From Pulitzers to Pinot

Yamhill kid returns to his roots

View of fruit trees planted at Kristof Farms. ## Photo by Courtney Kamm
Kristof Farms is a family endeavor. From left: Nicholas Kristof standing with daughter Caroline, son Geoffery and wife Sheryl WuDunn. ## Photo provided

By Becky Garrison

In his memoir, Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life, Nicholas Kristof describes the small town of Yamhill after his parents purchased a local cherry farm in 1971. “Yamhill itself was then home to 540 people, with a single flashing red light, a general store, an agriculture feed store, a phone booth and four churches.”

Over the years, the population has doubled, though some residents struggled as working-class jobs evaporated. Kristof became a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times. His wife, Sheryl WuDunn works as a business consultant and serves on boards. They both operate from the family farm. Kristof and WuDunn’s best-selling book Tightrope: Chasing Hope, documents how Yamhill’s challenges inspired Kristof Farms.

In 2018, when demand for cherry pies plummeted and their regular buyer could no longer purchase their Montmorency cherries, the family removed 25 acres of trees. While discussing what could be done with their former cherry orchard, the need to rebuild Yamhill’s economy arose. Kristof points to Ken Wright and others in neighboring Carlton as examples. They reinvented the struggling mill town by generating employment at wineries, vineyards and wine tourism. “Maybe we can contribute to an effort to do something similar in Yamhill,” Kristof reflects.

They believed their south-facing property ideal for growing grapes. Given the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area had emerged as a global epicenter of Pinot Noir production, planting a vineyard would create jobs for nearby workers.

Kristof remembers how locals acted puzzled when the Campbell family planted grapes on pastureland ideal for grazing cows and sheep. It was 1974, the year Elk Cove Vineyards opened. In the 1990s, Kristof, then based in Japan, reconnected with Elk Cove’s wine while reporting on a state dinner hosted by President Clinton for the Emperor of Japan.

Before planting Kristof’s vineyard, the couple consulted second-generation winemaker, Adam Campbell. They admired Elk Cove’s wines and sustainable business practices. Under Campbell’s guidance, they planted 777, 943, Pommard Pinot Noir clones, along with Chardonnay 76. Kristof says, “You never know until you taste the grapes. It was a relief after our first harvest in 2022. They came through.” According to Campbell, Kristof Farms’ terroir is on par with some of the best vineyards in his portfolio.

Asked how their Pinot Noir wines differ from others produced in the Willamette Valley, Kristof points to Campbell’s alchemy coupled with their vineyard’s distinct natural environment. “I wonder if there’s evidence of blackberries combined with old prune and cherry trees from our orchard in the Pinot Noir?”

Kristof Farms also contains an apple orchard planted with heirloom British and French varieties: Kingston Black, Michelin, Dabinett, Wickson Crab and Harrison. Christine Walter of Bauman’s Cider Company produces their ciders, including a unique “Noir,” with Pinot grape skins co-fermented with cider. It tastes like a dry cider with a luxurious infusion of Pinot Noir. Recently, Cidercraft Magazine bestowed gold, silver and judge’s choice awards to several of their ciders. The Kristof Farms Orchard Cider is a finalist for the 2024 Good Food Awards.

Regarding their farming practices, the Kristof family minimizes chemical interference. Rather than pesticides, Kristof used six million Trichogramma parasitic wasps to combat damaging codling moths in their apple orchard. “These tiny insects are the moth’s natural enemy, yet don’t bother humans. It was amazing to see this natural predator go after the moths.”

Kristof Farms ships wine and cider to over 40 states and samples their products at local festivals and nearby farmers’ markets. They offer wine and cider clubs with Zoom sessions to discuss beverages and current affairs.

In April, WuDunn traveled to Japan with eight Pacific Northwest cider producers. (Japanese call cider “shiidoru.”) The group educates cidermakers on the trade barriers and regulatory restrictions in selling cider in the Japanese market. They also submitted samples to the 2024 Japan Cider Cup, where Kristof Farms Reserve Cider earned a silver medal.

Besides Bauman and Campbell, the couple have received help and advice from former broadcast journalists: Melissa Mills and Doug Tunnell (Brick House Wine Co.), Justin King (King Estate Winery), Anthony King (Carlton Winemakers Studio) and Susan Sokol Blosser (Sokol Blosser Winery).

“I think this industry is strengthened by how helpful people are to each other,” Kristof opines. Looking ahead, Kristof believes this mutual support, coupled with a Pinot perfect terroir, allows Oregon’s continuing market expansion, even as wine sales slow across the country.

Becky Garrison is a freelance writer based in Portland. Her wine related writing includes pieces for SIP, Northwest Travel & Life, The Grapevine Magazine, and Spirituality & Health. Follow her travels on Instagram @Becky_Garrison. 

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