Outside, rhododendrons, lilacs, roses, cypress, oak, weeping willow channel the exuberance of the earth into great bursts of foliage and color. The concrete walls of Montinore’s winery and tasting room are lathered with brilliant green ivy. Chipmunks skitter on tree trunks, scolding the birds that loft saucily towards clouds hanging like puffs of whipped cream in the blue spring sky.
Inside is an anonymous, rather chilly basement office cluttered with standard business detritus: folders, plastic in-and-out trays, filing cabinets, and overfilled bookshelves. It could be a hardware store headquarters, or accountant’s den, if it weren’t for the books: Wine and Food of Bulgaria, Winery Dogs, General Viticulture, Technology of Winemaking, Grand Vins, a selection of wine atlases, and half-a-dozen brown binders stamped ‘Oregon Pinot Camp’. Rudy Marchesi calls his dogs who come snuffling in and collapse beside his chair. “We’re farmers, first and foremost,” he says. “My responsibility is twofold: to produce a high quality product. And to not only protect the environment, but to improve it. That’s the work of a farmer.” Thus the shelves freighted with books, the documents, the notes, the charts, the academic rigor invested in the fruitful land.
Born and raised on the East Coast, Rudy grew up mucking around on his grandparents’ farm in the Bronx.
Did I hear right: A farm in the Bronx?
He nods. They had a quarter-acre with fruit trees, a vegetable garden, a wine cellar. It was a little Eden, he says, and as a seven-year-old he started his first garden there. “The other thing, you know,” he says, “Was the stories of the old country. My family were farmers in Italy. They grew grapes, grains for subsistence, they had animals. Our lore was agricultural. That stuck with me. It was very influential.”
Nevertheless, like so many children and grandchildren of immigrant farmers Rudy set a course for a different life. He headed to Sonoma State University in California to study psychology. His family ties to California, however, were through grapes. During Prohibition his grandfather in the Bronx made wine to order for other immigrant families. He got the grapes from California.
“Prohibition wasn’t really about wine,” Rudy explains. “It was about controlling access to beer and spirits. After [it started] the government determined it couldn’t stop people from buying grapes. So train-loads of grapes went east to New York, Philadelphia, Boston for immigrants [to make wine]. The government kind of left them alone because they were making it for themselves. I had an old neighbor who told me you could order a barrel of grape juice from California and by the time it got across on the railroad it had already fermented, so you had a barrel of wine.” He chuckles: “Maybe of dubious quality, but it was a barrel of wine.”
After the repeal of Prohibition his grandfather carried on making wine for his family, friends, and fellow Italian settlers. “They’d tell him what kind of wine they had in their region and he’d make something similar.” When Rudy arrived in California he bought enough Zinfandel to make a half-barrel then called his grandfather to ask what to do – “he walked me through it.”
Despite his education in clinical psychology Rudy found the world of wine making and vineyards irresistible. He settled back East and bought a small vineyard in the Delaware River Valley. He was operating the vineyard and working for a wine distributor when his daughter decided to go to Reed College in Portland in 1992. Trips to visit her turned into buying trips as he became familiar with local wine. “I realized Oregon had great potential, so I started taking wines back to the eastern market.” Among them were vintages from Montinore. He developed a relationship with the then-owners who hired him as a consultant in 1998, to oversee operations in 2001, then to asked him to become president of the winery in 2003. In 2005, when they retired, Rudy bought Montinore.
“I get bored easily,” he says with a smile, by way of explaining his radical reformation of the estate which had already seen major changes. At the start of the ’80s the land was leased to a vegetable farmer. Then Mount St Helens erupted, dumping inches of volcanic ash over the Willamette Valley and putting the farmer out of business. The owners called in agricultural surveyors who said it was good vineyard ground and in 1982 they planted 360 acres of grapes. “They were ambitious, but they put the cart before the horse,” he remarks. Oregon viticulture was in its infancy and the original owners didn’t have a plan to market their wine. But they managed to get production running and built the winery where we’re sitting in 1990. When Rudy bought the property he wanted to move the wine from “average” to excellent. “My approach was to start at ground level: to improve the quality of the vineyards, then move into the winery and change the way we produced the wine to dovetail with what the farm gave us.”
He converted the farm from conventional to organic (“What people call ‘conventional’ only started in the 20th century,” he notes. “People farmed organically for centuries before that.”) This meant a labor-intensive process of replacing synthetic sprays with organic, planting cover crops, starting a composting program. Rudy could have stopped there but, ever curious, he developed an interest in biodynamics. “I didn’t really know much, but some of the great producers in France were doing it. If they thought it was better for their farm and made better wine, I wanted to know.”
“Something has happened in the past five years. The same vines from the same place but the wines are blossoming. They’re becoming something I never imagined they could be,” Rudy Marchesi tells me. Like the first time we met, he’s sitting at a long desk in a room full of books. His voice vibrates with the same enthusiasm. “We’re doing a better job as growers and winemakers. When I tasted them, I thought ‘wow, we’ve done beautiful work here.’”
The past five years have seen a lot of beautiful work at Montinore. Marchesi partnered with investors, bought the Tidalstar Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA and will break ground on a new winery in June 2021.
Moreover, his dedication to biodynamics has flourished. In addition to growing the Montinore winery and vineyards, Marchesi now serves as chairman of Demeter, the certifying body for biodynamic farms and products in the United States. “We’ve seen a progression of quality and expression in the wines that I attribute directly to biodynamic farming,” he says. “They are maturing in that connection between vines and place that biodynamic farming enhances.”
Perhaps more to the point, ‘biodynamic’ signals quality in a culture saturated with hyper-processed food-like-comestibles. “People are wanting to get beyond organic. People want an assurance of quality and purity. Growers realize that bio wines offer something different and exciting. There is a life-force in them.”
Marchesi has spent the last two years working on a project that will unite various biodynamic organizations under one umbrella, creating a potent collective to spread the message: “We hope it gets more and better food to people.”
For a man whose avocations tend to the physical (piano, cheese-making, farming) Marchesi has surprising patience for bureaucracy. He dedicated several years to gaining American Viticulture Area (AVA) status for the Tualatin Hills. This subsection of the larger Willamette Valley AVA is distinguished by loess soil (aka laurelwood) washed into the valley by the Missoula Floods, some 15,000 years ago. Loess is a geological term for deposits of wind-blown dust. Prior to the Missoula Flood, “a mantle of loess several hundred feet thick covered the basalt bedrock of the Columbia Plateau…. Much of the loess scoured from [there] was deposited in the lake, contributing to Oregon’s fertile farmland valley” writes geologist Keenan Lee (his full account of the near-Biblical Flood is worth reading).
If you’ve had the pleasure of spending time in the Northwest you’ll recognize many of the dramatic landscape features left by the Floods, including Multnomah Falls. If you’ve had the pleasure of drinking Willamette Valley wine, you will also have a notion of the variation due to the vagaries of geology and climate. There is the maritime influence of the Van Duzer Corridor, a gap in the Coast Range that funnels sea breezes into the valley, and a terrific diversity of elevations, aspects and soil types. “The Willamette Valley is big,” Marchesi notes. “There is so much terroir to be explored.”
Montinore’s approach is to make modest commercial volumes of four principle wines (about 20,000 cases of Pinot Noir annually) then have “all these little tanks and barrels on the other side of the winery, making a couple of hundred cases.” These include Muller-Thurgau, a Pinot Gris/Sauvignon Blanc blend and an orange wine. “Selling direct to consumer I can afford to lose those efficiencies of scale,” he explains. In tribute to his roots, Marchesi also grows Italian varietals including Lagrein, Teroldego, Sangiovese and Nebbiolo. The former are common in the Po River Valley, from whence the Marchesi line hails: “If you draw a line between Milan and Genoa, we’re halfway in between. The family house is still there.”
Montinore, distance notwithstanding, is an outpost of that family home and determined to endure. Despite Covid, it held on to the majority of its wine club members and saw online sales boom to the point it had to hire a fulfillment company. “We’re certainly not in the low price range for the Willamette Valley, we’re mid-price tier. But our quality has improved year on year for the last dozen years. Our customers know they can get quality from us that might cost twice as much at other wineries. We have a good loyal following.”
The pandemic “dragged the winery into the 21st century” in terms of sales and marketing, says Marchesi. “We’ve streamlined, we’re ready.”
Meantime, there is a new, Larry Ferar-designed winery to build and the final stages of the biodynamic organization to polish before it launches in early 2021. Marchesi could easily be absorbed in his own projects, occupied by nothing beyond Montinore’s acreage but, when asked what makes Willamette Valley wine special, his thoughts turn outward. “We have a wonderful community of growers and producers,” he says. “We all work together.”