by Katherine Cole, special to The Oregonian
Tuesday December 23, 2008, 12:02 AM
WINE NOTES: Oregon vintners pitch in to help their biggest rivals -- on another -- when trouble strikes
Hugh Bynum-When the going gets tough, winemakers put aside rivalries. After the husband of Cathy Redman (front, left) was diagnosed with cancer, vineyard owners Jim and Karen Halliday (front right) were among many who jumped in to help harvest Redman Vineyard's grapes while Bill Redman underwent treatment.
After hearing too many terrible renditions of Christmas carols piped over store speaker systems, it's easy to feel cynical about the holidays. Frankly, the festivities feel faux.
But every once in a while, I hear a riff from an old Christmas song that's unflinchingly honest. Give the Stevie Wonder tune "Someday at Christmas" a hard listen, and you'll know what I'm talking about.
Or check out the classic hymn "I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day," as delivered by Frank Sinatra. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow penned the lyrics while mourning the death of his wife and his son's Civil War battle injuries. "In despair I bowed my head," sings Sinatra. "'There is no peace on Earth,' I said."
Unfortunately, those words ring true right about now.
Maybe the reason it's difficult to get into the holiday spirit this year is the overwhelming proof we've seen lately that the world is inhabited by a lot of greedy, pushy and cruel people. In this era, selfishness seems to be the path to success while philanthropy is never profitable.
But, as I wrote last month, this isn't the moral code of Oregon vintners, an unusually altruistic species.
Tradition of mutual support
At the recent memorial service for "Papa Pinot," David Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, I was reminded that, in addition to their charity toward the less-fortunate, these folks also are remarkably generous to their biggest business rivals: each other. To be in the winemaking profession in these parts is to lend a hand or an ear to20a colleague or a competitor in the way that David Lett so often did.
Our winemakers have established a tradition of success through mutual support. They confer with one another on decisions ranging from the technical to the financial at events like the annual Steamboat Conference. They hit the road together to sell their wares to new markets. And they push one another forward with progressive initiatives such as the LIVE program and the Carbon-Neutral Challenge.
And when hard times hit, the denizens of the wine country don't just stand by and watch. For example: When Bryce Bagnall, the longtime winemaker for Witness Tree, was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) in 2003, Eric Hamacher and about dozen more of Bagnall's vintner buddies banded together to form20the SOBs, as in "Supporters of Bryce."
The group raised funds for Bagnall's health care, first by donating proceeds from big holiday-weekend sales, and then by creating a special cuvee in 2004. St. Bartholomew, a blend of pinot noir donated by 38 wineries, was named after the patron saint of both grape-growing and neurological diseases.
Bagnall died in November 2006, but his spirit lives on in his Bryce wine label (www.brycevineyard.com), carried on by his wife, Marcia, and in the annual Bryce Bagnall & SOB Scholarship for winery or vineyard management students at Chemeketa Community College.
Similarly, in 2004, when rising-star winemaker Jimi Brooks died unexpectedly just before harvest at the age of 38, vignerons at neighboring wineries worked overtime to vinify the Brooks grapes on behalf of their fallen friend.
Today, the Brooks label (www.brookswines.com) lives on under the watchful eyes of Jimi's sister, Janie Brooks Heuck, and winemaker Chris Williams. Proceeds benefit Jimi's son, Pascal, who at the tender age of 12 is the world's youngest winery owner. Janie tells me she couldn't have done it without the ongoing support of local winemakers such as Josh Bergstrom, Sam Tannahill, Laurent Montalieu and Harry Peterson-Nedry.
Hugh BynumScott Shull of Raptor Ridge helped on many fronts, including tending the stem bin.
Neighbors show up to help This year has its own bittersweet story. Redman Vineyard & Winery owner/winemaker Bill Redman was20diagnosed with stage IV metastatic melanoma just as harvest -- for what may turn out to be the vintage of the decade -- was getting under way.
It was imperative that the Redman grapes be picked and properly fermented. But Bill lay in the hospital receiving biochemotherapy treatment with his wife and business partner,
Cathy, at his side. So Scott and Annie Shull of Raptor Ridge got to work on the Redmans' behalf.
The Shulls monitored the Redman vineyards, decided when to harvest, then processed all the Redman fruit at their own winery, with Cathy Redman showing up to help as often as she could. After all 10 tons of pinot noir and 3 tons of chardonnay were in barrels, the Shulls sent the wine back to the Redman winery. This was on top of working Raptor Ridge's own grueling harvest and crush, a herculean task that generally keeps any vintner sleepless for weeks.
But as they labored, the Shulls were surprised to find neighbors and grape growers appearing out of the woodwork. Here were vineyard owners Jim and Karen Halliday steam-cleaning fermenters; there was farmer Ron Andresen hauling the Redmans' fermenters and barrels over to Raptor Ridge.
And then there was the day that David and Jeanne Beck accompanied their Crawford Beck Vineyard chardonnay grapes to Raptor Ridge in order to stand in the sorting line and help load the wine press on behalf of the Redmans. Not to mention the various Redman friends and co-workers who kept appearin g with rolled-up sleeves, eager to help with the dirty work of crush.
"Routinely I would run into someone in the industry who heard we were making the Redmans' wine this year and they'd exclaim, 'Oh I just love Bill and Cathy! What can we do to help you?'" Scott Shull recalls.
Adds Cathy Redman, "I was overwhelmed by the generosity, but in all honesty I was not surprised." She knew the wine- grape community well enough to know that they would help her to make it through harvest somehow.
Bill Redman is now in the midst of an arduous regime of high-dose interleukin-2 therapy. Between treatments, when he has enough strength, he shuffles out to the winery to check on his barrels. "Something about the medication he is on, he cannot stand wine at all right now. The taste of it is revolting to him," marvels Shull. "But he is still stirring the lees in the chardonnay and making sure the barrels are all topped up."
And those barrels are full thanks to the Shulls and the greater grape-growing community. "The beat goes on," Bill Redman recently told his wife. "If one of us stumbles or needs some help, the wine industry steps in and takes over."
Many tales of kindness
There are many more stories like this circulating around Oregon wine country; and there are many names that I could add to the lists of those who have helped with all of the aforementioned efforts. I marvel every time I hear such a tale. Making a casserole is one thing. But can you imagine someone sitting at your desk and doing your job for you -- for no pay -- if you had to go to the hospital?
But in just about any agricultural community, you will find the similar acts of kindness. When it is harvest time, the crop has to come in. People who work with the land don't let good produce go to waste. And they don't let good people down in times of need.
"People just quietly go about helping their neighbors here," reflects Marcia Bagnall. "This is a very supportive and loving industry."
With apologies to my colleagues covering the auto industry, the financial sector, Illinois gubernatorial politics and the outgoing administration, I'm pretty proud to have the honor of writing about a profession that Frank Sinatra could croon about.
As the song ends, "The wrong shall fail, the right prevail; with peace on Earth, good will to men."
Katherine Cole: 1320 S.W. Broadway, Portland, OR 97201