Ghost Hill Cellars Spooky Good Wine

The following is an excerpt from the 2015 book Oregon Wine Pioneers. Read, enjoy, buy Ghost Hill’s extraordinary (and keenly priced) wine.

All photos by the author

The beaten-metal ‘Ghost Hill Cellars‘ sign is affixed to a lump of granite the size of an industrial freezer. It’s the last thing Mike Bayliss’s father would have imagined, or wanted, when he dynamited that hunk of stone out of a pasture a half-century ago.

“My dad never made a mistake in his life,” Mike says, dry as summer in the Sahara. “Other people caused things to go wrong, but he never did.”

We’re standing in the Ghost Hill Cellars tasting room, a chalet-roofed, wood-floor shack amidst a stand of towering oaks, set between a barn and the white clap-board farmhouse Mike’s grandfather built in 1906 – the year he emigrated from Minnesota and bought the property. For most of the next 100 years the Bayliss family raised crops and livestock: beef and dairy cattle, sheep, wheat, oats, and hay. Then, in 1999, Mike planted six acres of Pinot Noir.

“We would have been one of the pioneers if we’d planted [in the 70s],” Mike notes. “But my dad thought it was a waste. ‘You don’t need wine to survive. You need grain and meat.’ He came from the Depression when if you didn’t need it you didn’t buy it.”

Fortunately for Pinot Noir fans, Mike and Drenda see things differently.

Transforming ‘Squirrel Hill’

Mike has been fascinated by wine since the ’60s. When he and Drenda were dating he brought a jug of his home-made sweet wine to share with her dad. They got through most of it before realizing the thick sediment on the bottom was in fact a layer of dead fruit flies. “He was mortified,” his wife chuckles. “He didn’t come back for a month.” Despite the set-back, Mike persisted with both wooing and wine-making. The couple wed in 1967. Over the years he took courses at Chemeketa, and spent time with Oregon wine legends like Don Letts and Ken Wright.

Years passed. Their son and daughter grew up bucking hay and raising steers for Future Farmers of America projects. Time was running out for the land. “My dad used to call this Squirrel Hill, because the only thing it was good for was growing squirrels.” But Mike had a notion the depleted earth could be put to better use: “people told us it was good grape ground.”

“When Mike’s dad was alive the land was worth little to nothing because it’s poor soil,” says Drenda. “But that makes it perfect vineyard ground.”

The proof is a long wave of vines cresting the opposite hill, vibrant green beneath a hot blue sky. They have about 15 acres planted now. Half they sell and half goes their winemaker Rebecca Pittock-Shouldis (a former F-15 maintenance technician for the Oregon Air National Guard) to make the 1200 cases that Ghost Hill Cellars releases each year. It’s all Pinot because, Mike says, Pinot grows better in the Willamette Valley than anywhere else.

Pinot is a delicate grape; its wine a cultivated taste. Ghost Hill’s refusal to compromise, or spread the risk, is probably a poor business decision on paper, but Mike has enough of his dad’s flinty spirit to carry on regardless. The result? Multi-award-winning, world-class wine. We sample Pinot Noir Blanc, a white truffle of a beverage: rare, sophisticated and subtle. The Pinot rosé they make by leaving the skins on for 24 hours to bring the colour is justifiably recommend by Wine Spectator as one of the world’s best rosés. And the 2010 Prospector’s Reserve Pinot Noir silences me at the first sip. I want to climb into the bottle and savor every magnificent facet of this masterpiece. When Drenda and Mike kindly urge me to take the rest of the tasting bottle home I feel as if I’ve been bequeathed a jewel.

Family ties

Cultivating and crafting sublime Pinot Noir is their gift to wine-drinkers. In return the Bayliss’s get a chance to pass their rural lifestyle and family traditions to another generation. Holding on to the land is a challenge all small farmers face in the 21st century. At 234 acres the Bayliss spread is too small to turn a profit in the era of industrial agriculture. For some 40 years Mike supplemented the farm income by working at the nearby Trappist monastery, doing everything from book-binding to building pews to baking fruitcakes.

“Planting the vineyard is about the preservation of the land in the family,” Mike says in his wonderful, gargling-gravel voice. “There’s nothing else I could have done that would have interested our kids and grandchildren in keeping the ground as part of their heritage.”

Son Michael, daughter, Bernadette and son-in-law Cameron Bower are partners in the business, each taking an active part. Michael – a mechanic for Ford – oversees equipment purchases; Bernadette and Cameron help with capital and plan to move back to Oregon in a few years to take a hands-on role; perfect for their nine-year-old son who wants to be a winemaker. “We talk business once a week,” Mike says. “It makes us closer than we would be otherwise.”

As we walk outside to survey the vineyard Mike points out pieces of history. The chunk of gleaming amber stone is fire opal, “probably washed down from the [Missoula] floods in Montana”. On the step below half of a worn stone bowl, an Indian artefact his father found in a field – perhaps while traipsing behind the horse-drawn plow whose rusting blade rests against a tree stump. Among other relics they recently discovered bottles of moonshine stashed in the barn.

“We didn’t open them, but maybe we should,” Drenda grins. “They look okay.”

During Prohibition, some of the farm’s grain output went into bootleg whiskey. “Dad and the neighbor ran a still,” Mike says. “The neighbor had a milk route. It worked out well: couple of milk bottles and something to go with it!”

The ghost of Ghost Hill

I clamber into his Ford Super Duty pick-up and we cruise towards the vineyard. Mike points out a massive live oak at the peak of the hill to our right. “If you stop up there on your way out you’ll see the cross I put under the tree,” he says. “Oak Springs Farm Road is part of an old military road that ran from Washington to California. One night in the late 1800s a miner camped there. During the night he was murdered for his poke of gold and his horse was killed. Since then, he’s been seen astride his horse, looking for the one who took his life and his gold. That’s why it’s known as Ghost Hill.”

When we hit the middle of the vineyard he parks up and we tramp along the rows. From where we stand the Willamette Valley unfurls like an emerald carpet dotted with dark stands of oak and hemmed by distant, deep-blue ridges. It is splendid just to be outside in air as fresh as clean laundry, watching birds of prey loop lazily in the distance. Rumor has it a bald eagle nests on the property, but they haven’t spotted it yet. There are, however, other birds, bees and butterflies in abundance. In its previous incarnations the farm was heavily plowed and sprayed. Mike and Drenda stopped that, reducing to minimal inputs and leaving the ground intact. Now the land is once again a haven for flying things, plus a loud, lively population of tree-frogs. Ghost Hill Cellars is sustainably farmed and LIVE and Salmon Safe certified

Back in the tasting room, Drenda confesses she never expected to be a farmer’s wife. Her parents moved to McMinnville when she was a senior in high school. “I hated them for it. We had been living five miles from Disneyland then all of a sudden I’m in this little town where people still drove horse-drawn buggies.” One day, on her walk home from school, a young man offered her a lift. Happily, Mike drove a ’66 GTO so she said yes. “I wouldn’t have gone for a buggy.” Her plan to marry her Californian boyfriend went by the wayside and she embarked on a life of hand-rearing rejected calves, chasing spooked cattle down highways and innumerable late nights baling hay.

Grapes, she says as an aside, are a lot more manageable than cows.

“They’re not going to run,” her husband deadpans. “You pretty much wake up in the morning knowing where they are.”

Not that running a vineyard is easy. Pinot are high-maintenance and the couple work hard with their vineyard manager to keep the vines in perfect condition. There are other, unexpected obstacles. A fire broke out at Scott Paul winery where they produce their wine. They raced there, along with five fire trucks, and watched flames shoot out of the roof. “We thought, ‘that’s it, it’s gone,’” Drenda recalls. But amazingly, the fire spared their wine. “Luckily we’d bottled our rosé and blanc. Otherwise they would have been ruined.”

Vagary and mercy are implacable facts of life. Plans change, land gets weary, technology demands more production for profit. Equally: fate smiles, poor soil grows magnificent fruit, ghosts rest in peace. You can fight change or embrace it. Mike and Drenda chose the latter. Their family and Willamette Valley wine alike are the better for it.

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