“Lucky” Wine Pioneer Passes

June 2009

By Karl Klooster

Renaissance man” would have been a suitable sobriquet for C. Calvert “Cal” Knudsen, who succumbed to cancer April 24 at his Palm Springs home at the age of 85.

He could also have been called “lucky,” because the fates favored him at certain pivotal points in his life, when things might easily have gone the other way.

Take World War II, for example.

A sophomore at the University of Washington when Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Knudsen promptly enlisted. He seemed a good officer candidate until he flunked the vision test. Though he wore a uniform for the duration of the war, all his time was spent stateside.

He went on to finish his undergraduate studies at U of W in 1948, earned his law degree there two years later, and enrolled in post-graduate studies at Columbia University. He called that time “the most intellectually stimulating of my life.”

After returning from New York, he joined the prominent Seattle law firm of Bogle & Gates and worked there for a decade, from 1951 to 1961, becoming a partner before going into timber industry management.

He moved into top executive positions with Aberdeen Plywood, which merged with Evans Products in 1963, where he became president just a year later.

His next move came in 1969, when he went to the Weyerhauser Company, headquartered in his hometown of Tacoma. All this came during a period when the Pacific Northwest wood products industry was booming.

In 1976 he was tapped for the top spot at Canadian forest giant MacMillan Bloedel in Vancouver, B.C. He retired from active management as CEO in 1983, then served as vice chairman until 1990.

A good luck story Knudsen loved to tell involved the purchase of another lumber company during his tenure as a senior vice president at Weyerhauser.

He closed the deal with a $3 million check he wasn’t authorized to issue, knowing there wasn’t enough in the account to cover it at the time. An anticipated wire transfer went through before anyone was the wiser, but if things had gone awry, it would have meant the loss of his job and likely the end of his career.

He often said it was better to be lucky than smart. But in the big picture, his success was more likely attributable to the old saying about making your own luck.

He got in on the ground floor of Oregon’s wine industry just that way, by making his own luck. A devoted wine buff since traveling through the wine regions of France in the mid-1950s, he made a calculated gamble on unproven ground.

The year was 1971, and only the earliest of Northwestern Oregon’s wine pioneers—Coury, Lett, Erath, Ponzi, Adelsheim, Sokol Blosser—were then on scene.

Though seldom mentioned, Knudsen deserves to be counted among their number.

Following a false start with a property owner who adamantly opposed alcohol, he was able to purchase 200 acres in the heart of the Dundee Hills. He went on to establish what remains today one of the largest—120 acres—and most prestigious vineyards in that esteemed Oregon AVA.

In 1975, he became a partner in Dick Erath’s winery and the name was changed to Knudsen-Erath. Their partnership continued into the late 1980s, when Erath bought out Knudsen’s interest.

Not content with simply owning a vineyard, in 1990 Knudsen and a group of investors bought an ownership interest in Dundee Wine Company, which had been founded three years earlier by Australian wine entrepreneur Brian Croser.

The company’s Argyle brand has since risen to national prominence as Oregon’s largest producer of sparkling wines, using pinot noir and chardonnay grapes from Knudsen Vineyards. Argyle rivals the finest French Champagnes, but with a considerably more palatable price tag.

According to those who knew him well, Cal Knudsen was an ever-optimistic man of many interests—a man who thoroughly enjoyed himself in whatever he did, both personally and professionally. That’s probably because, along with an obvious knack for good luck, whether self-made or serendipitous, he chose exciting challenges. 

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