The 10 cases of wine were donated to Linfield College’s Oregon Wine Archive. ##Photo by Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

Ten Dusty Cases

Cellar unearths memories of wine country childhood

By Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

Whether I’m speaking professionally or teaching wine sales and hospitality to students enrolled in Linfield College’s Evenstad Center for Wine Education program, I often share stories of the industry’s early years, tales of my family life at the vineyard in the Red Hills of Dundee, like harvesting grapes while listening to transistor radios, hand-corking wine bottles and riding ponies bareback to light bird cannons. 

I also mention the narratives of collaboration, a term frequently used to describe the machine swapping, vine grafting and grapegrowing advice that bonded the fledgling industry for its survival and, now, great success. My family was no exception — my father sold Dick Ponzi his first wine press, loaned a wine press to the Campbells at Elk Cove, in addition to his tractor to help others plant their vineyards.

Elk Cove Vineyards##Photo by Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

In my classroom, I also shared the story of a recent wine acquisition that would bring back a flood of memories.

Let me start by referencing Furioso, the showcase winery in the Dundee Hills, with 14-foot glass walls and a stunning view. Since 2014, Giorgio Furioso has owned and managed the estate’s self-rooted Pommard clone vineyard, which was established in 1972 by first-generation growers Sharon and Tom Saucy.

The Saucys purchased the property from — yes — another Linfield instructor, Dr. Smith. Tom was working at Tektronix as a mechanical engineer when he became intrigued with growing grapes while he was working on the staff with another mechanical engineer, Dick Erath. The Saucys raised their three children, Jennifer, Alisia and Todd on the vineyard until Julia Staigers and Gerard Koschall bought the vineyard in 1985 and established Juliard Vineyard and Crumbled Rock brand.

Today, Furioso appears a jewel box of modern design, but the contrast to the sleek, new tasting room and the industry’s original vineyard operations became apparent to me when I received a call from Jennifer Saucy, my childhood friend from our Red Hills neighborhood; she was asking for help to preserve her father’s wine collection.

Walking to Tom’s basement door, I contemplated what nostalgia I was about to uncover. Jennifer and I descended the stairs to her father’s dimly lit cellar, where we brushed aside cobwebs — both figuratively and literally — and walked toward the wine stored on dusty wooden shelves, careful to steer clear of old bottles scattered on the floor. My father, Jim McDaniel, founder of our family winery, McDaniel Vineyards, followed behind us.

In 1969, my father also followed a winemaker named David Lett into the wine industry, in a meeting that changed the course of my father’s life when he sold Lett a building that still houses Eyrie today. During that fateful encounter, Lett knocked on the door of Dad’s granary office and asked if he had a building to buy for a winery. Fifty years later, the historic winery is still in the same building. Inspired by Lett’s success, my father bought three tracts of land in 1972, planted three vineyards and built our family home on what now is Torii Mor Winery.

McDaniel of Dundee 1985 Early Muscat (the writer’s family’s wine). ##Photo by Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

Back in the basement, the suspense was palpable as we looked at the decomposing cases, wondering which names from the ’70s and ’80’s might be brought into the light of 2019. We approached the boxes tentatively, almost — but not quite — afraid to disturb the fragile contents. We opened a case and carefully pulled out what looked like an old Champagne bottle: It was a 1979 bottle of Knudsen-Erath Oregon Brut.

In a conversation with Dick Erath a few weeks later, he clarified his brief foray into sparkling wine production. He made approximately 400 cases of the wine, a blend of 40 percent Pinot Noir and 60 percent Chardonnay, in 1979, 1980 and 1981. It went through tirage in 1982 and 1983. He sold it to the Portland market and nationally, but to little fanfare.

Erath commented, “I had a tough time obeying two masters! The art of winemaking and the art of sparkling are quite different; and we didn’t have Andrew at Radiant Sparkling Wine Company back then for riddling and disgorging.”

The bubbly discovery was interesting in that the Knudsen-Erath Brut was crafted from Knudsen Vineyard fruit, and Knudsen grapes would eventually be contracted by Cal Knudsen to Argyle Winery to form a partnership with another essential father of the sparkling Oregon wine industry: Rollin Soles.

Back to the wine cellar.

Tom Saucy grew Gewürztraminer for local wineries, along with Pinot Noir and other varietals, so it was not too surprising to see a series of Sokol Blosser Gewürz emerge from the case, along with a 1983 Tualatin Vineyards Gewürz bearing a silver medal from the Seattle Oenological Society, a 1981 Oak Knoll Gewürz, followed by a spectacular bottle of 1975 Oak Knoll Pinot Noir.

Knudsen-Erath 1979 Oregon Brut, Willamette Valley. ##Photo by Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

Next, we pulled a bottle of Tualatin Vineyards, but with a design I’d never seen: Douglas firs rimmed the label’s edge. I pulled another bottle out of the case, a 1983 Tualatin Chardonnay, and the trees were gone, replaced by the iconic label still in use today. Ten more bottles of 1987 Tualatin White Riesling and we were one case down, nine to go.

We eagerly opened another case and were rewarded with a 1985 Cameron Abbey Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir made by the founding and current winemaker, John Paul, and his Abbey Ridge Vineyard partners since 1983, Bill and Julia Wayne. Besides the long partnership with Cameron Winery, the Waynes also sell their dry-farmed grapes to J. Christopher and Westrey. The couple survived their first vintage in 1980, the same year Mount St. Helens erupted.

The Waynes were better known to us in the Dundee Hills neighborhood as the young, cool couple who lived in the cabin they constructed on the vineyard in 1978. They also baked their own delicious bread, refused to own a television and threw raucous Halloween bashes. For one infamous Halloween party, my mother scouted Goodwill stores and dressed the family as Wild West saloon keepers. I babysat their oldest child, Phoebe; the majority of my responsibility was to chase the deer away from the young vines and keep the pet chickens from pecking Phoebe’s lunch.

John Paul delivered a “cover album” ode to his longtime grape-growing partners in his semi-annual quirky newsletter parodying “Abbey Road” with the Waynes’ “Abbey Ridge.”

Back to the cellar we go….

We began pulling out bottles, eventually working our way through the entire 10 cases with the following highlights: Elk Cove 1978 Willamette Valley Appellation Chardonnay — a $7.50 tag still attached; The Eyrie Vineyards 1979 Chardonnay; Erath 1977 Yamhill County White Riesling; Erath 1978 Muscat/Riesling blend; Erath 1979 Sauvignon Blanc; Erath 1988 Pacific Mist; Sokol Blosser 1978 Yamhill County Chardonnay; Sokol Blosser 1986 Hyland Vineyards Pinot Noir; Tualatin Vineyards 1986 Gewürztraminer; Tualatin Vineyards 1987 White Riesling; Oak Knoll 1974 Pinot Noir Dry Table Wine; Oak Knoll 1975 Oregon Pinot Noir; Oak Knoll 1976 American Gewürztraminer and Oak Knoll 1987 Oregon White Riesling.

And the esoteric: Oak Knoll 1978 Chateau Du Chene Oregon Chardonnay; Mulhausen 1978 Chehalem Mountain/Washington Merlot; Château Benoit 1980 Washington Merlot; Château Benoit 1980 Washington Riesling.

Now I’m standing in the kitchen with Dick Erath as he’s opening a bottle of 1977 “Webfooter Red” for the Geezers Grapegrowers lunch. The name is an honorary title the monthly lunch group calls itself, which includes Erath, my father, Gary Fuqua, Jim Maresh, Vivian Weber (“the Geezerette”), Gerry Koschal and John Davidson (“the Geezer in training”).

Oak Knoll Vineyards##Photo by Kerry McDaniel Boenisch

Erath is answering my questions about the Saucy bottles, comprised of both Erath and Knudsen-Erath labels from 1977–1987, a vertical series beginning with the aforementioned 1977 Webfooter Red, followed by a ’78 “Chateau Webfooter,” which he says garnered the “Chateau” designate as that particular vintage yielded higher quality fruit. He pops the crumbly cork and pours the oxidized red blend, now rust brown. The Geezers sip and ponder for a minute, then start heckling the award-winning wine pioneer about his vintage’s lack of shelf life.

Erath good-naturedly rolls his eyes and tells them the story of how a dancing duck he named Webfooter Red graced the label of the last run of grapes in 1977. He takes pride in his entrepreneurial inventiveness as he recalls the tale: “My son, Eric, was just starting University of Oregon at the time, so I decided that I’d take the bottles down to the college and sell them out off the back of the truck in front of the bookstore. And it worked,” he mused.

His used the same marketing acumen to profit from both his “Coastal Mist” and “Pacific Mist” blends — aka “hot tub” and “picnic” wines — from 1984 to 1989. Erath explained, “My distributor told me that the more flavors I produced, the better the profit — kind of like the Baskin-Robbins approach to marketing. So Coastal and Pacific Mist were flavors of the month, and gained a following.”

The self-proclaimed “Geezerette,” Vivian Weber, starts chuckling as she recalls an early encounter, when she and her husband, Arthur, searched for land in the Dundee Hills in 1972. Arthur, who worked in the publishing industry, first met David Lett at Oregon State University in the mid-1960s — at the time, Lett was also a book salesman. They conversed about the fledgling Oregon wine industry, hoping to buy vineyard land somewhere on the West Coast. At the time, Oregon’s land, at $1,000 an acre, seemed more affordable than California’s $5,000 price tag. Arthur returned to Boston and persuaded Vivian to change vacation plans from Europe to Oregon instead. She relented, and in the spring of 1971, the Webers visited Oregon and searched for vineyard land. They purchased a house and acreage in 1974.

Throughout the years, the Webers have sold grapes to wineries throughout the Willamette Valley, including Erath, Maresh, Rex Hill, Winderlea, Amity, Oak Knoll and others.

“I didn’t exactly feel like we were on the cutting edge of an industry,” Vivian said. “I was really more interested in a cultural experience; and I was particularly interested in whether or not the gray, rainy weather would ever abate.”

I recently delivered some of the bottles to my co-worker, Rich Schmidt, the Oregon Wine Archive director for the college’s archive collection. We opened the cases and started detailing the inventory as the stories emerged about each unique bottle, intertwined with the new stories of future wine industry contributors. Schmidt also logged my father’s vineyard weather journal and turned the page to the Mount St. Helen’s eruption, as I reminisced about harvests that year and bringing in grapes covered in ash.

“We are so pleased to have these bottles added to our collection,” Schmidt said. “They showcase some of the early wines being made in the Willamette Valley, and demonstrate what grape growers and winemakers were experimenting with as they sought to find what varietals would work best in the region. The variety of grapes and vintages collected here is truly special.”

Postscript: Select bottles from the collection can be viewed at the Oregon Wine Archive.

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