Illahe Vineyards – Making Wine of Yesteryear

Making wine today benefits from modern technology. But, Illahe Vineyards is producing a wine that removes every element of modernity and technology. I found it to be a fascinating story wrote about it in my weekly column in the Napa Valley Register which I am sharing here. 

Have you ever thought about how they used to make wine before all of the luxuries of modern technology? Before electricity? Before mechanization, whether with tractors or machines for harvesting and sorting? What about temperature control? Is wine simpler to make today because we have technology? Do we take for granted how so many innovations have made work easier?

As we drove up to the hill for our visit to Illahe Vineyards (pronounced Ill-Uh-Hee) in the Willamette Valley, we saw two draft horses walking up and down the rows with a mower attached. It is not common to see horses in the vineyard today, but it is not unfamiliar.


I have visited biodynamic farms in France and Italy who still work the vineyard with a horse that pulls the tractor up and back. But, Illahe is not just using horses, as was done in the past, but is producing a wine that is made completely without the use of modern winemaking equipment or electricity.

Illahe is a local Chinook word that means “earth,” “place” or “soil.” Founder Lowell Ford bought the property in 2000 and his son Brad Ford is the winemaker. Sitting at an elevation of 400 feet, Illahe Vineyard is an 80-acre property planted to six clones of Pinot Noir, as well as Gruner Veltliner, Tempranillo, Viognier and Italian varieties Pinot Grigio, Teroldego, Lagrein, Schioppettino.

As a winery, Illahe is focused on making wine as naturally as possible, from soil to bottle. Lowell Ford, who described himself as a “farmer of vineyards” explained that they, “are mossy green Oregonians.” Like the meaning of the name Illahe, they are a LIVE-certified Salmon Safe vineyard, as well as part of Oregon’s Deep Roots Coalition, which promotes responsible water management.

To make wine as naturally as possible, Illahe works by hand on small lots. They do not irrigate mature plants. They do not use enzymes or additives. They use a gentle wooden basket press. And, as one of Oregon’s few horse-powered vineyards, they use the team of Percheron draft horses to mow and deliver grapes to the winery at harvest.

All of these practices honor historic systems of making wine but Illahe has taken the concept of “historical” winemaking one step further and are making one wine as if it were the year 1899. Inspired by the horses and the natural methods they were already employing, in 2011, winemaker Brad Ford decided to make a wine without using electricity or modern mechanization.

The grapes are hand-picked and brought to the winery by Doc and Bea, the two Percheron draft horses. At the winery, the grapes are de-stemmed by hand then placed into wooden fermenters where natural fermentation takes place. The juice is then hand-pressed in a wooden basket press and pumped into the barrels using a bicycle pump.

Malolactic fermentation also happens naturally. The finished wine is bottled without the use of gas and then corked by hand. Each bottle is labeled by hand. The bottling, corking and labeling takes place in natural light and in the dark as no electricity is used.

Once the wine is bottled, Doc and Bea take the wine to storage. When it is time to take the wine to the distributor in Portland, a mule-drawn stagecoach picks up the wine in the warehouse and transports the cases to canoes where the Illahe team hosts an 1899 expedition launch as they head out on a 96-mile trip on the Willamette River.

The wines travel for three days to Portland, with the team camping out along the way. When they arrive at the dam in Oregon City, the wine is transferred to cargo bicycles for the last 12 miles. By the time the 1899 Pinot Noir has reached the distributor, there has been no influence of modern technology or techniques.

Making the 1899 Pinot Noir takes a lot of extra effort, especially considering all of the conveniences of modern technology, including basic electricity. But Illahe Vineyards pays homage to how our forefathers lived and worked and the 1899 Pinot Noir is a great reminder that sometimes we need to take a deep breath, slow down and focus on the individual steps in any process.

Read the original story in the Napa Valley Register.