In 2015, Oregon Wine Pioneers (Vine Lives) was published. It told the stories of 15 ground-breaking Oregon wineries and winemakers. After the strangest year in living memory, it was time to reconnect with this heroic souls and find out how life looks now — and what the future holds.
Fifty-four inches. That’s the perfect height for a tasting room bar according to RJ Lint. He knows because he and wife Juanita took a tape-measure when they went wine-tasting and sized up every bar in every vineyard they visited.
Since buying Plum Hill’s main property in 2007 Juanita and RJ have devoted themselves to creating a winery where ‘welcome’ isn’t just a word on the doormat. “Our philosophy is to treat customers the way we want to be treated,” RJ explains, beaming from beneath a faded black Plum Hill baseball cap. “Wine is social. We want the customer to have an exceptional experience and feel comfortable here.”
My brother and sister-in-law introduced me to Plum Hill wine. We opened a bottle for dinner one night and it went indecently quick. So on a sunny afternoon we drove the few miles through rolling farm country from Forest Grove, past the L Bar T bison ranch, to Plum Hill vineyard near Gaston. When I return, more than a year later, to interview the Lints I mention this to Juanita.
“Oh yes! I know our sister-in-law, she brought some people in the other day.”
Plum Hill is like a real-life Cheers. They remember names, birthdays and wine preferences. There’s a dog-run outside for folk’s four-footed pals and barstools so visitors will take it easy and stay a while. They host live music on the broad patio overlooking the vineyard and encourage guests to picnic beneath the giant oaks. Juanita wants to turn the house on the property into a B&B and expand the facilities so they can host weddings. “We like people,” RJ grins. “We want to get to know you, we want you to relax, we want you to have a good time and enjoy the wine.”
This ambition is all the more generous for the fact that RJ and Juanita didn’t need to do any of this. In fact, they would have been better off, financially anyway, choosing a conventional retirement. Both were telecommunications professionals working for companies like Bell Labs, AT&T, and Integra. They were dedicated and successful. Juanita travelled a lot. RJ was a consultant for the Australian government at one point. They’d earned leisure time and then some.
But Juanita had a job that brought them to the Willamette Valley and RJ, recently retired, was curious about wine-making. He started volunteering at vineyards and bought a two-acre plot in Forest Grove. When Juanita reached retirement she stayed active running craft bazaars and women’s groups. They both volunteered at their church. “We never really stopped,” she admits. “It’s fitting for us to put our energy into something like this.”
She modestly elides the fact that planting a vineyard and building a winery is a whole different scale of difficult than organizing church groups. Neither had any professional training in the wine industry, nor background in marketing or customer service. But they had a dream.
RJ went to UC Davis to study small-vineyard management, returning to continue his education at Chemeketa’s Wine Studies Center. Juanita dove into the arcane and sometimes maddening world of administration, marketing, sourcing, networking, and compliance.
“Did you know,” she asks, “that every single wine label design has to be approved by the federal government?” (Sometimes it’s a rubber stamp. Others, you send three identical labels and only two get approved. Who knows why.)
Also: Did you know that when you plant a new varietal you’re not allowed to bottle it until you’ve sent the government documentation of its characteristics and qualities?
And: Did you know there are 32 pages of federal requirements to fulfil in order to get an AVA [American Viticultural Area] designation?
I didn’t know. Nor do most people who park beside the dog-run and pass the wine-bottle water fountain on the way into Plum Hill’s cozy tasting room. That’s okay though because, despite the mountains of paperwork and snares of bureaucracy, the Lints are in love with what they do. “RJ’s day doesn’t start till he gets to the vineyard,” Juanita tells me as I sip a glass of their vanilla-scented oaked Pinot Gris. “I get my social fix right here.”
She has transformed the space into a veritable garden of wine-lovers’ delights with an atmosphere that is half-chic and half country kitchen. An old-fashioned red and gold popcorn cart stands in the middle of the room. Shelves are neatly but abundantly filled with local produce like hazelnuts and wine salt; gourmet snacks; quirky gifts; drinking accessories (the $29 cork cages “sell like crazy”); hand-drawn greeting cards by local artists; napkins and table-runners. Juanita sews these herself. It’s a break from thinking about selling wine, she says, but the fruits of her work still end up in the tasting room.
Not that she’d want it any other way. After so many years of business travel and the corporate realm Juanita relishes the world coming to her, and the conviviality of small town life. “The community is fabulous,” she says. They take an active part in events like the Forest Grove Uncorked wine festival, wine-tasting dinners and she is a regular at the local farmer’s markets. They give back, too, by hosting events like Canines Uncorked – an Oregon Humane Society fund-raiser that saw Plum Hill overrun with a friendly pack of some 80 dogs and their humans enjoying everything from doggy psychics to dog sundaes.
There is no mistaking Juanita and RJ’s zest for what they do. Or how hard they work to transform aspirations into reality. When they bought the property there was no vineyard, only the buildings from its previous incarnation as a dairy farm. RJ reckoned it was promising land, set as it is between Montinore and Patton Valley wineries. He called in opinions from friends at various vineyards, including Kramer and Purple Cow. Looks good, was the consensus. So Juanita and RJ politely ignored their financial adviser’s views on the matter and bought it.
“What advice would you give someone who wanted to get into the wine business?” I ask.
“I’d probably tell them not to,” Juanita says. “Unless you have a backer who’s okay with not making money. We thought we had enough capital to get us up and running but it wasn’t even a drop in the bucket.”
“It wasn’t close to enough,” her husband shrugs.
But they’re both smiling.
RJ Lint’s voice is cheerful, expansive; it could carry across a few vine rows. It is among the few things he hasn’t had to recalibrate as he and his wife Juanita have navigated Plum Hill through 2020’s choppy waters.
There was the catastrophe familiar to all wineries: Covid-19 plus the Willamette Valley’s distinctive misfortune – wildfires that cast an apocalyptic pall and smothered vineyards in ruinous smoke. One, dubbed the Powerline Fire, came within four miles of the winery. “High winds brought down trees and powerlines,” a Washington County Emergency Management bulletin reported at the time. “Evacuations of residents and businesses began… Avoid all unnecessary travel in these areas until further notice.”
This once, Plum Hill was lucky. The winds carried smoke away from its vineyard, preserving the crop.
Come harvest, this bounty proved another challenge. The winery had laid off its staff when Covid-19 hit (“bone-crushing” is how RJ describes it). The timing meant no one to bottle the previous vintage, leaving the winery a year behind with more fruit coming in.
Despite the logistical, personal and financial grief, RJ moves straight to the good news – when Plum Hill was able to open and hire again, it found “really good people who want to work.” One of the laid-off employees was the head winemaker, whose education RJ and Juanita had paid for on the understanding she would be a long-term part of the team. After Covid hit, she chose not to return. “It hurt,” RJ says. There is a pause. His tone brightens again, “One of the guys who used to work for us wants to make wine, so he’s going back to school to learn.” The Lints are supporting his education, belief in the basic decency of people being as intrinsic to them as their own open-heartedness. Plus, the new future winemaker is ex-Navy, like RJ; he trusts those values.
I break my self-imposed rule about keeping personal information out of interviews and tell him my nephew is in the Navy, loves it. RJ is delighted. He knows my brother well, like he know all the regular customers. He and Juanita tend to describe the winery tasting room as “like Cheers” – and despite Covid restrictions, they’ve found ways to stay in touch with their community.
During the strictest pandemic regulations they offered curbside wine pick-up and there was an informal understanding that their dog-owning customers could still bring their pets to run through the vineyards.
Plum Hill lost Ghost, their beloved cream-colored Lab, two years ago. “I get my dog fix from people coming with their dogs,” RJ says. One friend has a black Lab who has become a favorite companion.
Adjusting, making do, counting small blessings are all part of a rhythm that has kept Plum Hill jogging on. Financially, it was fortunate to have little debt. “We sold a lot of wine at a loss,” RJ notes. “Like, $25 a case. Enough to pay the electricity bill and put food on the table.”
When Juanita, a dynamo organizer and networker, was tapped by the local chamber of commerce to be its Executive Director she took the job, adding the welcome ballast of a steady wage. “A lot of wineries have gone under. I’ve heard about six recently,” RJ says. “We’re lucky we’re going to come out about where we went in.”
Though, of course, nobody is going to come out of this where they went in. Not really.
The joy of wine making and the winery has to be weighed against physical realities. “I still love our customers, the people you meet in the tasting room, and I enjoy the [wine making] process, But I can’t throw pallets all day any more.”
Over the course of a decade the Lints have dedicated themselves to coaxing the best from the land and the winery. Juanita spent years plowing through paperwork to support a petition (approved in 2020) to create a new American Viticulture Area (AVA), the Tualatin Hills. She also marshaled the documents required to get Schonberger, a new-to-them grape varietal approved. They’d learned about Schonberger on a trip to visit wineries in Tasmania and decided to add it to their collection, which includes Syrah, Riesling and Muscat. “We have about an acre of each of the grapes,” says RJ. “It allows for a lot of diversity. People have different palates, so we make something for everyone.”
Plum Hill’s success as a winery, and community, is tribute to RJ and Juanita’s continuous experimentation and effort. Part of their stewardship is understanding they cannot sustain this effort indefinitely. The winery is on the market, awaiting a buyer who will respect, value and carry on the work they began.
“I’ll miss the customers, miss the time in the vineyards, but I’d like to spend time with my grandkids. If I wake up and my back hurts, I don’t want to have to get on a tractor.”
In future, RJ sees himself guiding the next generation. “Over the last couple years I’ve really enjoyed watching new winemakers bloom. Watch them dig into why this happens, why that happens, how to mitigate a problem – the mentorship is what I enjoy most.”
Whoever is fortunate enough to continue the Plum Hill legacy has this to build upon: wineries obsessed with making good wine are commonplace, wineries dedicated to making people feel good about wine are rarer and to be treasured.
Text: Cila Warncke