Vinelands: Whistling Dog Cellars

One of the most beautiful vineyards I have had the pleasure of visiting was Whistling Dog Cellars just outside of Salem. According to Google it is ‘permanently closed’ and the last update on owners Tom and Celeste Symonette’s blog was 2015.

A 2020 Willamette Wines post says that Celeste passed away: “Tom, a salt-of-the-earth man, a farmer and now single father, is building a legacy for his teenage daughter by nurturing and growing some of the best limited-production fruit within the Eola-Amity Hills.”

My sincerest condolences and good wishes to Tom and his daughter. He has a gift for working in harmony with nature, as these photos show.

This is an excerpt from Oregon Wine Pioneers

Whistling Dog winemaker and viticulturist Tom Symonette places a gnarled finger on the vine: “Typically there are three buds that can break at each node. We’ll pull off one or two, to leave one strong shoot growing.”

My boot heels sink in the dirt as I scribble, notebook balanced on my forearm, face half warmed by the ascending sun. A quarter of an hour ago I turned at a battered black mailbox and found myself in a tunnel of resplendent oaks. A lifelong Robin Hood fan, I half expected a troupe of merry men to appear amongst the trees. Inching through the filtered green light I came to a small, barn-red building set in a field of red, yellow, pink and white poppies, bachelor’s buttons and snapdragons, hemmed by semi-circle of moss-swathed oak and breeze-stirred fir. Just beyond, the gravel track opened onto a vineyard – its outline fuzzed by early morning mist. Tom greeted me and a moment later I was swept into a stream of information about grapes and viticulture, facts flowing fast and imperturbable as a river.

Tom knows to the inch where each of his vines were grafted onto the rootstock, which clones are where, how deep the clay topsoil is, the height of the fruiting wire, and a hundred other details. His conversation is peppered with references to stomates, inflorescences, C02, crop density, nitrates, spacing, and trellising. At first, it is hard to believe this man spent most of his life amid suits and spreadsheets in Silicon Valley. But as we mosey along the rows, pausing to scan the sky for the kestrels that nest in vineyard’s bird boxes, a picture emerges of a man whose life – like the vines he tends with such intense affection – had three buds. Two of which, removed, left one strong shoot.

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