(From left) Earl Cramer-Brown’s son, Cooper; Rosmarino owner/chef Dario Pisoni; Earl, himself; and winemaker Jesse Lange of Lange Estate. ##Photo provided
Guests mingle at the dinner and auction fundraiser for Earl Cramer-Brown’s kidney transplant medical fund. The dinner was hosted at Rosmarino Osteria Italiana in Newberg. ##Photo provided

Big Community

Colleagues raise money for Big Earl

By Hilary Berg

What happens when a member of the wine industry falls on hard times? Well, if it’s in Oregon, the community bands together. Such is the case for Earl Cramer-Brown, owner of Vertical Wine & Beer, a McMinnville-based wholesale company.

Diagnosed with type 2 diabetes at age 24, Cramer-Brown maintained the progression of the disease until approximately seven years ago, when he ended up in the hospital for a different reason only to reveal a major issue. After a routine kidney function test, doctors discovered his kidneys were operating at 25%. 

“Now, I’m on all insulin,” he explains. “We’ve done a great job at keeping it at 25% for a while, but once it starts crashing, it goes really fast.”

A couple years ago, the sharp decline started and so did the process of appearing on the transplant list. Typically, living kidney donation can take anywhere between one and seven years. A year ago, Cramer-Brown made the list, launching his search for a donor.

“I had 23 people sign up to donate, which was amazing. [The medical team] was like, ‘Wow, what did you do?’” He jokes, “Oh, a billboard, you know.” If only it was that simple. Through social media, such as Instagram and Facebook, and friends reaching out to their own network of contacts, Cramer-Brown, alongside wife Joanne blasted out the life-saving request.

“I had a tremendous amount of support at the beginning,” but COVID complicated the momentum, and, as expected, many of the potential donors were disqualified for one reason or another, especially under the stringent guidelines. 

Today, Good Samarian Legacy is still focused on solidifying the donor, quite possibly a longtime friend of Cramer-Brown who signed up early in the process was temporarily disqualified, but six months later, her situation changed. Her testing resumed in January. She could quite possibly be the one, or someone else entirely. “I’ve heard there are a couple [donors] are working up, but they don’t tell me.”

What they must communicate to him and other transplant patients is the massive cost of such a major surgery, which often financially ruins families. It doesn’t take much for this to happen.

“In this country, when people get sick, people have to file bankruptcy; it is very common,” Cramer-Brown explains. “In 2017, we had massive medical bills; I just recently got the bills paid down. I should have taken the easy route and filed for bankruptcy, but I didn’t I didn’t want to do that. I mean, I’m up; I’m working. We lived through it, but it’s ruined my credit. The only thing I have going for me, in that regard, is that NO ONE is going to steal my identity,” he quips.

As for Cramer-Brown’s identity in the wine industry, it is clearly a positive one. I mean, he’s hard not to like. Personable and jolly — with a loveable laugh that sounds like Seth Rogen — he’s been a part the Oregon wine community since 2005, representing wineries and breweries up and down the Willamette Valley, educating loyal clients along the way and making many friends, too.

As they say, the proof is in the pudding, or more specifically, the four-course meal, silent auction and raffle organized and attended by friends wanting to help their pal, Big Earl, as they affectionately call him.

Initially spearheaded by Paul Bachand, chef/owner of Recipe in Newberg, the March 28 dinner was also organized by his wife alongside Donna Morris of Winderlea Vineyard & Winery in Dundee and KC Marold of Catapult Consulting. Joining Bachand in the kitchen were Carmen Peirano of Nick’s Café in McMinnville, Daniel Mondok of Red Hills Market in Dundee and Dario Pisoni of Rosmarino Osteria Italiana in Newberg.

The place? Rosmarino. Pisoni immediately volunteered his space.

The food? The evening started with canapés from all the chefs, followed by green garlic sformato and frisée and spring vegetable salad; risotto with winter black truffles; beef short ribs with rabe, “smooshed” potatoes, Pinot reduction and crispy garlic crumbles; and an artisan ice cream sandwich. Each course was paired with a hand-selected wine. All proceeds from the dinner were donated to Cramer-Brown’s medical fund.

The auction? Donations came from all over the Valley. From local restaurants donating gift certificates to deluxe lodging, to wineries and even competing distributors offering magnums and more.

As for time and talents contributed, the heart of the community really shined bright: “Besides the food and wine, all the help was donated, which there were a lot of people there pouring and serving, plus kitchen staff,” Cramer-Brown explains. “A lot of hands, a lot of people volunteering. A lot of servers I’ve gotten to know over the years. It was super cool to see that sort of participation. We always forget about those little guys because we always want to know what the chefs did or what the wine was.”

In the works since January, the dinner was a grand success, raising enough money to pay deductibles and more medical expenses. But when it came to the night of the event, Cramer-Brown almost missed out. Because of his daily dialysis, good days are never a guarantee. “I was not feeling great, and I wasn’t going to go, but I felt like I really, really needed to show up.” 

Grateful to all the people who made it happen and guests, Cramer-Brown was touched by the whole affair. In true Big Earl fashion, he launched an impromptu “roasting” of his competitors and long-time winery friends. “When I showed up, they were pouring a wine from a competing distributor, and I made it known,” Cramer-Brown laughs. “But I find that super amazing. Really cool.”

In the meantime, he and his family continue his at-home medical care while awaiting a new kidney. Every night, he’s tethered to a machine through a port in his stomach. During this nocturnal dialysis, he attempts to sleep, but it’s difficult. “I try to get some rest, but I am up probably four times a night with alarms and checking my vitals. Rest is what I get after I unhook in the morning.”

For Joanne and their 19-year-old son, Cooper, they’ve been greatly affected, too. “It’s tough on the whole family. It’s like a mini-hospital here,” Cramer-Brown says. After a recent stint in the hospital due to a blood infection, a common but serious complication of peritoneal dialysis, he just recently started working again and attends physical therapy, so his days are plenty busy despite the ever-present fatigue.

Thankfully, what was once a major concern, the financial piece of the transplant puzzle, is now under control, thanks to the amazing community that is the Oregon wine industry.

“This community was built on friendship and camaraderie,” Bachand says. “I feel confident I speak for all the chefs involved and everybody — the guests, the chefs, the donors — that [helping one another] is something we all believe in. I think it really defines a community to do something like this.”

Joanne wholeheartedly agrees, “It is amazing how supportive our community is. It really is amazing.”


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