“O’Reilly Expands into Washington
with More Vineyards, New Winery”
Owen Roe’s Winemaker Discovers Yakima Valley’s Hidden Gems Via Tiny VineyardsBy Christina Kelly
(Page 2 of 3)
Vineyards Added to the Portfolio
In addition to the purchase of 280 acres of the Outlook Vineyard, O’Reilly added Rattlesnake Hills Vineyard (56 acres) to his portfolio. The vineyard is near the town of Union Gap, and the winemaker says he will likely change the name. In addition, O’Reilly discovered a tiny, three-fourths of an acre of Cabernet Franc tucked away in the middle of nowhere, called Slide Mountain and immediately became the only client after tasting the fruit.
Mike Sauer, owner of Red Willow Vineyard in Yakima, says O’Reilly rescued his vineyard after Columbia Winery pulled out of their large contracts a few years ago and left Sauer with tons of unspoken-for vines. O’Reilly got wind of the available fruit and immediately drove to the vineyard, where he and Sauer knocked out the grape contracts.
Above, David O'Reilly shows off his new vineyard
“After a while, you know what you are looking for, and Red Willow had the right soil and great exposure,” said O’Reilly.
Other vineyards in the Owen Roe portfolio from Washington include the DuBrul Vineyard, where his top-tier wines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are produced, Elerding Vineyard (Horse Heaven Hills), Elephant Mountain Vineyard, Wallula Vineyard and Erickson Road Vineyard - all in or near the Yakima AVA.
“David is not happy with the status quo,” said his longtime business partner Jerry Owen. “We don’t know the height we can reach with these new vineyards in Washington. But, we believe to reach the ultimate, the best, it will be much higher than now as we continue to expand our vineyard sources.”
The Owen Roe label sources fruit from many vineyards in Oregon and even one Pinot Noir vineyard in the Santa Maria region in Northern California. O’Reilly makes Pinot Noir from the Dundee Hills, Chehalem and Eola Hills and Kilmore vineyards to name a few. His popular Abbot’s Table is a blend from vineyards throughout the Northwest. A Cabernet Sauvignon is made from an obscure vineyard in Southern Oregon (Ironbird Vineyard) that O’Reilly discovered in one of the ‘drive-arounds.’
“He has great flexibility each year,” says Matt Rice, who works at Owen Roe in distribution and marketing. “He doesn’t compromise on his wines. If it doesn’t fit what he wants, it will not go into the wine program.”
However, Rice says a wine that may not make it into O’Reilly’s top-end wine could be a part of his value wines, if the juice is good. With new fruit sources online, Rice says O’Reilly will have even greater choices for what goes into his various portfolios.
For example, the new value wines from Mirth and Lenore will likely compete at price points similar to the Magnificent Wine Company’s House Wine (founded by K Vintner’s Charles Smith of Walla Walla). The range could be from $8 to $15.
A New Winemaker Added to the Equation
Two years ago, O’Reilly hired Erik Brasher, an enologist with a strong sense of soil, crop yields and canopy, who also loved to make wine. After striking up a quick working relationship, O’Reilly wanted Brasher to oversee all wines at both the Oregon and Washington facilities. The 2008 vintage will have Brasher’s hand in the wines.
A graduate of Michigan State University in viticulture, Brasher moved to Corvallis, Oregon for a master’s degree at Oregon State University. OSU waived tuition and placed Brasher in its research department, studying the quality affect of grapes at different crop levels. After he earned his degree, he worked as the enologist at Argyle Winery for two vintages, and then Rex Hill for one vintage, until they were sold to A to Z Winery.
When he met David O’Reilly, Brasher said he felt like he found his place in the wine industry.
“At first, I was struck by his vision and the clarity of what he wanted to do,” said Brasher. “Many winemakers are unclear about what they want. Not with David. He has a vision, and looks at wine regions, trying to get the best expression from the terroir.”
Above right, Owen Roe's vines marked out in Red Willow Vineyard
Brasher was also impressed with O’Reilly’s ability to connect with people instantly and strike up a conversation and a working relationship with those he brings into the Owen Roe fold.
“He has a lot of projects going on, but he surrounds himself with good talent,” said Brasher. “It is one of the keys to his success.”
As someone who believes in working with the best, O’Reilly insists on feeding his crews in Oregon and Washington at lunchtime with fresh food. He hires a cook to serve lunch daily. The crew sits down for the meal and talks about the work of the day or things they hear in the industry. If O’Reilly is in town, he joins them for a meal.
Jerry Owen, who has known O’Reilly since 1999 when they started Owen Roe, says O’Reilly puts great teams of people together and then, as quarterback, steers them with his vision of the winery.
“He is a very good executive,” said Owen. “David is principled, driven to make great wine and puts the right team together to support what he is building.”
Both Owen and O’Reilly spend an extraordinary amount of time in vineyards—Owen more in Oregon and O’Reilly in Washington (he makes the three-hour drive to Sunnyside every week). After years in Oregon vineyards, Owen says his partner is driven to do things the right way in Washington vineyards.
“We aren’t fighting the growers in Washington to drop the fruit like we did when we first started out,” said Owen, referring to O’Reilly’s commitment to low-yield crops for more intensity in the fruit. “The Yakima Valley has much to discover. There were bad wines made from that region in the early days, but we see great opportunities.”
With high scores for his opulent and rich Owen Roe DuBrul Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling, the two business partners say the wine speaks for itself. The grapes from the Yakima AVA are carefully tended, with punch downs by hand, racking by gravity and nurturing along with way without winemaker interference. The labels are hand-crafted and a work of art by themselves.
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Irrigated vineyard contrasts with high desert in central Washington