We received an invitation from friends to join them on a special vineyard and winery tour. They had purchased at auction a package which included hors d'oeuvres and wine tasting in the Willamette Valley Sojourner Vineyard and Walter Scott Winery.
So we drove one overcast Saturday morning to the hills outside Salem, Oregon to meet our friends and make new acquaintances while learning about some of the intricacies of growing grapes for wine production.
The Peseau family told us their story and the success they have had since taking a risk and buying the rocky hillside acreage. We learned some of the complexities of soil pH, rain and sun, temperature, wind, and the impact of soil conditions, whether sandy or clay or rocky or fertile. The hillside elevation has a critical role in producing certain varieties of grapes. Pruning at the right time and to the right extent is essential to producing the best grapes.
Thelma Peseau read from John 15, the passage where Jesus compares the relationship between himself and the disciples to the vineyard they are standing in.
John 15 The Message (MSG)
The Vine and the Branches
15 1-3 “I am the Real Vine and my Father is the Farmer. He cuts off every branch of me that doesn’t bear grapes. And every branch that is grape-bearing he prunes back so it will bear even more. You are already pruned back by the message I have spoken.
4 “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you. In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me.
5-8 “I am the Vine, you are the branches. When you’re joined with me and I with you, the relation intimate and organic, the harvest is sure to be abundant. Separated, you can’t produce a thing. Anyone who separates from me is deadwood, gathered up and thrown on the bonfire. But if you make yourselves at home with me and my words are at home in you, you can be sure that whatever you ask will be listened to and acted upon. This is how my Father shows who he is—when you produce grapes, when you mature as my disciples.
9-10 “I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.
11-15 “I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.
16 “You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.
17 “But remember the root command: Love one another.
The phrase "intimate and organic" caught my attention and imagination. As a Believer my relationship with Jesus Christ is intimate --close and personal, known and loved--and organic --living, growing, and systemically connected. My life force flows from the Vine in which there is every good thing necessary for life and godliness. The relationship produces healthy and abundant fruit in the hands of the Vinedresser as long as the branch remains attached. It is a relief to think that as the branch I am the recipient of life and godliness and do not have to scurry about manufacturing my own worthiness (or fruit.)
We went further into the Eola-Amity Hills, now famous for their wine production, to the Walter Scott Winery. A youngish couple with experience in wine--he from the agricultural and distribution side and she from the marketing and restaurant buying side--are making award winning wines in their winery. There are as many complexities to the making of wine as there are to the growing of suitable grapes. From picking at the critical moment to processing and storing to aging in differing types of wood there are many more details than I am aware of when picking up a bottle of wine at the store. There are potential disasters at every juncture. Each year has a different story depending on weather and other variables.
Here are the observations my husband wrote for his blog concerning our winery tour:
My wife and I were recently privileged to participate in a tour of a Salem area vineyard and winery. The vineyard was Sojourner, owned and operated by Denny and T, friends of our hosts, Dave and Nancy. The winery was Walter Scott, owned and operated by Ken and Erica. Here are some of the highlights that I recall.
The vineyard has 16 acres planted to three clones of Pinot Noir: Dijon 115, Pommard and Wadenswill and 3.26 acres of Chardonnay (I didn't remember that part - I looked it up on the Walter Scott web page). The process of growing grapes involves very careful monitoring by the managers with short bursts of intense labor needs about 3 or 4 times a year. There is a consortium that manages the labor pool and allocates the available workers to the vineyards that are ready for them.
The climactic event is obviously the harvest. It needs to be done as quickly as possible and for Sojourner, they need about 20 pickers. Depending on how many other vineyards need the workers at the same time, some days they may only get 6, so that requires some scrambling. There are scientists who come out and measure sugar content and other criteria to give them an idea about when the harvest should begin but the final decision comes from the buyer. Ken from Walter Scott has an agreement to purchase some of their crop and will go into the vineyard and make his own judgement based on taste and feel.
The other labor intensive events that I recall are pruning (cutting everything back to the point of looking almost dead), trimming (selecting the best 2 canes on each side of the vine) and then selecting the best bunches to preserve at a later stage. Apparently there is a shoulder that develops on some bunches and whether that is desirable or not depends on some other criteria that differs depending on the variety.
On to the winery:
Ken and Erica had both been in the wine business for several years before they took the step to take on a winery operation. They started in 2008 and gradually grew until they were able to lease their current location in 2012. It then became a full time venture for them in 2014. Their vision is to produce very high quality wine but not to get so large that they have to start hiring more help. They have reached their target goal of about 4,000 cases a year and now want to continue to improve their quality and also have a small vineyard for their own vines.
Side bar: The state regulatory body for the industry is the Oregon Wine Growers Association. That struck me as funny. How do you get "Wine Growers" from the process of growing grapes and making wine?
One of the most interesting elements to me was the process of barrel selection. A particular batch of wine will be a combination of several barrels. After the harvest the wine is distributed to barrels and as it gets close to the time of bottling the owners start trying different combinations. Each barrel gets a mark to show where it ranks on a scale of one to three. The barrels themselves contribute significantly to the flavor of the wine. One of their favorite barrels comes from a maker in France. They order about 30 new barrels a year. There is a distinct difference between a new barrel and an aged barrel that is evident to them for each of the first 4 years. After that, there is no continuing change as the barrels get older. You would think that the best wine would come from the best barrels and the highest ranked flavors, but actually it is better to have a combination of "lesser" and "better" contributions.
As the time gets closer to bottling there is a careful judgment process that must take place. The test tasting involves combining a small measured amount from each of several barrels. Ken and Erica have quite different tastes but seem to arrive at a very similar opinion of the right combination of barrels that they choose for a batch. They offer several different varieties of Pinot Noir. One of the most popular is from the Sojourner vineyard. They do a much smaller offering of Chardonnay. It wasn't one of the selections they had prepared for us but Ken climbed up and decanted a small portion straight from a barrel so we could have a taste. Holly and I preferred that one, probably showing our lack of sophistication.
There are many spiritual lessons that can be learned from this understanding of the process of making wine. One that sticks in my mind is the type of soil required for good grapes. It must be relatively difficult. Good grapes only come when there is a struggle to survive involved. That is why good vineyards are on rocky hills. Spiritual fruit is better when it comes at a price. The struggles of life for a follower of God yield sweet fruit of the Spirit.
[Above: My friend Nancy and I have known each other since we were 5 years old. When we were 21 we traveled through Europe together for a summer with another friend.]