Friends and Partners in the Willamette Valley

On my trip to Oregon a few months ago, I met so many passionate, dedicated, friendly winemakers and was so impressed with the camaraderie within Willamette Valley. One of the best examples was between Brittan Vineyard and Winderlea Vineyard and Winery. These two wineries were founded by two different couples but the wine world has brought them together and now, while their brands are their own, their businesses are intertwined. You can read the story I wrote in the Napa Valley Register here.

One of the things that fascinates me about the wine industry is the level of friendship, camaraderie and passion that exists in such a competitive industry. In essence, every winery is seeking placement in a very crowded market. But, friendship and collaboration seem to overpower the competition. A perfect example is Brittan Vineyards and Winderlea Vineyard and Winery, two wineries in the Willamette Valley.

Ellen and Robert Brittan started Brittan Vineyards in Oregon in 2006. Robert had spent 30 years making wine in Napa. After graduating from UC Davis, he was the first winemaker at Far Niente, followed by Saint Andrews (now Luna) and then spent 16 years as the winemaker at Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa Valley. Robert’s wife Ellen had worked in financial services before she became general manager at Rudd Winery.

A fourth-generation Californian, Robert did not want to leave California. But he had really always wanted to make Pinot Noir. And he also wanted to make cool-climate Chardonnay, a different style than what was in Napa, with tropical fruit notes, high alcohol and not enough acid. He was looking for certain circumstances that would make a specific style of wine.

Robert and Ellen began looking around and visited the Willamette Valley. In December 2004, they sold 10 acres in Napa and bought 128 acres in Oregon. They purchased property on the Van Duzer corridor that was simply a “pile of rock,” as Ellen described it, “with not even a port-a-potty on it.”

The Brittan’s planted 18 acres of Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier and in 2011 they built their house on the property. Their property is located in the McMinnville AVA, one of the two coolest AVAs in Oregon. The vineyards benefit from wind coming through the Van Duzer corridor, diurnal shifts, low to no disease pressure and later ripening. The uplifted volcanic soil does not contain a lot of nutrients and produces low yields. Brittan Vineyards produces fewer than 3,000 cases, including the 2015 Chardonnay ($42), which sees full oak and full malolactic but has bright, intense acidity and aromas of citrus, apple, citrus and brown spices, and the 2014 Basalt Block Pinot Noir with high-toned black fruit and floral notes.

Bill Sweat and Donna Morris moved from Massachusetts to Oregon in 2006. They decided that they wanted to make Pinot Noir in the place where their favorite Pinot Noir was made. They purchased property in the Dundee Hills that was originally part of a vineyard planted in the 1970s and named it Winderlea (a combination of “wind and “lea”, which means field of meadow) Vineyard and Winery. Labor Day of the same year, they picked their first fruits and 28 days later, they were in need of a winemaker.

A friend, Andy Humphrey, put meetings together for them to meet potential winemakers. Bill and Donna had one question for each person they spoke with: “What will differentiate our wines from others?” No one could answer the question. And then they had lunch with Robert Brittan.

It may seem odd that Bill and Donna moved to Oregon to make wine and found a winemaker from Napa. And, one may wonder why a winemaker might want to potentially make a trophy wine for former financial executives. But when Bill and Donna met Robert, it was a connection, a “meeting of the minds.”

Robert was the one person who could articulate clearly what would differentiate their wines. Bill described Robert as a “uniquely confident person who removes his ego.” He explained that Robert does not have a formula as a winemaker but instead asks questions.

To produce the wines of Brittan Vineyards and Winderlea, different practices and styles are used. For Winderlea, Bill has selected native yeasts for fermentation, whereas UC Davis-trained Robert opts not to. Winderlea is focused on sustainability and philanthropy. They are the second winery in Oregon, and the fourth winery in the U.S., to be a Certified B Corporation and was certified biodynamic in 2015. Winderlea produces approximately 6,000 cases and the barrel-aged 2015 Winderlea Chardonnay has aromas of citrus, honeysuckle and flowers and a silky texture. The flagship 2014 Winderlea Vineyard Pinot Noir is vibrant with aromas of cherry, blueberry, tea and roses and fine tannins.

Winderlea has a tasting room on the property in the Dundee Hills but they share a winery and tasting room with Brittan Vineyards in McMinnville. While they own their own vineyards and their own brands, together Ellen and Robert Brittan and Bill Sweat and Donna Morris built their urban winery and tasting room together in the quickly growing town of McMinnville. Working together, they are engaging minute by minute, while still maintaining their own identities and styles. And, in the end, a precious friendship has developed.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.