This is a chapter excerpt from Vine Lives: Oregon Wine Pioneers.
To fully appreciate Dominio IV, you have to visit the tasting room toilet. While you dry your hands, take a good look at the sinuous wrought-iron paper-towel holder. Metalwork is one of co-owner and winemaker Patrick Reuter’s many creative pursuits.
“Patrick wanted to be the great American novelist, but he went into wine,” operations and tasting room manager Ryan Kelly-Burnett confides. He points out the Imagination series bottles: “He does all the label artwork, names all the wines. He is extremely good at a lot of things.”
Ryan, whose tasks include working harvest, running the wine club, and compliance, is on the opposite side of a polished wooden bar. Radiohead’s ‘OK Computer’ plays softly from a docked iPod. Patrick’s original artwork dots the walls. The long, narrow room with its high ceiling, dim light and tasteful polished wood fittings evokes a speak-easy. It is a decadent place to be at 9:30AM.
Patrick arrives, shakes hands, exits to get coffee. On his return he perches and hooks a scuffed brown brogue onto the rung of his bar-stool. With his navy sport coat and cuffed dark denim jeans he could pass for a hip college professor or successful novelist. But when he speaks there is no mistaking him for anything but a winemaker. Before the coffee even kicks in, he’s explaining the origins of biodynamic farming, which he wryly defines as “slightly eccentric people doing intensive agriculture”, and describing how he and wife Leigh Bartholomew began Dominio IV.
The story starts back at University of Oregon where the couple met, though it was only after they graduated and got jobs that they considered the wine business. “We’d always enjoyed wine together and it dawned on us that the people who made wine were paid to make wine. We could make a living off it. That sounded exciting.”
Leigh and Patrick headed south to UC Davis’s legendary wine program They picked complementary courses: she studied viticulture – grape-growing – and Patrick focused on terroir, learning how to make the best wine possible from a given place. After graduation they hit the road, honing their craft at wineries in New Zealand, Chile, France, Washington state and California. Ultimately, Oregon called them back. “Here, you’re in a very verdant, healthy, alive place,” Patrick says. “There is an abundance, especially of water. From a people standpoint, it’s a real community of helpfulness and cooperation.”
Community and cooperation are two words Willamette Valley winemakers mention regularly. For small outfits, like Dominio, the collaborative spirit of Oregon is vital to survival and success. For the first few years Dominio made wine in a cooperative facility using rented gear. Now, it co-owns equipment and shares workspace with Lumos winery. “To start off you have to be extremely wealthy or a lot naïve,” Patrick says, laughing. “We were broke. All we had were grapes and barrels.” Fortunately, they have exceptional grapes.
Three Sleeps, Dominio’s estate vineyard, is in the Columbia River Gorge just outside Mosier, OR. “It used to be an organic cherry orchard, virgin land, so we said, ‘let’s do this biodynamically.’” It is 15 acres of wilderness, eight of which are planted in grapes. The rest is home to an abundance of plants including dozens of fruit trees, plus birds, sheep, horses and migrant wild creatures. Patrick also wants a cow. “That’s the apex of biodynamics,” he says wistfully. “To have a bovine on the property.”
Even without a resident bovine, the vineyard produces top-class Tempranillo, Syrah and Viognier. All are warm climate grapes more common in California. For Patrick and co. that adds to the fun. “Oregon can do more than Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” he says. “Climates like the Columbia Gorge and southern Oregon can do amazing things with these varieties. We wanted to explore that.”
This experimental ethos contributes to the winery’s chummy, collegiate atmosphere. The staff of five all pitch in to do what needs to be done, including tasting the wine as they blend. “Everybody’s influence matters, which is awesome,” Ryan enthuses. “The diversity of our palates shows in the finished product.” He’s lined up eight bottles and an equal number of voluminous glasses and is eyeing our progress on the coffee. Usually the tasting room is only open Friday and Saturday so this is a bonus opportunity for him to show off his beloved vintages.
Ryan’s zest for wine in general, and Dominio IV in particular, is characteristic of a new breed of pioneers who embrace a definably Oregonian way of life and making a living. There is one in practically every vineyard or winery, hailing from places like Texas, Missouri, New Jersey and – in Ryan’s case – Georgia. “Here, you start a conversation by asking, ‘Where are you from?’” he notes. “All my mates are transplants. Nobody is a native. We’re Oregonians by choice.”
What makes Oregon so special?
“The diversity and energy. We have a simple mindset but are progressive at the same time. There’s a sense of holding on to the integrity of things while bringing in new ideas.”
Normally this bright-eyed spiel would have me reaching for the spit bucket but Ryan is on the level. His delight is infectious, especially when we start tasting. Mindful of the early hour and the drive home I take dainty sips and awkward spits. He tosses back great mouthfuls then expels rich purple streams into the bucket. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Sometimes you have to pour it away.”
Wine-making à la Dominio is a lot about letting go, about accepting what the land and climate yield and not getting fixed ideas. “Seventy to eight percent of what you taste is vineyard,” Ryan says. “Our job as winemakers is to help out in bad years and not screw up in good years.”
Viognier and Pinot are temperamental grapes to grow; Tempranillo gets tricky once it comes off the vine. “Pinot is a heartbreak grape but [Tempranillo] is a harder wine to make,” notes Patrick. “You have to trust your intuition and not fight it.” We taste the 2009 Midnight Skies Tempranillo (other bottlings: “Rain on Leaves”, “Valley of the Angels”, “Penny for a Lily”) – it is as robust as a brawl in a bodega, with spicy clove and pepper notes and black cherry fruit. I decide it won’t hurt to drink just this one.
Dominio IV’s pervasive elegance, originality and beauty wouldn’t be possible without Leigh’s tireless work as a viticulturist, nurturing the Dominio vineyards and providing a steady income through the years. She worked at Archery Summit for 14 years and now manages Domaine Drouhin’s properties. Leigh and Patrick also have two sons. “It’s a lot,” her husband says. “It’s impressive.” The family affair extends to her parents, who co-own Three Sleeps vineyard and run a small bed-and-breakfast there. “From the front porch, martini in hand,” he jokes.
What’s the secret to success as a working couple?
“That’s easy. We leave each other’s domains alone.”
We move on to taste the Imagination series. These are tiny production runs from specific sites. As in, rows of a vineyard. “You can walk the land this comes from in a few minutes and see every vine,” Patrick says. “We want people to know what a piece of earth tastes like. It’s an articulation of place.” With several bottles to go he excuses himself to get back to work, leaving Ryan and I to the wine.
Ryan pours Imagination No. 3, a rosé made by adding whole clusters of Syrah to Viognier. “I met Patrick, and grabbed a few bottles of the Viognier without trying it. When I got back to Georgia and drank it I was like, ‘shit, I gotta make this.’ Dominio is addictive,” he adds. “I get to work with such intelligent, creative people.”
Later, when we’ve conquered the bottle row, he shows me around the warehouse. Mordecai, a surf-loving California native with an immense, wiry beard, is labelling a case of Imagination No. 3. He uses a cardboard bottle rest to align each label before smoothing it gently from the centre to the edges, pressing out any air-bubbles before he polishes the bottle on the hem of his black tee-shirt. He and Ryan fall into swift, easy industry gossip. Californian mega-brand Kendall-Jackson has bought property nearby. They speculate it will drive up the price of grapes but Ryan is, as ever, upbeat: “If it gets ‘Willamette Valley’ on labels around the world, it can only be good for us.”
He’s right on two levels. Business-wise, Dominio IV has little to do with the Kendall-Jackson’s of the wine world. Their economies are unrelated; their practices and product are distinct; they don’t compete for an audience. More importantly, it inhabits a different psychic space. Dominio means ‘domain’. By building on creativity, collaboration, loyalty, hard work and imagination it has staked territory that no one can dispute.