Willamette Valley: Elk Cove Vineyards

The following profile of Elk Cove is excerpted from the 2015 book Oregon Wine Pioneers.

Anna, the youngest of Elk Cove Vineyards founders Pat and Joe Campbell’s clan, grew up running through the woods that surround the estate, splashing in the pond below what’s now the tasting room. She still loves tramping across the original estate near Gaston, Oregon stopping to point out where the house stood that her parents built using a do-it-yourself book and a pile of scrap lumber. It was on stilts, uninsulated, but an improvement on the trailer they lived on when they arrived on the property in 1974. The steep, rocky hillsides that thwarted previous homesteaders’ attempts to grow cherries, wheat and hazelnuts were suited to grapes. At least that’s what Pat and Joe Campbell hoped when they arrived in wilds with their children and set about transforming a rugged patch of the Coast Range into a vineyard.

Agriculture – as any farmer will tell you – is a gamble with long odds, short windows of opportunity and interminable waits for results. “It was probably 20 years before you could call the business successful,” Anna muses. Twenty years of planting, pruning, trellising, picking, winemaking, bottling and marketing with no guarantee of the outcome.

Fortunately for wine-lovers, Pat and Joe Campbell are inclined to patience. They dated briefly in high school – Pat’s parents farmed an orchard in Parkdale near Joe’s home town of Hood River – but went separate ways. Joe attended Harvard then Stanford medical school, married and had two children. It was only later that he and Pat encountered each other again, wed, and embarked on the “crazy dream” of creating one of Oregon’s first wineries. Anna, siblings Eartha and Adam, and her half-brothers were an integral part of the project from the beginning. “Five kids is lots of labor,” she quips. When she wasn’t playing, disrupting quail hunts, or at school she and her siblings pitched in to pick grapes, bottle wine, and do chores.

Anna and I catch up with Adam – winemaker since ’95, big brother since forever – and find a quiet spot to talk in a banquet room. There is a strong family resemblance. Both have strawberry blond hair, though Adam’s is peppered with grey. He has blue eyes; Anna’s are almost the exact colour of the olive-green stones in her earrings. Adam’s memories stretch further, right to the beginning of the vineyard: “It was a different place back then. We had cows, horses, pigs, chickens. It was an ‘all hands on deck’ farmstead.” Adam recalls their mother dashing out during lunch to greet potential customers, the constant demands of work, the long dinners at Nick’s restaurant in McMinnville: “As a kid I’d be sleeping under the table while they went on for two or three hours, tasting each other’s wines, giving each other encouragement and ideas.” It was a beautiful place to grow up, they agree; a busy, rich life, but not their life.

“When you’re 18 you don’t want to do what your parents did,” says Adam. “My parents said, ‘do whatever will keep you in school’, so I have a degree in political science.”

Anna studied biology then joined the Peace Corp and spent two years teaching science in Burkina Faso. Eventually she returned to Oregon and tried her hand at wine production for a while. “It wasn’t a good fit.” Ultimately, photography took her interest. She started working with a family friend, assisting on commercial shoots, then moved into wedding photos and portraiture.

“Our parents were good at not pressuring us to go into the business,” Adam notes. Again, patience paid off. After university he returned to Elk Cove and started making wine with his father. Continuing in the “great history” of self-taught Oregon winemakers, he learned on the job, working side by side with Joe. Having grown up in the vineyards, Adam retains a deep respect for agriculture. “Having full control of the process, from grape to bottle, is the pinnacle of winemaking. I spend a lot of time in the vineyard, not just at harvest, but the whole season. Everything you see out there, if you are thoughtful, will inform your decisions about how you make the wines.”

We are sat overlooking a vineyard block straight out of a Van Gogh painting: lime-green stripes interspersed with thick strokes of scarlet. Anna has an aesthete’s enthusiasm for the view – “Be sure to get some photos,” she urges. Adam smiles. As much as he enjoys the image drawn by alternating rows of grapevines and red clover he is focused on the practical outcome: “What we’re doing is growing our own nitrogen. It’s beautiful but honestly, I can’t wait to see the clover plowed in. That means it’s doing its job.”

Using cover crops to enrich the soil is just one of Elk Cove’s many sustainable practices. The vineyard is certified Salmon Safe; they use solar power and biodiesel; a significant proportion of the 40,000 cases they produce annual is bottled in lighter-weight ‘eco-glass’; white wine comes with environmentally friendly screw-tops; most important, they provide healthcare and retirement funds for all their employees, including the vineyard workers. “Healthcare is a big issue,” Adam notes. In addition to insuring their own employees, they are active supporters of ¡Salud! an organisation founded by doctors and winemakers to provide healthcare for seasonal workers – including a mobile clinic, dental care and help accessing additional medical services.

It is all part of what Adam calls, “A broader view of sustainability. Not just in terms of the vineyard, but in terms of the whole business, taking care of the folks here, and creating a valuable product we can ship around the states and the world and bring tax dollars back to Oregon.”

Sustainability began at home for the Campbells. Everything they do is linked to the larger purpose of nurturing not just the business and profits, but a way of life. “Most of my family is in agriculture,” Anna tells me later as we hike along the La Boheme block (her maternal great-grandparents even made wine, pre-Prohibition). “A lot of farm families have struggled over the past 50 years, trying to keep the land. It’s great to see the wine industry making that possible.” What she doesn’t add, though she might, is that the industry has grown to support a diverse array of talent. She found her perfect role in the business as Elk Cove’s creative director, bringing her photography skills and artist’s eye to marketing and communications. While her brother tells the story of the land through wine, Anna renders it visually, giving visitors a different way to experience Oregon wine country. At the moment she is doing a time-lapse photo project that will capture the vines as they into bloom.

We continue down the hill into a block gridded with half-gallon waxed cardboard milk cartons (regular and chocolate). They’re a biodegradable alternative to the plastic chutes commonly used to protect new plants. I squat to peer inside: the vines are tiny brown ropes, like packing twine, wrapped around the stakes. One or two precocious starts have run up a green flag of a leaf.

They are hoping this new planting will mimic – expand upon – the quality of Roosevelt, a 2.6 acre snippet of organically farmed, hand-maintained vineyard that produces “the best of the best,” Pinot Noir. The winery and its prize vineyard were both named for the type of elk that still visit from time to time. With just 50 out of about 200 acres planted there is plenty of wilderness here for deer, bear, bobcats, raptors, vultures, bald eagles, and countless smaller species of birds and mammals to thrive. The Campbells bought parcels of land around the Willamette Valley to create the Windhill, Clay Court, Mount Richmond and Five Mountain vineyards, allowing them to increase production but leave the original estate semi-wild.

“Because of the grapes we don’t have the pressure to log it or do other high intensity uses,” Adam says. “It’s fun to take a property like this and steward it. Grapes have an amazing lifespan. They’ll probably outlive me, which is kind of weird, but cool. If you do the right things, plant the right grapes, and have a sustainable business model, they should last 60 or 70 more years.”

That would take Elk Cove into its second century of pioneering ways to gently extract value from Oregon’s unique climate, soil and lifestyle. Like his parents before him, Adam is relaxed about the future of the family business. If there’s one thing the Campbell story proves it’s that patience and hard work pay off, however distant or unanticipated the result. “I don’t want to put any pressure on the third generation,” he chuckles. “But it will be great if they want to come back and continue to steward the land, tending the vines that were planted so long ago and carrying on.”

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