Rabbit Run: Coelho Winery

This is a profile from the 2015 book: Oregon Wine Pioneers. Enjoy!

On my first visit to Coelho Winery I miss the turn because the wind-shield wipers can’t move fast enough to make a rift in the solid sheet of April rain. The next time, I recognize the road too late and, once again, must cut through the neighboring gas station to reach the tasting rooms. This is not a mistake the immaculately organized winery owners would make. Since planting their first vineyards in 2002, the Coelho family has fostered a reputation for order and excellence. They don’t make wrong turns.

Coelho means ‘rabbit’ in Portuguese. It is also the family name of Dave and Deolinda who took over a decaying hardware store in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town of Amity to create their vision of a Portuguese wine business. All four of the grown-up Coelho children (plus spouses) are involved in the winery. Sons David and Sam most closely.

Sam strides over to say greet me then summons David, who reluctantly leaves the lush scarlet climbing rose he’s tidying. Tall, blond, and blue-eyed Sam has an American Dream glow: part winning-quarterback, part Future Business Leader of America. David is compact and laconic, with dark hair and eyes. He could have stepped out of a 19th century farm scene.

Coelho Winery, Amity, Oregon

Oregon is young. Even the elders of the Willamette Valley wine industry don’t have to look far over their shoulders to see their European heritage. For the Coelho’s, however, their Portuguese roots are more than a simple fact of the past. It’s the foundation they’ve chosen to build the winery on. “We’re creating a legacy family business,” Sam says, seated in the private tasting room at an immense table made of wood reclaimed from an old schoolhouse. “Apparently that takes five generations.” He doesn’t say according to whom, maybe an old professor. It sounds like a factoid you pick up doing a degree in international business and management, which Sam did.

Coelho is where Old World agriculture and wine making meets New World management and marketing. At first, David and Sam are a too-perfect metaphor: the quiet elder with dirt under his fingernails versus the polished, gregarious younger brother. It is tempting to reduce them – and Coelho – to a simple binary: old versus new, traditional versus modern, farming versus marketing, silver versus gold wedding rings. The longer Sam and David talk, however, the more nuanced the portrait becomes. They have the same distinctive nose, for one thing. For another, they finish each other’s sentences, anticipating and riffing like a pair of jazz musicians.

Together, they tell the family story.

The first American Coelho’s arrived at Ellis Island in 1914, narrowly escaping the devastation of World War I. They moved to Massachusetts and Rhode Island to start farms and families. A couple of generations later Sam and David’s parents were growing 800 acres of tomatoes, sugar beets, corn and alfalfa in the San Joaquin Valley. Dave (senior) and wife Deolinda wanted a change from large-scale agriculture. So they headed north with an idea that they could parlay the past into a sustainable future.

Two elements create a successful winery: making and selling. Plenty of wine-makers will tell you the latter is more difficult. Especially if you’re from Oregon, says Sam, as he reels off figures. Though the fourth-largest wine region in the States (after California, Washington State and New York) Oregon produces a mere 2.5 million cases of wine per year versus California’s 350 million. A drop in the proverbial ocean. The challenge is convincing distributors it’s worth their while to order a few hundred cases here, a thousand there. Coelho can’t sell on volume or scale. It has to make wine that is too good to ignore. So it does.

Coelho tasting room

Dave manages the vineyards but, like everything at Coelho, growing is a family affair. Their agriculture practices date back to the earliest days of wine-making, long before there were such things as chemical herbicides or automated watering systems. They dry farm, meaning no irrigation, and are LIVE certified. These choices place certain demands on both grapes and growers. Vines dig deep to draw water from the soil; workers must be vigilant against pests, fungus, and attuned to the weather. Every year the future hangs on the ancient ritual of harvest.

“In Oregon, you want to get the fruit when it’s ready because you never know when it’s going to rain,” says David. “Sixteen hour days are the shortest I do during harvest.”

Sam details a typical day: up before sunrise to load half-ton picking bins on the tractors –

“And quarter-ton,” David interjects. His brother effortlessly weaves this interruption into his story, explaining how the growing season determines what size they use. On a dry year they’ll have big, healthy clusters of firm grapes that can stand the pressure of being packed a half-ton at a time. If early rains have softened the skins they use smaller bins to protect the fruit. Between 25 and 30 people are in the vineyard during harvest, mostly seasonal workers plus a handful of interns who apply from as far away as France, Serbia, Chile and China. They fill the bins one hand-picked bucket at a time. When the bins are full they are trucked to the winery where David oversees offloading, weighing, hand-sorting and categorization. “You’ve got your cold-soaking and monitoring, then fermenting for another two weeks, then –“

“You barrel down,” says Sam.

“That’s another two weeks,” David continues, unperturbed.

“Barrelling down” means the wine goes from steel fermenting tanks that look like part of a rocket into one of 300 or so French oak barrels. Sam walks me through the barrel room, waving hello to the guy hosing them down to slow evaporation. He points out the maker’s insignia on the head. These hand-crafted casks vary by shape (“These are Burgundy, which are a squat shape. A Bordeaux barrel is more elongated”) and level of toasting or fire-charring. “Heavy toast” imparts dark chocolate or mocha notes; new oak imparts more overall flavor. Robust wine goes in new barrels; second-use imparts gentler flavors. By the third season a barrel is neutral and used for storage.

French oak barrels

Coelho uses 100% French oak because it is subtler than its American counterpart, yielding silky tannins with delicate fruit and spice. “We make feminine, nuanced, elegant Pinot Noir,” Sam says, dropping the “r” in “Noir”. “You’re going to get earth, spice, fruit, lower alcohol, and vibrant acidity. Our wines age well, they pair well with foods.” Old World-style wine, in other words.

Sam leads the way out of the cool storage space into an unseasonably warm spring afternoon. We cross crabgrass to the adjoining warehouse that, in a previous life, stored seed for local farmers. Now it houses Coelho’s stock and library wines, cases of every bottling since its 2004 debut. It is precisely 55 degrees Fahrenheit inside. Sam points out his favourite vintages and cases of Dois Irmãos (Portuguese for “Two Brothers”) the brand he and David founded in 2008. The simple white label bears a sketch of them in silhouette, toasting each other with glasses of Pinot.

Back in the tasting room Sam points out an award Coelho won for excellence in a family business. A painting on another wall depicts a great-grandfather on a whaling boat in the Azores – nattily dressed in a dark suit and white shirt. It’s a sweet and savvy evocation of the family’s work-hard-with-style ethos. The tasting room, with its lofty ceilings, rustic display cabinets, leather sofa and baby grand piano is Old World charm delivered with New World panache. Here they host special events like oyster bakes, member’s dinners and photo ops with Santa. And local wine buffs stop by to chat and sip robust Tradição – a Portuguese-style wine – or Serenidade ruby port.

It’s all community building, something the Coelho’s take literally. David and Sam’s mother Deolinda founded the Amity Downtown Improvement Group which was instrumental in bringing lighting, benches, garbage cans and cross-walks to the tiny town.

“It’s been wild, the transition,” Sam says. And not only for Amity. Coelho’s success demonstrates that passion and planning can harness different aptitudes and interests to create a thriving winery that is also an endearing example of Oregon’s fine tradition of family collaboration.

The antecedents

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