Settler, Farmer, Indian Chief

By Karl Klooster

Winegrowers, quite logically, feel a close connection to the land. Tyee Wine Cellars owners Dave and Margy Buchanan feel even more so because Dave’s family has owned the land on which their winery and estate vineyard are situated since 1885.

The 450 acres that remain in family hands were designated as a Century Farm in 1985.

Having planted their first vinifera winegrapes in 1974, the Buchanans were among northwestern Oregon’s first wave of new-era wine pioneers. In 1985, they partnered with then Oregon State University enologist Barney Watson and his wife, Nola Mosier, to start a winery.

When the couples put their heads together to come up with a name for the new venture, the result could have been called indigenous inspiration or perhaps aboriginal ingenuity.

The name they decided upon was Tyee Wine Cellars, in honor of the Kalapooian Indians, remnants of whose encampments were still evident along the banks of streams that pass through the mid-Willamette Valley property.

If Tyee, which means “chief” or “best” in the Northwest Indian dialect, seemed a perfect fit, equally compelling was the strikingly beautiful Northwest tribal art, which centers around semi-abstract animal symbols.

They asked commercial artist James Jordan of Rainier, Ore. to incorporate them into designs for each of the five varietals produced by the winery.

As a result, when you see Tyee wines on retail shelves, they can as readily be identified by the animals on their labels as by the wording—Pinot Noir: a raven; reserve Pinot Noir: a frog; Chardonnay: a crab; Pinot Gris: a salmon; and Gewürztraminer: an owl.

Watson was responsible for crafting those wines in small lots over the course of a 20-year period that ended in 2005, when the Buchanans became sole owners of Tyee.

Having left OSU to help found Chemeketa’s Northwest Viticultural Center, the demands of his work increased to the point where he could no longer bring the needed intensity to the winemaking task.

But the reputation he established for Tyee during those two decades has benefited them greatly going forward.

In 2006, the Buchanan’s daughter, Merilee Buchanan Benson, assumed the role of head winemaker. To say she grew up in the business would be as literal as it gets. Benson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t involved in one way or another.

Her lifelong, hands-on experience in both vineyard and winery—augmented by a degree from the University of Oregon, Chemeketa’s wine program and environmental studies at University of California, Santa Cruz—has allowed her to take the reins at full gallop.

And the results show it.

Tyee won two gold medals at the 2009 World Wine Championships in Chicago this May—the 2006 Estate Barrel Select Pinot Noir scored 92 points and earned the distinction of “Cellar Selection,” the highest rating of all Pinots entered, and the 2006 Estate Pinot Noir scored 91 points and was rated “Exceptional” by the judges.

Starting with the 2006 vintage, the Buchanans have gone all-estate, using only grapes they grow themselves. At its highest point, Tyee’s production reached 2,500 cases. Now they project staying at about 1,500 cases annually.

Further solidifying the small, ultra-premium concept, they have only a few acres remaining that are suitable for vineyard planting. The vast majority of the Buchanan Family Century Farm has been preserved as woodlands and wetlands.

Most of the wine is sold through well-established on- and off-premise accounts in Oregon or directly to consumers at the winery. A small quantity goes out of state, primarily to Colorado, where the Buchanans have developed strong connections.

While Merilee keeps things humming production-wise, Dave and Margy take care of administration and marketing. That involves customer contact, including an occasional junket to the Mile-High City on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.

With Benson, a fifth-generation family member, now solidly ensconced in the business, the elder Buchanans are confident that the legacy they wish to pass on is in very good hands. ◊

Tyee Wine Cellars

Address: 26335 Greenberry Rd., Corvallis
Days: Sat.–Sun. (April–Dec.)
Hours: Noon to 5 p.m.
Information: 541-753-8754;

The Wine Labels

Frog • Reserve Pinot Noir

Most tribes considered the frog to be a successful communicator and an honored keeper of tradition. It heralds the spring season and new life. Frogs carved on house poles and totem poles protect the tribe against bad fortune and the dwelling against damage..

Raven • Pinot Noir

One of the most important mythological creatures in Northwest Coast Indian lore, the raven inhabits many legends. Perhaps, the best known is “Raven Steals the Sun,” a story of how the bird put the stars, the moon and the sun into the sky by tricking the Great Chief who lives at the edge of the world.

Salmon • Pinot Gris

A young Indian boy named Moldy Top ate moldy dried salmon and was turned into one. After living among them for a long time, he was caught by his own father who recognized something special about the fish and dried its skin, returning the boy to his human state. He lived a long life and taught lessons learned from the “Salmon People.”

Crab • Chardonnay

The Great Chief was served by a giant crab who attacked those who angered him. Halibut boy and his grandmother escaped the chief’s wrath and were able to kill the crab, whose chewed pieces were spit into the sea to become the little crabs we relish as food.

Owl • Gewürztraminer

Owl legends abound in the Northwest Indian culture. The wise bird is associated with knowledge and healing power, which it imparts to the shaman. A Tlingit legend tells the story of two children who stole food meant for a big potlatch. Their mother uncovered the truth about the theft by scratching inside their mouths. With aching mouths, they ran into the woods crying “Whoooo, whoooo,” and were transformed into owls. 

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