“O’Reilly Expands into Washington
with More Vineyards, New Winery”
Owen Roe’s Winemaker Discovers Yakima Valley’s Hidden Gems Via Tiny Vineyards
Author: Christina Kelly
Co-Author Jean Yates
It’s not an unfamiliar sight to see Oregon winemaker David O’Reilly driving around the hills surrounding the Yakima Valley in his high-mileage Ford Explorer, scouting out vineyards and vineyard locations for possible fruit sources. O’Reilly is expanding his winery operations in Washington State, and his number one goal is to locate the best vineyards for wine production.
The winemaker who co-founded Sineann Winery and is the co-owner and winemaker for Owen Roe Winery in Newberg, Ore, will be introducing new wines and bringing a new Washington winery to the market.
O’Reilly is outwardly ever-changing—an idea man with a keen sense of marketing and a knack for making something work by making it the best he can. He does little advertising for his winery, Owen Roe, or his value-oriented offshoot labels, O’Reilly and Sharecropper wines, but he rarely has any inventory left by the vintage’s end. Driven, but not manically so, he continues to look for new possibilities and new challenges that push the wine envelope—balanced soils, better canopy, lower crop yields and where possible, organic viticulture. O’Reilly thinks and re-thinks, garners opinions, and most of all scours the landscape to keep up with his growing efforts in the wine industry.
Inwardly, his drives are still the same—family (he and wife Angelica have eight home-schooled children), a constant desire to learn and be challenged, and a quality of life that that focuses less on accumulating wealth and more on comfort and basic desires. He is meticulous and uncompromising in the winery and in the vineyard and has no problem selling off juice to someone else if it doesn’t meet his expectations.
Owen Roe wines are highly sought-after, using grapes from Oregon (with Pinot Noir as the flagship) and Washington (the high-end Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot). Rather than expand his winery and produce more of the same thing, O’Reilly and business partner Jerry Owen purchased an old Carnation dairy facility in Sunnyside, Wash., and a vineyard dubbed Outlook, west of Sunnyside with about 105 planted acres. O’Reilly will be introducing new wines, new packaging and ultimately, years down the road, a new destination in the Yakima wine country.
Above, David O'Reilly in Washington State Vineyard
The New Winery and Wines
O’Reilly’s new winery location is not a pretty sight at first, but the potential to restore the old dairy office and five acres of storage tanks and outbuildings is huge. Prior to the purchase, the location was the site for Apex Cellars and Washington Hills winery. O’Reilly is restoring and cleaning up the compound to build a high-end, custom crush facility and a new winery, temporarily named Cream Winery of Yakima.
The winery will produce quart-sized milk containers, filled with wine and only for sale at the winery and in limited restaurants. The containers will be recyclable—a constant thread throughout all of O’Reilly’s endeavors. He is also creating several new labels for value-priced wines—Mirth (Chardonnay) and Lenore (Syrah, named after the Edgar Allen Poe poem) and another red wine blend, all produced at the Sunnyside facility with Yakima Valley grapes. O’Reilly created a new company, Corvidae, which will sell the value-priced wines, made with fruit not used in Owen Roe wines, or with fruit from the Yakima Valley that passes the O’Reilly litmus test.
Above, David O'Reilly with Red WIllow Vineyard owner
“What defines this area is beautiful fruit, shallow soils and hillsides,” said O’Reilly while driving around the hills surrounding Yakima. “The acids in the fruit are great. We found green growers who don’t manipulate the fruit.”
Although a designated appellation, the Yakima Valley has been under the radar for many years, with the likes of Walla Walla and the Columbia Valley appellations garnering most of the attention. O’Reilly says the region is still being explored, “There is something really wild west about this area—there are so many places to discover.”
The Ireland-born winemaker isn’t pulling up his Oregon Pinot Noir roots, but rather planting new ones in the Sunnyside area. Many of the high-end red wines produced under the Owen Roe label are now made at the Sunnyside winery. These wines receive killer high scores with wine critics and are difficult to find the moment they are released.
By purchasing the Outlook Vineyard, O’Reilly is expanding his wine offerings to include wines at all price points, but adding much more in the value wines category. The more exclusive Owen Roe wines will also have some new sources, but O’Reilly gave himself more options with the new vineyard and new vineyard sources.
Red Willow Vineyard in the Yakima Valley
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.
Irrigated vineyard contrasts with high desert in central Washington
More Plans on the Horizon
O’Reilly is so convinced the undiscovered Yakima Valley will continue to yield beautiful fruit in the future, he is peering into the crystal ball of winemaking and planning on the philosophy of “if you build it, they will come.”
Once Cream Winery is cleaned up and made “greener,” construction will take place to preserve the dairy atmosphere and remove unwanted and unsafe buildings. O’Reilly wants an organic winery, a sustainable facility, a tasting room and an interactive tour of the facility so consumers can see how wine is made with a light carbon footprint. The hope, of course, is once the winery comes together, other business leaders in the region will join in to help make Sunnyside a destination site, with restaurants, lodging and activities.
“I don’t need a showy Chateau to convince everyone about my wine,” O’Reilly said. “The wines will speak for themselves. The grapes will shine through. The terroir will be expressed in the glass.”
At his new vineyard, Rattlesnake Hills, O’Reilly inherited 12 acres of four different varieties of cherries. He plans to farm them organically for sale and can see products from the fruit. A talented chef who does most of the cooking for his family (and freezes meals when he is traveling in different markets across the country), O’Reilly said his wish lists include making organic cheeses.
O’Reilly sees the big picture in front of him, and has the patience to make the right decisions along the way, wait for the right timing and above all, spend the money to get the quality that he knows will pay off in the long run.
“I don’t know when he sleeps,” joked his assistant Matt Rice. “He is always on an even keel and optimistic. He is a unique guy.”
David O'Reilly and Owen Roe Winery
If there is such a thing as the luck of the Irish, winemaker Owen Roe Winery's David O'Reilly has found a pot of gold underneath his Willamette Valley, Oregon rainbow.
O'Reilly is a dapper man- meticulous in appearance and in his work. When he smiles, there is mischief in his eyes and smile crinkles-a sign that smiling is a frequent behavior.
Everything about Owen Roe that O'Reilly touches has to be the best. It is almost an obsession with him. From huge, gorgeous wines to hand-numbered bottles and objects of art gracing his labels, O'Reilly spends the money for a total package.
"Every thing we do is meticulous," said O'Reilly, 37, one of 12 children born in Belfast, Ireland. "What we do is totally uncompromised. It is a lifestyle that includes hard work, but the product is thoroughly rewarding."
Everything O'Reilly does is also thoroughly Irish. The wineries associated with O'Reilly- Owen Roe, O'Reilly's - have ties to his former homeland. Owen Roe was named for Owen Roe O'Neil, a great Irish patriot. O'Reilly's, features a drawing of a huge Irish wolfhound on the label.
" I like to tell people that I got involved in the business to follow an Irishman's dreams," said O'Reilly with a wink and an Irish brogue that comes and goes. "Imagine making a living by drinking!"
He jokes of course, because O'Reilly is dead serious about wine making. Although he enjoys the high ratings bestowed on his wines, O'Reilly says he is more satisfied with great taste.
From Harsh Life to Lush Life
The combination of his Irish heritage and obsession about being the best says a lot about the affable winemaker. His luck and his taste for the good life wasn't always granted.
As a young child in Belfast, the O'Reilly family-all 14-was of modest means. Life was harsh, and often violent as the family witnessed a depressing catalogue of death and injury due to sectarian violence.
Between 1966 and 1999, a total of 3,636 people were killed and 36,000 injured as the conflict spread beyond Northern Ireland's borders onto the British mainland and elsewhere, according to reports. Many of the victims were innocent civilians.
O'Reilly said two of his uncles were murdered, a sister suffered a traumatic injury, and one never knew when and where a homemade bomb would explode.His family scraped up enough money to move to British Columbia, Canada just before his teen years, and O'Reilly never looked back.
"I'm sure the past did have some impact on why I want the best from what I produce," O'Reilly said, thoughtfully. "I'm not like Frank McCourt in Angela's Ashes-I choose not to look back and dwell on the past."
On to Oregon
Instead, O'Reilly looked to the future, majoring in philosophy at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA, where he met his future wife, Angelica. It was there that he discovered a love of land and soil. He worked at a small winery in Southern California performing all the tasks necessary to get the wine out the door.
"If you want to study truth and reality, it's grounded in nature," O'Reilly said. "The wine business is drawn intrinsically to nature and soil. You don't get into this business to make a fortune-I was drawn to it."
For more than six years, O'Reilly worked for Elk Cove performing marketing tasks. However, he was leaning more and more about winemaking. The urge to make his own wine was singing inside his head. It was at this time that he met Peter Rosback, an amateur winemaker who helped the winery during crush.
Rosback was also bitten by the urge to produce wine. With Irish heritage and love of good wine in common, they struck a partnership and created Sineann.
"David has a great palate and is one of the best marketing people in the state," Rosback said. "We're a good team. Each of us brings talents to the table to produce the best wine we can. Of course, it starts with great fruit, and that also has to be the best we can get."
In addition to Sineann, Rosback also makes wines for Medici, where the owners allow Sineann to be produced. He also consults with O'Reilly on Owen Roe and O'Reilly's.
"Peter brings an irrepressible passion to everything he does," O'Reilly said. "I think that's why we are such good partners."
O'Reilly and Rosback left Elk Cove in 1998 to produce wines in relatively small quantities. While Sineann is produced at Medici, O'Reilly has a new winery to produce Owen Roe and O'Reilly's. He spends a great deal of time on the road, from spot to spot, overseeing vineyards. He and Rosback purchase grapesfrom the Willamette Valley to Hood River to Walla Walla and Columbia valleys in Washington state.
The good news comes in the form of a converted barn, his own facility for Owen Roe and O'Reilly's. Sineann will continue production at Medici for the time being.
"I will be happy to have one location to produce my wines," he added.
Original Photo by David Brun for label
About the author:
For more than 20 years, Christina Kelly worked as a newspaper reporter on the West Coast, covering education, public safety, government, business, environmental issues, entertainment and minority affairs.
During the same time, the Washington native began her lifelong interest in wine. After two decades in the news reporting business, Christina decided it was time to concentrate on her passion — the wine industry. She is our indispensable staff writer and columnist.
This intelligent, charming powerhouse graces the Northwest wine industry with her insights, tastings and conversations with those in an industry that has exploded in the past few years.
Owen Family Farm at Owen Roe Winery
Owen Roe O'Neill
Poem on the back of
the "Sinister Hand" Bottle
race kinsfolk for it,
need to touch land first,
not going to make it,
grab my sword,
touched land first.