Page Knudsen Cowles shows a map of the replanting being done at Knudsen Vineyards. ##Photo by Jade Helm

Rekindling Knudsen

Children of famed Oregon winegrower continue legacy

By Jade Helm

In the not too distant past, planting wine grapes in Oregon was a novel idea. Many Oregon vineyard sites were as small as two to four acres. The Oregon Economic Development Commission published a promotional brochure encouraging the establishment of wine grape vineyards. Pioneers like Dick Erath were still working their day jobs. In 1971, this was the environment in which Cal Knudsen and his wife, Julia Lee, purchased 200 acres of land in what is now the Dundee Hills AVA. The intention was to fuel a personal passion and invest in Oregon’s wine future.

“Dad always was a visionary,” Page Knudsen Cowles explained.

In 1975, the Knudsen Erath winery partnership formed the first commercial facility in the Dundee Hills. Having traveled in Champagne, Knudsen was interested in making sparkling wine in Oregon; then, in the early 1980s, a bubbly was produced under the Knudsen Erath winery label.

“It was called Oregon Brut, and we served it at my wedding,” Page recalled. “I remember saying, ‘It’s pretty good, isn’t it?’

Cal Knudsen discovered a shared passion with Argyle’s founding winemaker Rollin Soles. In 1987, he signed a grape supply agreement with Argyle Winery and became part of Oregon’s sparkling wine story.

Page refers to her father as a visionary, a man of great passion and a business leader. While maintaining a separate career, Cal had daily phone calls and weekend site visits with his vineyard manager, Allen Holstein. Holstein, now head of vineyard operations for Argyle, including oversight of Knudsen Vineyard, increased Cal’s 60 acres of vines to 120. These were huge plantings for the time.

“We were always pushing the envelope, and it was trial by fire,” Holstein said. He was in charge of balancing the budget but Cal was in charge of the checkbook and was ready to experiment. “I always went along with his ideas, kicking and screaming,” Holstein laughed. “Man, I miss him.”

Page recalls hearing others remark about her father. A gathering at the 2008 International Pinot Noir Celebration led to an impromptu sharing of “Cal” stories. Page had the privilege to hear Harry Peterson-Nedry, Bill Stoller and others speak fondly of her father in his presence. This was the July before Cal Knudsen passed away the following April.

One of Cal’s wishes was to see the entire vineyard replanted. Unfortunately, he never saw this wish come true during his lifetime, but his children are making it happen. In 2006, a seven-year replanting program began, allowing for better clonal selection, phylloxera-resistant rootstocks and general vineyard improvements. Holstein, who has directed the replanting, says, “All of the lessons we learned while Cal was alive are being applied to the replanting. His vision lives on.”

Each of Cal’s children followed individual pursuits in business and finance fields throughout the country. “All four of us bring different skill sets to this enterprise,” Page explains. Colin Knudsen works in investment banking in New York. David Knudsen is the president and CEO of Ostrom Mushroom Farms and resides in Texas. Calvert Knudsen Jr. works in the auto parts delivery industry in Washington. Page, who has spearheaded the replanting initiative and manages the relationship with Argyle, is a graduate of Harvard Business School and Yale College; she lives in Minnesota.

Cal’s children recognize the family asset and legacy of Knudsen Vineyards. “This land is part of our DNA. We want to get our children, Cal’s grandkids, involved,” Page said. A granddaughter is working on the Knudsen website and a grandson plans to study agriculture and enology.

Knudsen Vineyards, under the leadership of Cal’s children, is set to release its first wine label in 25 years. Argyle winemaker Nate Klostermann, with the assistance of Rollin Soles, is also serving as the winemaker for Knudsen Vineyards.

Klostermann describes the Pinot Noir as “expressive of the silky texture of the Dundee Hills, and the prettiness and elegance of the Knudsen Vineyard site.” According to the winemaker, “The Knudsen family prefers a style using less new oak. Expect a Pinot Noir with purity of fruit that shows well upon release and can age at least 10 years.”

The 2012 Pinot noir is in limited release — 100 cases — this fall. Beginning in 2015, watch for annual spring releases of Chardonnay from the Dijon clones planted during the vineyard overhaul.

Knudsen Vineyards continues to be the primary vineyard site for Argyle and plans to increase production under the Knudsen label to 2,000 cases in five years.

“Good things are about to happen,” Page added.

Jade Helm is the primary author of Tasting Pour, a blog about wine, cocktails and food. She is a Certified Specialist in Wine (Society of Wine Educators) and has earned a diploma from Wine & Spirits Education Trust.


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