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Laura Volkman Vineyards
Author: Christina Kelly
Laura Volkman grew up in poverty on a farm in Claremore, Oklahoma, where growing crops was a matter of survival, food was canned in jars and women were the backbone of keeping the house and family together during harsh economic times.
There was nothing in Volkman's future that said one day she would be making beautiful Pinot Noir in her own small winery in Oregon's Willamette Valley. The landscape of her childhood, and the history of her family was filled with flat, broken land, barren from the scarring of the numerous dust and dirt storms that suffocated the area for as far as the eye could see, starting in the 1930s. What little her family could scratch out of the land had to feed a large, blended family of 13.
Today, Laura Volkman Vineyards sits on 3.5 acres near the majestic Chehalem Mountains of Newberg, Oregon, about 20 miles southwest of Portland. The land is green and lush, and the ground contains deep red basaltic soils from ancient lava flows, brown marine sedimentary soils, and gray ice age loess soils. It's a backdrop that is very different from the thrashed soils of her childhood.
“It's ironic that I am back in the country, essentially farming,” said Volkman, who began waitressing at the age of 12 to help support her family. “I grew up in the country on a farm, moved to big cities, worked a number of different jobs, and now I am back in the country again, farming.”
When Volkman struck out on her own 30 years ago, she tried her hand at numerous jobs, including a stint working on the Alaskan pipeline. From Alaska to California, Volkman moved around like a migrant farmer before landing in Washington State to work for a software company. But there was something she wanted to do, and intuitively, she thought it might be something in agriculture. After marrying her husband Jim, the couple transferred to Oregon, where Jim worked as an engineer. Two children later, the couple made a decision that Laura would stay at home.
When they purchased five acres near the Rex Hill Winery in Newberg, no one but Laura knew there might be more in store than staying at home raising children. The property hosted walnut and filbert trees, but they had blight and needed to be removed. What few people knew is that Volkman worked at Beringer Winery in California one summer and that experience created a slow burn for wine.
As Laura gazed out of her window, she envisioned a vineyard and a garden. And, like the women before her, she knew that it would be her responsibility to take care of it.
“The women I grew up with were the backbone of our family my mother, my grandmother - they kept the family intact and did it all,” said Laura. “I knew that no matter what I did, I would one day pay tribute to those women.”
Make the Commitment
“I didn't say anything to my husband about what I was thinking,” Volkman recalled when she decided to grow grapes. “I needed to do the research first and that took about a year. Then one day I called him on the phone while he was on a business trip to New York and I told him I had just ordered 6,000 Pinot Noir plants.”
There was silence, and then Laura waited. The couple had discussed possible uses for their land in the past. When Jim returned from New York, she showed him the soil analysis. She also showed him the viticulture and enology program at the Northwest Viticulture Center in Salem. The couple then ran a 10-year cash flow analysis and saw that the project could work, but Laura would need to do more than sell grapes - she would have to make wine, create a brand and develop a label in order for it to be financially viable.
Make the commitment, Jim told her. Because of his work schedule, Laura knew she would be on her own during the start-up of the winery. That meant doing all the work herself, from clearing the land, planting, driving the tractor to hauling heavy gear, picking up weighty hoses filled with wine. It meant up at dawn, taking care of everyone's needs - her two children were 3 and 1 years old at the time. After getting her husband off to work she would jump into overalls and start her second job - a one-person winery operation while working as a full-time mom.
What's in a Name?
Living in the heart of wine country, Volkman said she wanted a wine label that reflected her personality. Her business research discovered that women in their forties were the largest group of wine buyers in the country, so she also wanted to attract that demographic.
“Ultimately, I decided to use my own name to reflect that it was a woman managing the vineyard and making the wine,” said Volkman. “I also thought it would honor the women who came before me - the strong role models I had, who endured so much - poverty, health struggles and amazing hard work. I knew I could do this.”
Her label depicts a woman in a red jumper dress overlooking the vineyards in almost a wistful, reflective manner, as if to say, “look what I've done.”
During the time that the vineyard was planted, Volkman went to night school to learn how to manage and run a vineyard. She attended classes on weekends and planned everything around her growing children. When equipment broke down at the winery, Jim, a mechanical engineer, would get it running again. But Laura had to learn to fix equipment as well, since she often could not wait for Jim to return home from work.
The first few seasons were very tough, the couple admitted. They were bombarded with the same questions every winemaker has - when should thinning be performed, how many grape clusters do you drop, how many leaves should be removed - critical decisions and critical timing that keeps winemakers awake at night.
“Every decision is critical to wine quality,” Volkman said. “I am intensely hands-on and focused. I am very clean in the winery, and I think that is reflected in the wines.”
After more than a decade making wine, Volkman offers three distinct Pinot Noirs and a Chardonnay. The winery produces 500 cases annually, and could double that production in the next few years. Two of the wines - Jacob Pinot Noir and Rachel Pinot Noir are named after Volkman's children, now 15 (Jacob) and 13 (Rachel).
The Jacob Pinot Noir is estate grown fruit from the east block of Volkman's vineyard, where the sun's early rays play a role in ripening the fruit. It is generally bigger in style with toasty robust dark fruit components. The Rachel Pinot Noir comes from the west block of the vineyard, where the afternoon sun and winds affect the fruit flavors. It is very floral and lighter in style. The St. James Pinot Noir is a blend of both, and showcases fruit from both blocks.
The only white wine offered comes from Washington grapes in the Celilo Vineyard, near the Columbia Gorge.
Volkman's wines are more French in style - soft and more feminine. The wines are subtle rather than robust or over-extracted.
Bill Breitzmann and his wife Vicki Hammer discovered Laura Volkman wines about four years ago while driving through Oregon wine country. Breitzmann was in wine sales in the Chicago area for many years before retiring and moving to the Northwest. He still works as a wine appraiser.
“We loved her wines when we first tasted them,” Breitzmann said. “They are in the same style as Eyrie, but not as austere. Laura's wines are balanced and age beautifully. As we've gotten to know her, we know that she would never put out anything that wasn't top notch.”
The Volkman Pinot wines go straight to barrel and spend 10 to 12 months on the lees. Volkman racks only once during this time. She uses the whole berry clusters, cold soaks for seven days and cold fermentation for two weeks. The juice goes into barrel in a free-run with minimal handling of the fruit. Her Chardonnay sees 50 percent stainless steel and 50 percent oak.
As a small producer, Volkman belongs to a cooperative of sorts, roughly a half-dozen wineries, renting equipment and barrel space from August Cellars Winery. It is an arrangement she has used for eight years and said she plans to stay. She has finally hired a few vineyard workers to help her out during harvest, and said if she grows, she will crunch the numbers to see if she can afford to hire someone to help her. Her husband helps when asked, but the couple view the winery and all the production as something Laura does.
At right above, Laura's daughter Rachel and Avalon's Buffy
“He is the key to this because he is so supportive,” said Laura. “He doesn't get involved in the winemaking, but he's there to help me. If I can't figure things out, he can.”
For now, it is Laura in the vineyard, although now that her children are teenagers, she is incorporating their help in the winery. She still spends more of her time parenting and being involved in her children's lives while working the winery around her mom duties. And, she makes certain that her daughter knows she can also do it all.
“When there is something that breaks down - equipment or a vehicle, I send her out to see what they are doing so she can learn how to fix things,” Volkman said. “But it is just as important to me that she knows how to can jam or bake a pie. I am raising her to be strong. I owe it to those who guided me.”