The Outlook at Knudsen Vineyard welcomes guests to its outdoor living room. ##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser
The Outlook at Knudsen Vineyard features a calming interior with large windows and wooden beams.  ##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser
Cramoisi Vineyard’s new tasting room sits atop the vineyard with views for miles. ##Photo by Kathryn Elsesser
Crews at Open Claim Vineyard in Dallas work hard to finish the spacious building. ##Photo by Andrea Johnson
Domaine Nicolas-Jay continues construction in the Dundee Hills amid the COVID-19 crisis. ##Photo provided

Building Excitement

Construction continues and brands launch despite COVID-19

By Sophia McDonald

When Sofia Torres McKay and Ryan McKay purchased 12 acres to start Cramoisi Vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills in 2011, the only location they could host tastings was their home. That worked for the first couple vintages, but by 2018, they were tired of people knocking on their front door. The time had come to build a tasting room.

Torres McKay hoped for a space that would be small, affordable and blend in with their surroundings. “We were looking at different magazines and we found this greenhouse-looking building that was very small. I fell in love with that picture. and I told my husband, ‘Maybe we can do something that looks like a greenhouse for the tasting room.’” That type of structure would look perfect with the family’s large flower garden and fits with their ethos, which includes Biodynamic practices.

McKay’s father is a general contractor in Eugene. He put them in touch with an architect and agreed to work on the project with them. They broke ground on the 2,400-square-foot building in 2019 with the goal of opening by April 2020. 

“Come January, we started hearing all this news about China and the coronavirus,” said Torres McKay. By March, what would become known as COVID-19 had made its way to Oregon. A month before Cramoisi’s tasting room was to open, businesses began closing and consumers retreated into their homes. The McKays were left with a nearly finished building and a much-reduced ability to sell their wine.

“We were scared,” said Torres McKay. “We couldn’t stop the construction because we needed to get ready for when the government gave the approval to reopen. But at the same time, you have these feelings of uncertainty about whether you’re going to have the money to finish. It was very stressful.”

The McKays weren’t alone in that situation. Boosted by a booming economy and increasing attention on Oregon’s wine industry, many companies had grown to the point where building or enlarging their facilities made sense. It seemed the perfect time to tackle a project designed to attract consumers eager to spend weekends and vacations socializing with friends over a bottle of vino. Then, the coronavirus arrived and halted plans

Luckily, Executive Order 20-12, issued by Gov. Kate Brown on March 23, forcing many businesses to close, did not list construction as an industry that had to shutter operations. Contractors were able to keep working as long as they were able to establish and enforce social distancing policies. In the early days of the pandemic, building sites sometimes seemed the only places open along nearly deserted roads.

As Oregonians slowly start venturing out to tasting rooms again, they’ll find some new places to go. Close to a dozen new spots have opened or will open in the coming months. Some beat the clock on the coronavirus, opening just weeks before they had to close. Others beat the odds and continued working despite a global health crisis and looming economic depression.

Multiple Oregon wineries told stories similar to the McKays. Cramoisi was able to inch ahead with its construction project, which was delayed but never came to a stop. The biggest hurdle, according to Torres McKay, came from the fact that subcontractors had to come into the building one at a time rather than simultaneously. They had to wait until the fireplace was built before a plumber was allowed into the building. When that person finished, an electrician could finally enter and complete their work. Instead of finalizing in April, the tasting room hopes to host its first guests in mid-July.

Knudsen Vineyards, which has supplied grapes for decades to storied brands such as Erath Winery and Argyle Winery, was scheduled to start work on its first tasting room about the time the McKays were planning to wrap up. Construction on the Outlook at Knudsen Vineyard, an intimate tasting space that’s located inside what was originally called Knudsen Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills, was set to start April 8. Despite the fact that tasting rooms couldn’t allow customers at that time, managing partner Page Knudsen Cowles said the contractors appeared precisely when they were supposed to.

“The builders were very clear about the COVID-19 protocols when they started,” she said. “They posted instructions about how to do things on all the doors in English and Spanish. The staff at the tasting room was to wear masks.” Subcontractors, including plumbers and electricians, could only be onsite simultaneously if they were working in completely different areas. The coronavirus outbreak did change construction plans a little bit; for example, Knudsen Cowles requested that the bathrooms have touchless fixtures instead of more traditional ones. 

Knudsen Cowles never had qualms about moving ahead with the renovation, which included removing outdoor structures to let in more light, painting, landscaping and adding outdoor seating. “One of the things about this COVID situation is we expect people to be traveling closer to home,” she said. “I see more people taking road trips and day trips for a while. Oregonians are the best supporters of local businesses. Since May, there definitely have been people coming to enjoy themselves at tasting rooms that could open.”

Construction on tasting rooms wasn’t the only thing that kept charging ahead during the pandemic. Last year, Domaine Nicolas-Jay bought a 52-acre site being used as a longhorn cattle ranch with the goal of planting a 25-acre vineyard and building a winery. The company has been transforming an old pole barn into a 4,300-square-foot production facility in the Dundee Hills since October.

According to co-owner Jay Boberg, the original plan was to have the winery finished by June 1. Now, it appears construction won’t wrap up until August — this will still make it possible to use the space by harvest, luckily. A small, by-appointment-only tasting room will be finalized later this year.

Boburg says renovating the barn proceeded with only a few COVID-19-related hitches. In addition to not being able to bring in multiple subcontractors simultaneously, some of their supply orders were greatly delayed. Getting the building’s windows took at least twice as long as it would have normally, for example. “It’s been different, but the impact hasn’t been catastrophic like it’s been in many other sectors,” he explained.

The resilience of the industry remains impressive, and the construction of these beautiful new spaces is a testament to that grit.

“Build it, and they will come.” The famous quote from the movie “Field of Dreams” seems appropriate these days. Owners know the public will arrive, thirsty for a chance to experience wine country in person, but in the meantime, there’s work to be finished.


New Tasting Rooms

In spite of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s economic woes, several wine companies have opened tasting rooms or will open in the coming months. Many are by appointment, so check websites before visiting.

Alloro Tasting House, Sherwood

Bennett Vineyards & Wine Company, Eugene

Cramoisi Farm House Tasting Room, Dundee

Domaine Nicolas-Jay, Newberg

Fullerton Wines (Satellite), Corvallis

J Scott Cellars, Eugene

Open Claim Vineyards, Dallas

Rotie Cellars, Milton-Freewater

Stoller Experience Center, Dayton

The Outlook at Knudsen Vineyard, Dundee

Willful Wine Company, Portland


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