One Fine Girardet

Son continues legacy at historic Umpqua winery

Marc Girardet as a child in the young vineyard. ##Photo provided
Marc Girardet (left) and his
father, Philippe, share a smile inside the family’s tasting room in Tenmile. ##Photo provided

By Sophia McDonald

Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, Marc Girardet assumed every family owned a winery. His parents, Philippe and Bonnie, founded Girardet Vineyards, and most of their friends were growing grapes. Marc fondly remembers playing alongside other farm kids while the adults laughed and sipped in the background. 

It was a huge leap to assume widespread vineyard ownership in any Oregon community 40 years ago. The Girardets would know; they were there, in the Umpqua Valley, about 17 miles southwest of Roseburg in Tenmile. In fact, Girardet is the Valley’s second vineyard — behind the iconic HillCrest Vineyard — and features the area’s third winery — after Henry Estate.

These days, Marc sits at the adult table, although he has far more people keeping him company. And while continuing the tradition of excellence started by his parents, this second-generation winemaker is also putting his own stamp on the family business.

In 1969, Philippe and Bonnie moved from Los Angeles to Oakland, drawn by the beautiful setting and clean air. Philippe, a Swiss-born astrophysicist, and Bonnie, a teacher and native of Southern California, didn’t know how they would support themselves in Oregon.

Until, they tasted the wine at HillCrest.

Marc explains, “My dad recalls he tasted Richard’s wine and thought, ‘This could be something. As a youth in Switzerland, he’d worked in his uncle’s vineyards, so for him, this was a romantic return to his youth.”

The couple bought a 54-acre property in 1970, planting their first vines in ’71 with grapes procured on road trips to California and New York in a Volkswagen bus. “In California, they ended up in the Livermore area, where they got starts from Wente and Concannon,” Marc says. “To this day, we have the Concannon clone of Cabernet Sauvignon and the Wente clone of Riesling.” They also accumulated a range of other varieties, including Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. In New York, they bought French-American hybrids, such as Cayuga and Baco Noir.

“As a small child, I was roaming around in the vineyards quite a bit,” Marc recalls. “I had these different areas I knew about where my favorite grapes were, so I’d run around and check the different blocks and just eat tons of different grapes. I remember, at one point, my dad told me they were going to have to get me grapes at the store because I was eating all these prized wine grapes. I guess that was my palate calibration, learning the flavors of those grapes and what to look for.”

Initially, the Girardets sold their harvest to winemakers in the Willamette and Rogue valleys. In 1982, they started building their own winery so Philippe could relocate his winemaking out of the family’s home — he was well-known among friends for his “masking tape wine,” so-called for hand-written labels simply marked “red” or “white.” In the early days, the facility contained neither automated equipment nor electricity. Marc’s job was corking bottles one at a time using a hand-operated press.

When he was young, Marc never dreamed of taking over the winery. He studied computer programming at Umpqua Community College and was offered a position as a programmer in the U.S. Air Force. He’d already left for basic training when he discovered his dual U.S.-Swiss citizenship disqualified him from the security clearance required for the position. “I ended up calling my mom and dad, saying, ‘I think I’ll just come back and work at the vineyard,’” he says. He became the head winemaker in 1999.

By that time, Girardet Vineyards was known as a house of fine and interesting wines. Philippe won numerous awards up and down the West Coast, including several for his single-variety Baco Noir. In 2009, The Oregonian called it one of the best reds in the state.

Marc, on the other hand, is making his mark with Italian varietals. He planted Sangiovese and Barbera in 2007, followed by Teroldego in 2011. His first Sangiovese earned a gold medal at the Los Angeles International Wine Competition. “I feel strongly about the Italian varietals having a great future here in the Valley,” he says. “I’m already dead certain Sangiovese has a permanent home here, not only because of the medals it’s won but how unique the wine is.” He also notes Tenmile lies at the same latitude as Montalcino in Tuscany, a town renowned for its Brunello di Montalcino Sangiovese.

This is the first year Marc has bottled Teroldego, and he has high expectations: “It’s much darker than the Sangiovese, and it fills a different niche for a grittier, darker red that we didn’t previously have in our portfolio.”

Marc’s winemaker tales are topped only by his harrowing experience as a pilot who survived a near-fatal plane crash on Interstate 5. In 2013, he was flying with a friend when the Cessna’s engine failed. “I didn’t know if we would make it until the last instant,” he says, when he was able to touch the plane down in the southbound lane in front of three semi-trucks. He flew it for another six months — his rendition of “getting back on the horse” — and then sold it. In 2014, he started making a blend called Touchdown Red commemorating the incident. He later added Take Flight White and Fly Away Rosé to his line of “airplane wines.” One dollar from every bottle goes into a fund he may eventually use to purchase a new plane.

For now, Girardet is plenty busy steering the winery. He’s committed to the family estate, which now has 30 acres under vine, but he has no plans to expand more. “I really believe in the small estate philosophy and expressing our terroir,” he says. “My passion is for experimentation, not expansion.”

His mother, Bonnie, passed away in 2010. Philippe still lives on the property, but his role these days is limited to delivering the mail and serving as chief joke-teller, giving Marc complete freedom to continue nurturing his parents’ dream — and his own. “I’ve really been blessed with having been handed the keys to a winery and being able to bring my vision on board.”

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