicken picnic.”

His prose had swing. He made wine sing. He was the original “Inspired Imbiber” — the name of his blog, at a time when blogging was still cool. He championed wineries great and small. He was a humanitarian and a gentleman; a lover, not a fighter.

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Cole Danehower signs copies of his book, “Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest,” at a Willamette Valley festival. ##Photo by Robert Holmes

Cole began writing about the region’s wines in 1998, when he moved to Oregon. He put out the quarterly Oregon Wine Report, for which he won a James Beard award in 2004. He loved to tell the story of how he used the occasion to alert the “fooderati” in the East about the “wild Northwest.”

“I told them, ’Oregon may seem like an obscure outpost of civilization to you, but it’s not. It’s a center of food and wine activity in its own right,’” he explained to The Oregonian after the awards ceremony.

A few years later, Cole purchased a majority share of Northwest Palate and served as its editor-in-chief from 2006 to 2012. Each issue was packed with coverage of the region’s culinary bounty.

He used his “Starters” column to spotlight real issues of the day, voicing concern about the health of salmon runs and the alarming die off of bees.

But it’s his book that will serve as his lasting legacy. In it, he extrapolated his grand unifying enological equation: “Great wine = (place + plant) x people.” 

Cole’s genius was to factor in “terroir,” but multiply it by the influence of those men and women who grow the grapes and make the wine. Conversation and collaboration are the paths to full appreciation. It was his way of defining sense of place, and how fortunate we are to live in this wonderland of food and wine.

Peter Szymczak is the former editor of Northwest Palate Magazine. His work has appeared in The Oregonian, Sip Northwest and OWP. He lives in Dundee.

Cole Danehower and Monty ##Photo provided.

The Cole Danehower Memorial Fund

The family, friends and wine community of Oregon have established the Cole Danehower Memorial Fund to honor the legacy of Cole and his contributions to the development of the Oregon wine industry. The scholarship’s intent is to provide financial assistance for a student enrolled in an enology, viticulture, hospitality or culinary arts program with an emphasis on wine. It will be available to a student in 2016. Office of Student Access and Completion (OSAC) has a secure online donation page. Gifts to OSAC scholarship funds are deductible as charitable contributions.

For more information or to make a donation, please visit www.oregonstudentaid.gov

Loved, Admired, Deeply Missed

“Now with his passing, I realize Cole was right. ‘Terroir’ does include people. Cole, in so many ways, contributed his own personality not only to Oregon, but also to the entire Pacific Northwest wine region. Along with the region’s soils and climates, Cole bestowed us with his gift of insight, knowledge, wit and character.”

Cameron Nagel, Northwest Palate founder/co-publisher

“I had known Cole as a customer at my Burlingame Coffeehouse, Papaccino’s, for many years before getting into the wine business. We talked coffee, much like you talk wine. He got wind from an employee that I, with my family, had started a new adventure in 2000 and produced our first vintage in 2003 — this was in 2006, when we were just releasing our Claret and Syrah for the first time. He asked if he could taste the fruits of our labors. I was nervous, to say the least, but, of course, handed him bottles of wine, instead of a cup of coffee over the counter. To my sheer delight, he loved them. This formed another connection for Cole and me. He became one of my go-to people in the wine world. I appreciated his friendship, knowledge and genuine enthusiasm for wine and for life.”

Ruth Garvin, Cliff Creek Cellars

Cole Danehower’s license plate shows his “luv” for Oregon wine. ##Photo provided.

“I’m sure we’ll echo what many others have said already, but Cole was a genuine class act. In a sometimes-exclusive industry, he was a champion for everyone in the Valley, driven by his love of Oregon wines and his desire to see them receive the recognition he knew they deserved. His love and enthusiastic belief in the greatness of Northwest wines was simply infectious; you always knew Cole was rooting for you — and all of your winery peers, too — every step of the way.”

Amber Fries, Duck Pond Cellars

“What a wonderful person. Everybody that came in Shafer Vineyard Cellars always had great things to say about Cole. He had many friends in the Oregon Wine country. I am so glad I got to know him. God bless his family. We here at Shafer Vineyard Cellars send our thoughts to all of his family.”

Miki Shafer, Shafer Vineyard Cellars 

“Cole was one of my favorite people in the Oregon wine industry. He was genuine, nice, thoughtful and professional at all times, but he was also a very caring and supportive individual, easy to talk to, and while he was very articulate, he was a great listener.”

Marcus Goodfellow, Goodfellow Family Cellars

“It was always so nice to be around Cole to share experiences and our knowledge, comments and tasting thoughts on many wines as he was in the shop and always fun to help him discover a new find. Cole was always someone we all looked up to in the industry. At numerous trade events how he would always remember so many peoples’ names. It was so fun to always taste with Cole and compare notes. This was one of the most genuinely human individuals I think I’ve ever come in contact with.”

Mike Wallis, The Cellar on 10th

Cole Danehower tastes with Glenn Fawcett of Black Hills Estate in the Okanagan (2014). ##Photo by Andrea Johnson.

“I, like many others, was graciously welcomed by Cole when I began working in the Oregon wine industry. Shortly after opening Valley Wine Merchants, Cole reached out to me with some wonderful advice and encouragement. I next ran into him at an event in Portland, and, in classic Cole fashion, he excused himself briefly from a conversation to say hello. He said that he still owed me a visit and shared with me that he’d heard many wonderful things about the shop. I have great admiration for the way he weaved through life and this industry; selfless and with endless encouraging words for those trying to find their place. He helped me find mine, and I’ll always be grateful!”

Andrew Turner, Valley Wine Merchants

“Cole was a kind spirit; and though our interactions were limited, he was always positive and kind. Some folks touch you by their demeanor; his was kind, positive and encouraging from the early days of our winery.”

Mauricio Collada Jr. MD, Cubanísimo Vineyards

“During our ‘Wine Happy Hour’ meetings, we would choose a bottle to share and talk about the Oregon wine business, marketing and PR. He was one of my first wine writer associates to share insights as a writer, which helped me as a winery publicist. I will miss Cole and those meetings.”

Carl Giavanti, Carl Giavanti Consulting

“There are so many times I enjoyed his company and so many things he did on the industry’s and our behalf. His remarkably gracious nature, his kindness and emotional intelligence were among his greatest traits. Cole had a remarkable grasp of what mattered about what we did as winemakers. His insight about how people viewed what we did and how we should tell the Oregon story was among his greatest contributions — terroir is inseparable from those who work with the land and the fruit. I remember with today’s clarity how he would introduce Oregon wines and us at conferences and seminars and how it inspired us to pursue our work and how proud we were of how he defined us and of him.”

Jim Bernau, Willamette Valley Vineyards

“Back in those days, when Cole came on the scene, Oregon winemakers were hard-pressed to find support in the media. But Cole understood, enthusiastically, Northwest wines and wrote about them in the context of that understanding and enthusiasm. He was a partisan for Oregon wines at a time when it wasn’t easy or popular. Because he understood the wines implicitly, his interview questions were always germane, and his writing circumspect and reasonable, seasoned by his wry sense of humor. We always looked forward to talking — and drinking wine! — with him. We miss him.”

Don Lange, Lange Estate

“In 2014, we had asked Cole to moderate our first formal vertical of Nicholas Vineyard Pinot Noirs. We remember his presentation to this day. Thinking it would be a nice follow-up, we asked him to join us in May to sell and autograph “Essential Wines and Wineries of the Pacific Northwest.” He happily sold all 24 copies, personalizing autographs and chatting with guests. At the end of the day, he took us aside and broke the news that he was scheduled to start treatment in three days. After cursing the diagnosis together, we asked him why in heaven’s name he wasn’t at the beach or the mountains instead of another wine event. His answer, in true Cole form, was that he wanted to be with us, and had made us a promise to be there. I have the final copy of “Essential Wines” he signed that day. Next to his name he wrote ‘Anam Cara,’ Celtic for Soul Friend.”

Sheila Nicholas, Anam Cara Cellars

Cole Danehower acts as the technical panel moderator at the 2014 Oregon Chardonnay Symposium hosted at Stoller Family Estate. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson.

“Cole, you combined talent with expertise, warmth, wit and compassion. Thank you so much for all you did for our industry and the smiles you brought to those who serve it. Thank you also for being so welcoming to me when I moved here and mentoring to my team. You will be dearly, dearly missed.”

Dixie Lee Huey Trellis, Growth Partners

“I met Cole at one of the first wine tastings I ever participated in within months of Jimi’s passing in early 2005. I remember he was kind. He shared with me his interactions with Jimi, characterizing his boisterous passion for Riesling and winemaking to the point where I could picture Jimi in my head. It wasn’t often in these early days that I can recall a conversation, let alone the effect it had on me. Things were quite blurry at that time.

“I continued to see Cole at various events over the years. He always came to the table with a smile on his face; I could tell he was genuinely happy to see Brooks at the event. There was always a quiet undertone, a deeper look in his eye, one of victory that said, ‘Yes! The legacy continues.’ He would say great things about the wine and question me about what winemaker Chris Williams and I were doing to move Brooks forward. He always ended with compliments and words of encouragement…

“His words always felt like a high-five and a hug. Words that when you are so deep in trying to do the right thing, to make something work, to continue someone’s dream, they make you realize you have made it into your own. The words of someone who saw where you were going before you got there. The words of a true fan. Cole was an ardent, enthusiastic supporter of Brooks and of me.

“I miss you, Cole, but know you are in good company with four of my other top fans: Mom, Dad, Jimi and my sweet Katie. I now have another angel.”

Janie Heuck, Brooks Winery

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