From Cels to Cellars

By Karl Klooster

It would be the rare American who hasn’t at least heard of the animated motion pictures Shrek and Monsters, Inc. The sheer volume of media attention these films have attracted would turn the average P.R. person green with envy.

Speaking of green, heroic, obstreperous ogre Shrek was produced by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks, while blue, scaremaster Sulley and his fellow monsters materialized from the fertile imaginations of the folks at Pixar Studios, an affiliate of Disney.

Taking such highly successful, computer-generated films from the heart of a hard drive and bringing them to a cineplex took hundreds of people, thousands of hours and millions of dollars.

A young Portlander named Thane Hawkins was among the talented team of animators who worked on both projects. He earned his stripes, so to speak, in the mid 1990s interning with a small, New York-based animation house called Blue Sky Studios.

Blue Sky eventually hit the big time with a totally cool concept called Ice Age. Though Hawkins had moved to the West Coast before that idea got red hot, his skills were in demand and he landed a job in L.A. with the then 3-year-old Dreamworks SKG.

The year was 1997, and the project was Antz, DreamWorks’ first animated film and one of the first of its genre to feature major actors for character voices. They included Woody Allen, Sylvester Stallone, Jane Curtin, Gene Hackman, Dan Aykroyd, Anne Bancroft, Danny Glover, Jennifer Lopez, Christopher Walken, Sharon Stone, John Mahoney and Paul Mazursky.

As much as it’s fun to be able to mention names like these in a wine column, Hawkins was the one really having fun making the movie and, not incidentally, making a good living in the process.

An increase in income led to an improvement in lifestyle of which premium wine became a part. When he moved to the Bay Area to work for Pixar in Emeryville, frequent trips to visit Napa and Sonoma wineries further augmented that interest.

Like so many others whose palates become more sophisticated over time, he ultimately gravitated toward Pinot Noir—at its best the most complex, nuanced and food-friendly of red wines.

Both French Burgundies and California Pinot Noirs were initially on his swirling, sipping and savoring agenda. However, when he eventually ventured into Oregon Pinots, they opened an entirely new avenue and a potential opportunity.

“I had wanted to do something different, and I was getting swept up by the wine industry,” he said. “I began dreaming about buying some land and planting a vineyard. But the best growing areas in California were way too expensive.”

Already convinced that Oregon Pinots were just as good, if not better than their California counterparts, Hawkins moved to Portland in 2002. Though finding vineyard land remained on his radar, he felt the need to gain some industry knowledge.

Nothing beats hands-on experience, so he started making contacts in Yamhill wine country and ended up working a harvest at WillaKenzie Estate. There he met Chris Luberstedt, a relationship that would prove pivotal to his future plans.

Keeping food on the table for him and his young son necessitated regular income. In that regard, his extensive animation résumé enticed Portland’s Laika Studios to put him on the payroll in 2005.

He’s been with the innovative animation company, owned by Nike founder Phil Knight, ever since.

On the wine side, he spent the next harvest with Joe Dobbes at Wine by Joe and then went on to Methven Family Vineyard, where Luberstedt had been hired as the winery’s first winemaker. Their close connection made him feel confident about establishing his own winery brand.

Hawkins was certain he could acquire small quantities of exceptional grapes. Once a deal was struck with owner Allen Methven to have Luberstadt make his wine, he sprang into action on the fruit-sourcing front.

In 2007, he purchased Pinot Noir from Coleman and Momtazi vineyards in the McMinnville AVA, Teresa’s Vineyard near West Linn and Methven’s Estate on the eastern slope of the Eola Hills.

To diversify his portfolio, he also traveled to Eastern Washington for Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah from Kiona Vineyards in the Red Mountain AVA, the Columbia Valley’s most prestigious sub-appellation. In 2008, he added Pinot Gris from Coleman.

The term boutique aptly applies to Hawkins Cellars. It’s small, specialized and sophisticated. In fact, if it’s not currently Oregon’s smallest winery, it’s definitely a contender.

In 2007, 640 cases of wine were produced under Hawkins’ label—320 of Pinot Noir and 160 each of Cabernet and Syrah. Owing to lower yields in 2008, the total will drop to 420 cases, including 100 cases of Pinot Gris.

Hawkins intends to keep the label under Methven’s roof until he reaches 1,000 cases. There’s no fixed timetable to attain that level, but when the moment comes, he knows some adjustments to his business plan will be required.

Meanwhile, he’s about to join the burgeoning group of wineries with a presence in Carlton. Hawkins Cellars new tasting room at 407 W. Main St. celebrated its grand opening on April 18 and 19.

All three of the 2007s plus the 2008 Pinot Gris were poured, and the first 50 visitors received a free souvenir logo glass.

Hawkins takes pride in having been selected to participate in the 2009 Portland Indie Wine Festival, where only 40 of over 175 entries made the cut. As for relying on wine income-wise, however, he’ll be keeping his day job. 

Hawkins Cellars

Location: Carlton Wine Cottages
Address: 407 W. Main, Bldg. 3 • Carlton
Hours: Call for times.

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