Beaux Freres: Introducing the Second Generation
by Alison Ruch, updated by Jean Yates, October 2009
Beaux Freres, French for "brothers-in-law," is named for its founders, brothers-in-law Mike Etzel and Robert Parker Jr. After nearly twenty years in business, and as two of Etzel's sons follow in their father's footsteps, starting careers in the wine industry, people are wondering: Will Beaux Freres be handed down to the next generation of brothers?
from left, Nathan, Jared, and Mikey Etzel
If a single Oregon winery were to define simultaneously "powerhouse" and "refined," it would be Beaux Freres. They've been hugely yet quietly successful from their first vintage to the present, producing top quality Pinot noirs and getting rave reviews and high scores in the wine press. Parker's status as a critic and his well-known monthly publication The Wine Advocate has certainly garnered attention for Beaux Freres, though Parker, doubtless for obvious reasons, does not cover their winery.
Etzel's sons, Jared and Mikey, are the family's second generation of winemakers, with the youngest, Nathan, possibly in tow. Both Jared and Mikey have worked several wine industry jobs, and are currently employed at Fisher Vineyards in Napa and Willakenzie Estate near Beaux Freres, respectively. In addition, they have just started their own winery, Coattails Winery, and released their first wine, Coattails Winery Horsetails Pinot noir 07. What they do next is yet to be determined, though it is a distinct possibility that they will eventually pick up where Dad and Uncle leave off.
Coattails Winery Horsetail Pinot noir 07 $25.95/$23.36 is the first wine from Beaux Freres' second generation. And so far, it's the Rookie of the Year.
Fragrant aromas of lilac, cinnamon, and pretty red fruit perfume with a background of dried herbs. Fresh yet rich flavors caress your tongue - purple flower-accented sweet cherry, sarsaparilla, brambly raspberry, and a creamy earth note. The finish resonates with pure Pinot noir character. - Marcus
Jared explains the choice of name - "The "Horsetail" name comes from the Equisetum hyemale 'Horsetail Fern', a plant that is used in biodynamic vineyards. The plant is made into a silica spray that enhances light absorption."
The 2007 Horsetail was made from Broadley Vineyard and Wahl Vineyard fruit. It is a mix of Dijon cones (Broadley) and the Courey Clone (Wahl). The Courey clone is a rare upright clone, old vines grown upright. The Courey Clone in the Wahl Vineyard was planted by the same respected vineyard manager who planted several blocks of the Beaux Freres Vineyard.
Jared and Mikey's memories of life before the vineyard and winery are fuzzy to nonexistent. In the mid-eighties their father worked as a wine wholesaler in Colorado. The Etzels took a vacation to Oregon in 1986, during which they visited some of the up-and-coming wine regions and discovered property for sale in the Ribbon Ridge, north Yamhill area. While they hadn't traveled northwest to check out real estate, the Etzels jumped on the opportunity, deciding to turn the property into a vineyard. Soon after, Mike partnered up with his sister Pat's husband, Robert Parker Jr., who was already well established in the wine industry.
The Etzel family moved to Oregon in 1987 and settled on their new plot of land. Mike slowly began to build a Pinot noir vineyard, intending only to manage fruit, not to produce wine; later, he added a winery facility. At the time, Jared was five, Mikey was three and Nathan was just two years old.
Jared remembers the first few years of financial hardship, and he remembers his dad working constantly. "He went from selling wine to growing grapes and making wine," Jared said. "It was quite an adjustment."
To supplement his income, Mike Etzel worked as a tree faller and a pig farmer while he got the vineyards up and running. The pig barn eventually became the winery, which Etzel remodeled, for the most part, on his own.
From watching their father, the boys learned that part of being a winemaker is the willingness to be flexible and patient, to multitask and to broaden your skill set. "You have to be willing to be a bit of an engineer at the winery, to do the service work on the equipment yourself. And you can't just be a weekend farmer," Mikey said. "You're constantly tinkering."
The vineyard also provided a great atmosphere for the young boys to play. Mikey remembers slinging mud around the vine rows and riding his dirt bike around the property. Jared remembers riding through the vineyards on tractors. "We were always out there," Mikey said. Before very long, the boys began working in the vineyards, earning a small allowance. While other kids might do the dishes or sweep the floor, these two spent a season "suckering," or thinning excess shoots from grapevines, in order to save up for their first Nintendo.
"I gave them little jobs here and there, trying to match the tasks with their abilities," their father said. "They began with little vineyard jobs, and they worked at open houses as ticket collectors and glass washers. As they got older, they did mostly vineyard work in the summers, spreading straw or making compost, pruning, doing trellis work If they needed spending money, they had to earn it.
"I was always hoping that they may want to get involved," Etzel continued, "but when they were in high school, they didn't demonstrate any super interest in the wine industry. It was just a way of life. It wasn't until they left and went to Europe that they said, 'I think this is what I want to do.'
"Being a child once myself," Etzel chuckled, "I never enjoyed being told what to do, so it wasn't a dictatorship, like, 'You are gonna follow in my footsteps.' Certainly my wife doesn't believe in that. She believes that whatever passions fill their hearts and minds - they should pursue them."
Jared and Mikey talk about how even though they were steeped in wine work as children, they never felt pressure to choose winemaking as a career. What tipped the scales, according to Jared and Mikey, was spending time working for nearby Ribbon Ridge wineries (Cristom, Brick House, Adea) and eventually traveling to assist at wineries in Spain and France.
The boys' exposure to wine production near and far helped them realize what an exciting and dynamic profession winemaking can be - what diversity is possible within the boundaries of vine to bottle. At that point, soon after high school, the hunch was affirmed for Jared and Mikey: What Dad does is truly, incredibly, definitively cool.
Unlike their father, who learned to make wine with established Oregon winemaker Dick Ponzi, Mikey and Jared completed the Oregon State University Enology and Viticulture Program. Nathan is still in school there. They say the program is small, that it's "not quite what the [renowned] UC-Davis program is," but that it's growing and that the faculty is strong.
The OSU program emphasizes science, providing a solid, two-year curriculum in biology and chemistry followed by several course options that are wine industry specific (for instance: Principles of Soil Science, Introduction to Insect Pests, Weed Management, Wine Sensory Evaluation and Topics in Fermentation). The students enrolled in the Enology and Viticulture Program come from diverse educational backgrounds - ranging from those who started college in biochemistry, as pre-med students or in computer programming. Mikey said very few students in the program start college in enology and viticulture. This broad range of interests and talents is something Mikey and Jared appreciate about their peers.
"We come from an industry background - we've been making wine - and then there are people that come into [enology and viticulture] first generation, and they have no wine background," Jared said. "Maybe they were a doctor or something. They have completely different winery practices and ideas and who's right? Nobody. That's the beauty of it. You do your own thing, you figure it out and you go from there."
While Mikey and Jared have lots of practical experience, they're glad to have taken coursework that explains things like the chemical make-up of grapes and the scientific details of what occurs during fermentation. In school, they got the nitty gritty on some of the hows, some of the whys, so when they next approach winemaking, there will be less mystery.
In addition to the enology and viticulture program, both Jared and Mikey are studied Spanish, and Jared earned an additional degree in business, all of which enhance their already attractive list of winery and vineyard work qualifications.
College and After
Beyond exposure to the family vineyard and wine business, Jared and Mikey worked harvests in Oregon and Spain while in college.
In Oregon, Jared and Mikey worked harvests for Doug Tunnell at Brick House and did work for Steve Doerner at Cristom as well as Dean Fisher at Adea. They say they owe a lot of their experience to the tight-knit community of winemakers that exists in the Ribbon Ridge area where, Mikey said, "there's a cluster of people that are willing to share ideas and allow us to come out and work."
Mikey worked on a compost system with Joe Stark, owner of an "organic, no expenses spared" vineyard and winery just down the road from Beaux Freres. Jared worked in Sonoma with boutique Pinot noir producer, WH Smith.
Jared has worked for two vintages as assistant winemaker at Napa Valley's Fisher Vineyard. "In California, winemaking seems to be all about tannin structure, density, layered tannins. The winemaking is quite different from what we do at Beaux Freres. I've tried to extract different things to do with Pinot noir from the experience."
Mikey now works at Willakenzie Estate Winery, helping to manage the vineyards there. He manages several vineyards planted to different clones of Pinot noir, and with different soils. He's gaining an in-depth knowledge of vineyard management, just across the valley from Beaux Freres.
While abroad, Jared and Mikey were able to taste wines they never would have tasted in the U.S. and to get a more concrete sense of how the land and all aspects of it - the terroir - inform the flavor of wine.
"I think it's really important in winemaking to know all the different varietals and styles of wine and how people are making them because it's such a subjective thing," Jared said. "There are so many takes on it. Some people think it's more of an art, some people think it's more of a science Some people think it's divine."
When Mikey went to Spain, he began in the south, in Valencia, and worked his way up to Rioja. The experience allowed him to see some of the large wine operations going on in the south as well as some of the small winery practices taking place in Rioja. He found it interesting how, similar to certain areas in the U.S., a competitive atmosphere for small, boutique wineries tends to breed more and more of the same until you have a place like Rioja, which he said feels like the Spanish "epicenter" of low production, fine quality wineries.
"When you're in Europe, you see generation after generation of winemakers, and there's so much knowledge," Mikey said. "They know exactly what 'this block' is going to do Jared and I are at such an advantage I'm only twenty and I'm getting immersed."
"Working with Artadi and Rioja and Clos Erasmus from the Priorat region - some of the top producers in Spain - and being able to work with them one-on-one really got me interested - got me focused and more passionate about wine," Jared said. "It was an opportunity that - if it weren't for my father and my uncle - there was no way these people would have even considered us for work at their tiny operations. We've been fortunate to have experiences like that."
Much of Jared and Mikey's tasting experiences have been during annual visits from their uncle, Robert Parker Jr. The Etzel sons are well aware of Parker's standing as one of the most famous wine critics around (Robert Parker publishes a highly influential wine newsletter called The Wine Advocate), but to them, he is Uncle - an uncle who happens to know a whole lot about wine. As Jared put it, "I've never met anybody more passionate about wine tasting."
"When he comes to Oregon or we go and visit him, he'll open a lot of fantastic wines, and he's very generous," Jared said. "He likes to taste with us, and he likes to hear what we think of the wines.
"For the past few years, Mikey and I have been able to taste with him on the Beaux Freres blends, and that's been pretty educational, just to hear him and hear his opinions on the wines - to see how he does it and how intense and focused he is."
As devotees to the Pinot noir grape, some of Jared's favorite wines are French Burgundies. He enjoys wines from Confuron; Coe d'Or; Domaine Ponsot; Domaine Leroy; Domaine Gros, Frere et Soeur; and the wine he calls "the best ever," the '69 Domaine Leroy Le Corton. "It had a floral beauty. It was soft, delicate - what Pinot should be," Jared said. He also likes the Spanish Artadi wines. Mikey added to the list hot-climate Tempranillos and Grenaches.
Of Oregon wines, Jared and Mikey are fans of Adea, Brick House, Cristom and Thomas.
While Jared and Mikey have had opportunities other aspiring winemakers may only dream of, these two do not expect that success will simply be handed to them. The advice they would offer other hopefuls is the advice they've taken and continue to follow now. "It's difficult to have your own operation," Jared said. "You have to make connections, work crushes, make friends, use others' space, make a product. And it's important to have an education and a scientific background."
"Also," Jared added, "see as many regions as you can. Travel. Go. It's different everywhere."
Mikey and Jared are proud of all their family has accomplished and proud that their father and uncle persist in producing small quantities of elegant wine, unwilling to ever lower their standards to increase production.
If Mikey and Jared do, someday, assume responsibility for Beaux Freres, they plan to work under the wine philosophy their father has been adhering to for the past near-twenty years. After all of their schooling, work at other wineries, and travel, the two realize more and more what a special and respectable business their father is running. And, as the Spectator scores have shown, it certainly ain't broke. Etzel farms organically and biodynamically and believes in minimal intervention in the winery. He does not filter or fine the Beaux Freres wines, and, as much as possible, he tries to mirror the Burgundian style of Pinot noir production.
"I hope they continue with the focus on the vineyard and the importance of properly grown grapes," their father said. "I hope they continue with attentiveness to detail, which I think is what separates mediocrity from something special. I hope they will keep their minds open to innovative and progressive changes and are reflective.
"I'm kind of set in my ways," Etzel added. "I have it down pat. I'm not as experimental. I hope [Jared and Mikey] keep open minds to some of the research going on in enology and viticulture and that they apply it judiciously. I hope they continue with the passion that made Beaux Freres Beaux Freres . . . . I want them to broaden their horizons so that when and if they take over they have a full appreciation and desire to be here."
Mikey and Jared's sentiments neatly reflect Etzel's hopes for the future. They have great respect for the way Beaux Freres has been run, and they realize more and more just how much useful knowledge they absorbed on the farm as youngsters.
"My father has really taken the time with both Mikey and I," Jared said. "He's taken us out in the vineyard, and he's taught us how to prune correctly, and that's one of the most important things in the vineyard because that sets your yield, it sets how your vines are going to grow for the season and it can contribute to management of disease so your canopy's not too dense."
There are a few changes Jared and Mikey would consider making, if they do begin running Beaux Freres. Mostly, what they're interested in is making Etzel's already "green" practices greener and making the winery more energy and cost efficient.
As technologies improve, Jared said their goals are to, "be easy on the land and to be a closed, sustainable system."
One concern Jared and Mikey have is with the water supply at the vineyard site - and in the entire Ribbon Ridge region. The vineyards are not irrigated, and they'd like to keep them that way, but, inevitably, Mikey said, "The winery uses a lot of water." They're tossing around ideas to save water such as ground water or rainwater collection systems. For energy efficiency, they're looking into solar power options.
Mikey has always been more of a technician or engineer type, interested in farming and grape growing. Jared's talents tend toward working with people, and he has a very discerning palate. Both young men are interested in dealing with all aspects of running a vineyard and winery and hesitate to predict how they may, someday, need to divvy up the tasks.
"Maybe we won't assign 'Vineyard Manager' or 'Winemaker' titles; we'll just work together," said Jared.
For now, they're busy taking in the science instruction from OSU, connecting with wineries to see where they can help out, and doing a lot of tasting, comparing and contrasting.
"It's a very good possibility," said Jared. "For us to come back to Beaux Freres, we need to be ready, and we need to be educated enough, because Beaux Freres has become a major player in the Pinot noir industry, and we want to keep that up.
"We have the advantage of knowing the Beaux Freres vineyard and having a precedent set as far as quality - what my father expects - to produce world class Pinot - traditional, Burgundian style - and to make a very delicate, nuanced wine as opposed to more of a blockbuster, big style. I don't think Mikey and I are looking to expand and do something like Mondavi."
"We're not wanting to jump right in," Mikey said. Jared added, "I think we're both looking to work outside of the company initially - probably as winemaker's assistants at higher end producers - or to travel and work a few harvests a season, going from northern hemisphere to southern hemisphere.
"Neither of us is really tied down right now. We don't have jobs or kids or wives, so it's pretty cool that we can just kind of, at the spur of the moment decide, 'let's go do it.'"
Time will tell whether Jared and Mikey - and possibly Nathan - have what it takes to shoulder the legacy that is Beaux Freres. What is certain is that, in their early twenties, these young men have a remarkably clear vision, and their passion for vineyard management and winemaking is evident.
"I love good wine and food, and those go hand in hand with the industry," Jared said. "I love to match and pair great food, wine and people."
When asked how they view winemaking - as an art, a science, something divine - both Mikey and Jared responded in unison: "It's a mixture." Mikey added, "That, and an extra good work ethic."
Etzel's advice to his sons is to, "Follow your heart and work hard and don't be afraid to get your fingers dirty. Demonstrate leadership through action: If there's something that needs to be done, do it. Don't delegate it out because you think you're too good for it.
"Because we started Beaux Freres from scratch, with little money, we were forced to do all the menial jobs that it took. We didn't have employees; we were the employees. And now we can afford it, and that still doesn't keep us from doing the tasks. You have to know every detail it takes to get to the end; you can't do that from an office."
Right now, Jared and Mikey are positive about being the second generation to run Beaux Freres. "Our dad and uncle are very, very close," Jared said, "and they've been close for a long time. They've been able to do it - as a family - and I think it will work out with more family."