The following is an excerpt from A Blooming Hill Vineyard’s profile in Oregon Wine Pioneers. Jim and Holly have since sold the winery and relocated, but their work lives on under new ownership.
“It was like Mad Men,” Holly Witte says with a smile, recalling the era when she and Jim Witte first met. It was the 1960s. He was a TV producer working with stars like Barbara Streisand, Merv Griffin and the denizens of Sesame Street. She was fresh out of college. Jim’s wife hired Holly to be his secretary. It wasn’t an office affair though, not like that.
Holly fell in love and married one of Jim’s colleagues; they had a son; widowed in 1980, she pursued her own career. Jim worked in TV a few more decades, moving from New York City to Hollywood and, finally, to Portland, where he and his first wife Marilyn settled on a slice of former farmland near Forest Grove.
On an April morning A Blooming Hill Vineyard’s name is self-explanatory. I shift into second to follow the curves of the narrow asphalt strip rising with the swell of the Chehalem Mountains. Dense ranks of ancient evergreens rise on the left. To the right, burst after burst of color: pink, fuchsia, white, coral and yellow rhododendrons, azaleas, and irises overlook the sweeping slope of the vineyard. The dogs greet me first: Gemini, whose buttercream fur sloughs off in my hands, and Trouble, a pit bull mix with a head like a battering ram. Holly is close behind, waving hello, bobbed auburn hair bright in the sun, a fine gold chain around her neck. She leads me through a thicket of flowers, pointing out apple trees shading a wicker swing, an Asian pear, a plum tree. Sweet spume of wisteria cascades over the railing of the deck. “Do you want some cuttings?” she asks, hopeful. “We have so much.”
We pass an empty niche where St Francis of Assisi stood until he was martyred by wood termites. To its left is a bronze bird-bath and beyond, another profusion of plants half-obscuring a wooden gazebo they call a Tea House. The tasting room is technically their basement but its view over forest and vineyard, and the surrounding abundance of plants and flowers, gives it the intimate feel of a British country pub. Trouble follows us, almond eyes fixed on Holly as she selects bottles of wine. Jim comes in, iron grey hair freshly slicked. His hands are work-worn; eyes intense blue.
Jim’s fascination with grapes and wine began in the basement of his granddad’s Michigan farmhouse, sixty-odd years ago. “My grandfather, who I truly loved, liked making wine. He’d draw it out of the barrel into an Early Times bottle and say, ‘you can have a drink Jimmy, but don’t tell grandma’.”
Like so many children and grandchildren of farmers, Jim made a living from new technology but he never lost his love for the soil. Even when he was still working in TV he owned a farm and would escape Manhattan to spend weekends cultivating. His dream though, was to own a vineyard. By the time he neared retirement California was too expensive. He called a friend in Oregon and lit on the Willamette Valley.
“Will-a-met” Jim drawls, grinning.
His friend corrected him: “It’s Will-am-ett, dammit.”
Once he got the pronunciation right Jim found the property and took a TV job in Portland to smooth the transition from coast to coast. He retired not long after and threw himself into planting vineyards and bringing his boyhood dream to life.
The other half of the story, meanwhile, unfolded in their personal lives. Holly was living in Seattle with a long-term partner. Jim’s wife Marilyn passed away in 2004 after a long illness. Holly’s boyfriend died about the same time. An old mutual friend suggested they meet up.
“Larry said, ‘it’s so close, you should really have lunch’,” Holly recalls. “Jim sent me directions but didn’t tell me how long it would take. Four hours later I got out of the car thinking, ‘where the heck am I?’”
Jim barbecued a salmon. They picnicked by the pond and drank a nice bottle of wine. Holly went back to Seattle.
When Jim called she said they could be friends but he was “geographically undesirable”.
On May 20, 2006 they wed in the Tea House Jim had built for the occasion, surrounded by blooming hills.
Two years later, they entered wine from their first commercial vintage in the annual Pinot Noir Shootout in California. It won Silver in a field of over 400 Pinots from around the world.
“Scared the heck out of us,” says Holly.
“I thought, ‘hey, this is easy’,” says Jim.
The talk like they’re dancing: a step, a turn, back, forth, but always in harmony, flowing in a way two can and one can’t. They radiate contentment and mutual delight, making it hard to imagine the scene any different. But it wasn’t always happily ever after. Not so long ago they were bereft, separate, each nothing more to the other than a name and a distant memory.
“This is a dream,” Holly says, “but you have to shape that dream.”
You have to get up in the morning to plant, water, prune and tend. You have to drive four hours for lunch. You have to keep calling, even if you’re geographically undesirable. You have to leave your home, work and friends to move to farm country and get married. You have to take chances, in other words. You have to risk it, have to start without knowing the outcome, have to push on even when it’s hard or sad or people think you’re a bit mad for trying.
Because you don’t know until you do how good it could be.
“It’s a glorious thing to do,” Holly says, looking around at her domain. “The land is unmistakeably beautiful and the tasting room is like having a little salon.”
For Jim, the thrill is bringing his ideas to life: “I’ve always liked building things: a house, a farm, a television business, a winery. It’s just enjoyable.” As well as planting the vineyard he put in pastures, hayfields, barns and arenas for their herd of quarter horses and thoroughbreds.
“It’s not a retirement at all,” Holly notes, a twinkle in her eye. While Jim focuses on the outdoor labor, she masterminds sales and market development. One of her projects is Sip 47, an association of local artisan producers and winemakers, all of whom are dotted along a 20-mile stretch of Hwy 47. It includes SakéOne, Oregon’s only saké brewery; Bull Run Cider; Kookoolan Farms & World Meadery; plus a host of neighboring wineries. Weekends she opens the tasting room to share the fruits of A Blooming Hill Vineyard.
“We get groups who come in grumpy but they leave laughing,” says Jim. “It’s not because of the alcohol. It’s because they enjoyed themselves, they had a break in a tough day, or a difficult week.”