Tom's blog

Knudsen: from farmer to producer

When you think of winemaking pioneers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a handful of names come to mind: David Lett, Dick Erath and Dick Ponzi, all of whom were growing grapes and making wine by the early 1980s. However, a name that escapes more memories is Cal Knudsen, a Weyerhaeuser executivbe who became Oregon’s largest vineyard owner in 1975 when he expanded his 30-acre block in Dundee Hills to 60 acres.

Knudsen never made wine solely under his name, but he partnered with Dick Erath to form Knudsen-Erath Winery. When that partnership ended in 1987, he sold his wines to Argyle for its well-respected sparkling wine program.

Knudsen died in 2009 and his four children — none involved in the wine business — decided to continue the family legacy and launched Knudsen Vineyards in 2012, first with a pinot noir and then with a chardonnay. Because they had established lives and businesses well outside the wine world, the family turned to its long-time partner — Argyle — to help.

 Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner

Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner

I recently had dinner with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing partner of Knudsen Vineyards, who said it was important to the family to keep their father’s legacy going for future generations. Knudsen continues to sell grapes to Argyle and buys back about 500 tons for its own wine. Argyle’s winemaker Nate Klosterman is making the wine.

The Knudsens couldn’t have made a better business decision. They can ease into the unfamiliar business of making wine with professionals at the helm. The two pinot noirs and one chardonnay I tasted were well made — good balance and pure expression of the Dundee Hills fruit character.

I really like the 2016 burgundian-like chardonnay because it had just a kiss of oak and an austere but intense profile. The estate pinot noir blended into the Willamette pack at $55; the reserve showed more distinction at $70 but the wines tasted like a product still being developed. Given the quality of the vineyards, I would like to see Knudsen make a single-vineyard pinot noir.

Argle makes a pinot noir made entirely from Knudsen grapes. Most consumers won’t know that, but I wonder if winemaker Klosterman is making the same pinot noir for both labels — or something different for Argyle.

These wines are on the right track, but clearly the Knudsen’s have an uphill climb in a competitive market. The wines are distributed in only a handful of states (including my state of Florida) and the burden has fallen to Page to hand-sell the wines city to city. She lives in Minnesota.

She agrees that a tasting room will make her job much easier, especially if that can drive direct-to-consumer sales. Oregon has seen tremendous growth in this sector.

By the way, Ste. Michelle Estates bought out Erath several years ago, but Dick Erath was allowed to live in his original home. That lease runs out this year and Knudsen doesn’t plan to renew it. That sounds like a good location for a tasting room!