The following profile appeared in Oregon Wine Pioneers published 2015. For the latest from Bjornson, check out its delightful blog, which is full of stories about the joys and vagaries of wine-making in Oregon.
Memorial Day weekend is the beginning of Willamette Valley wine season. Wineries large and small spring clean and unpack cases of their best vintages in preparation for an influx of visitors. It will be a busy day at Björnson Vineyard.
Winemaker Pattie Björnson and an assistant arrange bottles on a table covered with charcoal cloth. Twin Stars and Strips flutter above a red-topped table where Pattie sets the cash box. A caterer arrives with a basket from Willamette Valley Cheese Company in nearby Salem. Sliced meats, crackers, and olives are laid out. Pattie and Mark’s teenage son Hunter slides out the front door and, ignoring the bustle, hops on his bike. The land falls swift and fast from the 530-foot elevation of the house, through the vineyards, past the shell of the winery and tasting room they are building.
It is early. No sound but birds trilling in the cool, still air. Mark Björnson and Thor, their hundred-pound white labradoodle, walk me through the vineyards. Slender fingers of vine curl around taut trellis wires, fluttering green across the cross-cross pattern of silver. “How many feet of wire per acre?” Mark calculates an answer. “In an acre you have 5500 feet, times eight [wires]. That’s 44,000 feet, so eight or nine miles on every acre. On 28 acres we have, uh, 250 miles of wire, on this site. I’d never thought of that before.”
That makes it a rare detail. Mark thinks of everything, weaving together family anecdote, explanation of grape DNA and a quick geology lesson as we approach the half-finished winery. To date, Pattie made some of their wine in the barn at the top of the hill; some is produced in McMinnville. Soon Björnson’s production will move under this soaring roof. He throws open a door to light the cavernous production area, pointing out the insulating properties of the waffle-grid concrete walls and the layout with the barrel room dug into the side of the hill. “The concrete footings are underground to transmit the ground temperature through the walls. That will regulate the building to about 57 degrees,” Mark says. “It will hold its temperature beautifully – no need for heating or cooling.” He walks me through the lab where they’ll test wine for sulphite and alcohol levels, and points out the “enormously expensive” automated sprinkler system. “Wine doesn’t burn very well, but oh well.”
A joke, obviously, but delivered with with such dry nonchalance it almost slips past. The deadpan tone reminds me of a tour guide who drove me through Iceland’s sulfur springs and fjords many years ago. At the time, I thought her dry-ice wit was unique but perhaps not. Even as a second-generation American, Mark has an Icelandic sense of humor.
The Björnson Vineyard story really begins with Mark’s grandparents who were born in Canada in the 1870s to newly arrived Icelandic immigrants. In 1880 his great-grandfather and grandfather, who was seven years old at the time, walked from north of Winnipeg all the way to North Dakota to claim a homestead. Mark’s father was born there in 1910 and spoke only Icelandic until he went to school.
Farming runs in both Mark and Pattie’s families, making their move from white-collar careers in Minneapolis to Oregon agriculture less surprising. They have the soft-spoken pioneer grit you need to turn a stony shoulder of the Eola-Amity Hills into a fruitful vineyard. The patience to tackle Sisyphian tasks like pulling more then one thousand tons of rock out of the earth to make way for the vines. “We took about 300 tons off this just little hill,” he says, describing weeks of work: shifting huge rocks with an excavator, using a tractor to remove the smaller ones, tilling with a field-cultivator to clear pebbles, hauling off some 35 dump truck loads. Then they drilled stakes into the boulders that were too big to move, turning them into part of the infrastructure of the vineyard.
Björnson Vineyards is young, but growing fast. Grapes love its rugged basalt soil, laid down by multiple volcanic eruptions 15 million years ago when continental drift placed the Yellowstone caldera in eastern Oregon. Their first planting was in 2006 and they now have 28 acres planted: mostly Pinot Noir, plus Chardonnay, Auxerrois, and Gamay Noir.
Mark explains the genetic relationship sister grapes Chardonnay and Auxerrois, the 2500 history of Pinot, and the story of the lesser-known Gamay: “In the 1400s the Duke of Burgundy made it a capital offence to grow Gamay Noir. The peasants loved it and he was trying to stop them growing. Being a good peasant, I plant some Gamay.” For Mark, like the Burgundian peasants before him, it is a valuable crop. It yields up to nine tons an acre versus Pinot Noir’s two-and-a-half, and Mark sells it to other local wineries. “It’s lighter than Pinot and very enjoyable. You can use it to make a good, $15 summer red.”
Pattie and Mark, like all non-minted winemakers, have to balance finance, farm and family. Mark still works full time in the health insurance field (“You know those evil MBAs who make insurance decisions? I’m one of those,”). Pattie was a computer programmer before studying wine-making at Chemeketa, and puts her skills to work managing the technical, administrative and marketing aspects of the vineyard. Their four children: Kaitlyn, Kristjan, Claire and Hunter, are enmeshed in the winery.
Kaitlyn was a toddler when she accompanied Mark and Pattie on a tandem bike across Europe in the early 90s. They stopped along the way so Mark could volunteer during grape harvest in Germany’s Mosel River valley. “I’d always wanted to have a farm,” says Mark. “After that, I wanted a vineyard.” By the time they moved to Oregon, Kaitlyn was a teenager and disinclined to pitch in picking rocks. Her 12-year-old brother Kristjan’s enthusiasm won him the honor of having the first block of vines named after him. In time, Kaitlyn, Claire and Hunter got their own blocks. Kaitlyn, a chemical engineering student at Oregon State University, now lends Mark a hand with engineering work like wiring the barn for lights, plumbing and irrigation. “She’s off to do an internship at a big cheese factory in California,” her dad beams. “Really, wine-making is chemical engineering, it’s the same kind of thing.”
He reckons Kaitlyn may be the child to take over from Pattie as winemaker (which could make Björnson the a pioneering two-generation women winemaker team); Hunter, the youngest, loves the outdoors – he might step into a viticulture role one day.
“I hope the kids are proud,” says Pattie. “I hope we set a good example.”
“They just think we’re crazy,” her husband grins.
“I talked to French winemakers and they looked at me like I was crazy,” Pattie muses, recalling a family trip in 2004. “In France it’s virtually impossible to come from a background with no experience and start a winery. I’m grateful we live in the United States and have so many opportunities. We sometimes take that for granted but it’s remarkable. I want the kids to see that you can do pretty much anything you want if you work hard at it.”
It is refreshing to hear this American mantra from someone who is living it, rather than a politician trying to score points. Nice to be reminded that there are places (overlooked and under-reported) where hard work and good-humored determination still shape the land.
The first cars pull into the black-top parking area. A young couple approaches the tasting table, hip and androgynous in almost-matching skinny jeans and chunky glasses. Pattie, who found a minute to swap her tee-shirt for a crisp white-button down, greets them warmly, asks where they’re from, recommends a wine merchant in their Seattle neighbourhood.
Mark is pouring glasses of Isabel (named for his grandmother) for an older couple and their friend: “This comes from that little block right here by the house. You notice it’s on an eastern slope, most of the rest of our [vineyards] are on a western slope, and it’s produced some different characteristics in the wine.”
The trio sips and chats, revealing thick accents.
“Ah, Zurich,” Mark says. “No, but I’ve been to Lucerne and I biked up to Interlaken.” The guests drink then discuss in German, eventually choosing a bottle of 2012 Pinot.
Pattie is a purist winemaker: “We’re gentle and do very minimal additions. We want the wines to be as transparent as possible.”
This ethos extends their agriculture practices too. Bjornson Vineyard is LIVE certified and they are dedicated to retaining much of the original forest for plant diversity and wildlife. Mark sums up their goals as: “Care for the land. Make exceptional wine. Enjoy the journey.”
More visitors approach, bubbling with holiday weekend cheer, eager for a taste of Oregon. They’ve come to the right place. Nothing is more evocative of Oregon’s past and future than a family that came from Iceland via Canada, North Dakota and Minnesota to make wine that could only come from the Willamette Valley.
Read about some of Pattie Bjornson’s favorite Oregon attractions: Exploring Oregon Wine Country