By now, Oregon has established itself as one of the world’s great winemaking regions. When the first wave of serious Willamette Valley vignerons started planting vines in the ‘60’s, many laughed them off. But now, after more than a half-century and many, many world-class vintages later, it’s clear those pioneers were on to something. That groundbreaking spirit remains strong here in the NW, and the current generation of young winemakers are making their own mark on the industry. This Women’s History Month, we’re highlighting some of the most interesting young winemakers in the region, who just so happen to be women.
Carly Laws has spent her entire career in the food and beverage industry. The Bend native moved to Portland for college, and ended up spending the next 15 years developing some of the city’s most forward-thinking beverage programs (including as opening beverage director at legendary spots like Clyde Common and the original incarnation of the Woodsman Tavern). She and her chef husband moved to Hood River nearly 10 years ago, where Carly continued her deep dive into wine, working closely with some of Italy’s best wineries as a portfolio manager for the importer Dalla Terra. This hands-on work with wineries near and far gave Carly the opportunity to further her understanding of the art and science of winemaking and deepened her commitment to sustainability.
That commitment, coupled with a chance encounter with canned wine many years ago, was the “aha moment” that eventually led her to create Freetime, under which she makes two distinct Pinot Noirs, designed from the ground up to be put into aluminum cans. “Winemaking has never been my dream necessarily, but creating things I really believe in and that I want to share with people always has been.” Inspired by the growing momentum surrounding the Gorge’s nascent winemaking scene, Carly took a leap of faith. “The growth of the population; [the quickening rate of] development and viticultural arenas… winemakers are moving in from other regions. It's blowing up!” Her next step was to “coerce a friend into letting me use his incredible vineyard of organic-certified Pinot Noir to show it's possible to create a super high quality, super delicious, and real canned wine.”
While unequivocally rooted in a “deep appreciation for place,” Carly’s wines for Freetime are nevertheless looking to the future. “I'm hell bent on making canned wine, and ONLY canned wine.” They just “happen to be [made] from the varietal Oregon is most well known for,” which she sees not as a restriction, but an opportunity. “I am doing it in a way that makes sense to me by creating different ‘versions’ of Pinot Noir to keep things interesting. A lot of people still have never heard of or tried a white Pinot Noir.” The jump from enthusiast to producer is often fraught, but it’s clear Carly has landed firmly on her feet. “I don't know that I could have started Freetime anywhere else but Hood River. There's something so special about the potential and possibilities of this place right now.” Her second vintage is being canned right now, and if it’s even half as delicious as the first, we’ll have a lot of Freetime in our future.
Images via @freetimewine
Originally from Ohio, Corvallis-based Dacha Wines founder Isabel Newlin’s interest in agriculture drew her to France for a semester abroad, where she ended up working in vineyards in southern Burgundy. She caught the wine bug hard, traveling across France to meet other vignerons, and finally felt like she had found her people. “They were all very weird and very cool… I have always been attracted to hard agricultural work, but I sometimes felt that other types of farmers were much more wholesome than I was, whereas these winemakers really liked to have a good time. I was very attracted to that combination.”
After finishing school, she went back to France for a couple years to soak up all the knowledge she could, and when she was finally ready to launch her own project, Oregon made sense. “California is too hot, too dry, and too expensive, and all the vineyards in Washington” are too big. The Willamette Valley seemed like the perfect place for a burgeoning farmer/winemaker to settle: “It’s beautiful” says Isabel, and despite decades of development, for her it remains “generally mysterious. It’s very exciting that people are starting to look to places beside Burgundy for models. They are planting lots of Spanish varieties in southern Oregon, and I also hope that everyone will reconsider the aromatic white varieties for the north, because Oregon is much closer to Alsace, soil- and climate-wise, than it is to Burgundy.”
Still the farming is hard work, and Isabel longs for a day when the valley is dotted with small holdings like hers, offering an opportunity for more collaborative notions like tool-sharing. “I have made some great friends in the industry, and have found the community here to be incredibly supportive,” she says, noting that her colleagues at the vegetable farm she works part time are generous with their time and know-how. Barley into her second vintage, Isabel is already making a name for herself across the state; her wines are served at some Portland’s most well-respected establishments, and she’s been profiled by the Oregonian. It’s obvious we’re big fans, and we can’t wait to taste what’s next.
Images via dachawines.com
In some ways, the Willamette Valley couldn’t be more different than New Orleans. There aren’t weekly parades through the streets of Salem, the bars aren’t open 24 hours, and in Oregon, Mardi Gras is just another Tuesday in spring. But if you squint just right, similarities start to emerge. “From the moment I arrived, I quickly recognized this valley’s spirit of camaraderie and hospitality,” says Lisette Hrapmann, owner of brand-new label Fizzy Lizzy. A rarity outside of her hometown, that sense of hospitality and “the opportunity to make my own wine, and the community of friends supporting that crazy notion, are some of the reasons I am still here.”
We hope she sticks around for a while, because her first vintage, currently on the shelves at Wellspent, is a doozy. Her lone bottling is the fizzy pet-nat she calls Swampwater, a name that evokes hot summers on the Bayou, and our favorite kind of wine: serious but playful, it’s based on centuries of winemaking history but keeps an eye on the future. “I haven’t created something entirely new,” she says, noting that Pétillant Naturel-style wines have “a long established history.” But after working harvests in France, Chile, and California, Lisette appreciates the way that the Oregon winemaking community allows space for young winemakers to experiment. Besides the “perseverance, grit, and hard work,” it’s our unique “camaraderie and collaborative nature” coupled with a “willingness to share experiences and advise each other in order to perserve” that, to Lisette, is the greatest “strength of the Oregon wine industry.”
Images via @fizzylizzyswampwater @lizzyhrap
Shopping for wine can be a drag. If you’re a novice, all those labels with foreign words and hard-to-read fonts can feel fraught with pretense and snobbery. How do you know which inexpensive grocery store wines are worth drinking? And what’s up with all those totally abstract labels that don’t give you any real info at all? Enter Mary Taylor, not a winemaker, but a wine industry vet who founded her eponymous importing company with her “24-year-old self” in mind, and has basically turned one of our favorite tricks (looking at the back label and shopping by importer) into her whole business model. All the wines she imports are labeled the same way: in simple, clear black and white she lays out who made the wine, the village or town it was made in, and, at the top of the information hierarchy, the region it comes from (known in wine as an ‘appellation’).
In Europe, appellation and “terroir” are more important than grape variety, as it indicates the wine’s character, personality, and overall vibe. A wine made with Gamay from one place will be different than a wine made somewhere else with the same grape, a fact Europeans have accepted for millennia and Mary is confident Americans can get the hang of. She points out that if we “treated cheese like we treat wine, we would have cow, sheep, and goat,” and not the Stiltons, Manchegos or Chevres we all know and love. On top of all of this, her wines are priced extremely approachably, offering some of the best bottles we’ve tasted at their price point (we’re talking $12-25 here) which she’s able to do because, after decades in the wine industry, she’s built deep relationships with small producers in semi-obscure appellations who make the sort of good, honest wines enjoyed by the locals. And not to worry: Mary includes grape varieties on the labels too, making it easier for those of us accustomed to the American, grape-centric style of wine shopping. We’ll drink to that!
Images via @marytaylorwine
It was a blind tasting that led Melaney Schmidt to Oregon. She was running high end cocktail bars in Los Angeles, and during a seasonal menu overhaul “did a blind tasting of 6 pinots and (chose) one from Oregon. I knew right then that Oregon had something special.” Fast-forward 7 years and she’s into her fifth vintage under her own label, Landmass Wines.
Based in Cascade Locks in the Columbia River Gorge, Melaney and her partner (in life and business) Malia Meyers work to bridge the gap between Oregon’s “old guard and new school,” making wine that celebrates the region and foregrounds the grapes. Melaney says she’s guided by a principle of “knowing the rules so I can break them when I want,” and looks to more experienced local winemakers for guidance while also taking inspiration from the generation coming up behind her. Younger and “more experimental winemakers who aren’t afraid to ditch tradition and carve their own path” keep her on her toes, always learning. “Wine is magical,” she says, and Oregon provides endless inspiration, possibilities, and support, allowing her to “work with what the land provides, and to share the end result with those who seek out its celebration.”
Images via @landmasswines @highproofpreacher @moramorafarm