Farm Profile: Winter's Hill Vineyard, Yamhill County

It’s about 7:30 on a Friday morning in late September, and the fog is thick in downtown Dundee.

As photographer Shawn Linehan and I call winemaker Russell Gladhart, I worry that perhaps this is not the best day to visit for a glimpse of harvest at his family winery, Winter’s Hill Vineyard.

But despite the valley gloom, Russell reassures us that it’s beautiful at the winery. As it turns out, he’s not kidding. Five minutes later, we are climbing up Hilltop Lane just south of Dundee, and suddenly burst from the fog. Arriving at the summit perch of Winter’s Hill, we are rewarded with a bright view across the Willamette Valley, clusters of forested hills materializing like islands above a pillowy sea of fog.

Rising above the fog is a daily reward and a daily challenge for small winemakers like the Gladharts: Russell, his wife Delphine, and his parents Emily and Peter. There is a lot to keep track of in the pursuit of great wine: from the daily needs of the vines, to finding enough workers, to the myriad tasks of picking and processing, and of course, marketing and distribution to get great wine in the glass of customers.

Not that they’d complain. The Gladharts are clearly, joyously at home in their vineyard and winery.

The story of how they came home is interesting, as it is for many Oregonians. Emily’s parents—the Winters for whom the winery is named—were German immigrants who landed in Chicago in 1929. Her mother, a governess, was told by a boss that being American means owning land. So, throughout Emily’s childhood, the hunt for land was a passion for her parents—even if it meant looking far afield. “When we were kids, they would always subscribe to local newspapers around the country and look for land,” Emily says.

In 1961, the Winters bought and moved to a 150-acre farm in distant Oregon. They called it “Holly Hill,” and leased much of the land for wheat and clover.

But Emily and her husband Peter, a university professor in Michigan, saw another possibility. On the advice of a local wine expert, they moved to Oregon and began planting grapes at “Holly Hill” in 1990, renaming it “Winter’s Hill Vineyard.”

Russell was in college then, and thought it was a risky venture, to say the least. “I remember the first day I came here after they planted,” he says. “My parents took me to the ‘vineyard’—which was just little sticks in rows of black plastic, each two inches long. And I said, ‘So this is my parents’ nest egg.’” He laughs. “But to see it grow over the last twenty years, has been amazing.”

And things have certainly been growing. Originally, the plan had been to just produce grapes for other wineries. The vineyards expanded over time to 35 acres, mostly of pinot gris, pinot blanc, and pinot noir. But as for many in wine country, growing grapes quickly gives way to making your own wine—at least with some of your crop. Peter and Emily’s first vintage under their own label came in 1998.

Russell, meanwhile, worked for vineyards in Oregon, New Zealand, and France. He met his wife, Delphine, along the way at Lemelson Vineyards, where they were both apprenticing. Delphine had finished a winemaking degree in her native France and was spending one harvest in Oregon.

“There’s a big influx of foreign winemakers and apprentices in Oregon each fall,” says Russell, and it worked out well for him and Delphine. The two married and joined the family operation in 2004. Delphine serves as head winemaker, and Russell handles sales and marketing, while Peter manages the vineyard and Emily manages the tasting room and retail sales. After renting space for processing over 25 miles away, the family finally built their own on-site winery in 2009.

Land, People and Communities

Sustainability has been important to the Gladharts from the start—for their business, their family, and for the environment. They proudly point to their LIVE certification—a rigorous independent standard that actually gets harder each year, including all aspects of the vineyard and winery operations—as evidence of how seriously they take things. Around the vineyard, raptor poles attract natural predators to combat rodent and avian pests, while water conservation and runoff control helped the winery earn a SalmonSafe certification. They’ve managed the land to maintain stands of oak and Douglas fir, including an effort to reestablish native Willamette Valley prairie.

Though the Gladharts themselves do much of the work, it takes a lot of people to make a winery like Winter’s Hill successful: workers, other businesses, and of course, customers.

Russell leads us down the steeply sloped vineyard to a small group of workers harvesting grapes while lively ranchera music plays on a portable radio. With the eye of experts, they’re cutting clusters and carefully selecting the best grapes to send to the winery. Winter’s Hill contracts with a management company to provide its workers, many of whom are local.

“We’re absolutely dependent on our workers,” Emily says, lamenting that it’s not easier to get the labor they need every year. The winery must have hand labor to operate, especially over the eight to ten most intense, weather-dependent days of harvesting, but also throughout the year. A lot of agricultural workers in the area work full-time year-round, raising families and contributing to the vibrancy of the local communities.

Beyond the direct impact of the workers’ income, the economic impact of the local wine industry multiplies across the state and region. The success of Winter’s Hill and the scores of other Yamhill County wineries has developed whole new niches for local business. “We now have specialized machinery and other manufacturers for vineyards and wineries throughout Oregon,” Russell says. There are also local firms specializing in vineyard management, winery operations, equipment rentals, and marketing. For instance, Winter’s Hill just had their website redone by a company that specializes in winery business.

Then there are the materials, like labels, bottles, and so on, many of which can be purchased locally—even a cooper (barrel-maker) who operates near McMinnville. And local educational institutions, like Chemeketa Community College, Oregon State University, and Linfield College, are also adding training and research programs that bring more young people with specialized skills into the local wine business.

Much of the money to support this growing economic cycle actually comes from outside Oregon, including visitors from around the nation and world—bringing new dollars directly into Oregon’s economy. The numbers are growing each year. In one day last year, Emily says, they had visitors from Tanzania, Kenya, Singapore, and England, as well as Americans from all over the country. What do they think of Oregon? “They think it’s just gorgeous…people are just flabbergasted.”  

“I like to remind people that it’s not accidental,” Russell adds, referring to Oregon’s land use laws and protections for vital farm lands.

A Question of Balance

For the Gladharts and Winter’s Hill, success comes down to constantly striking the right balance. Balance in the spacing of vines, watering, and responses to pests. Balance of operations and resource allocations. Balance of flavors and sugars, of the elements of winemaking.

And balance in the wine country overall, as the industry and the region grow in prominence and attract potentially incompatible uses that could damage the very things that have helped it grow: good land and unique character.

Like many in farm country, the Gladharts are concerned about more homes near farming operation, and the conflicts that can create. “There are vineyards all over the place around here. You can always hear someone’s machine,” Peter says, whether fans, trucks, sprayers, or other equipment.  (On the day of our visit, many neighboring vineyards were blasting cannons to scare away birds.)

Fortunately, if development is properly directed, Oregon wine country’s growth can mean great things for its small towns—places like Dundee, Newberg, Carlton, and McMinnville. “We have some world-class restaurants and lodging in our local towns,” Russell says. “That’s an important part of a great wine destination.”

But the Gladharts worry about proposals for restaurants, event centers, and hotels outside the town centers. “There’s a dilution effect,” Russell says. “If every winery also serves food, it’s not good for the in-town restaurants….It also doesn’t often result in much spillover for other wineries.”

So the challenge will be to continue finding the balance that defines Oregon. Russell points out that Oregon wine country’s greatest strengths are its uniqueness and laid-back atmosphere. “We hear people come here all the time and tell us how much they love Oregon, and the landscape.” Russell says. “Our challenge is to grow…but to do so while keeping what’s actually special about Oregon.”

As we tour the vines, Russell stops to provide brief demonstration of how to tell when a pinot gris grape is ripe. Though like most wineries, Winter’s Hill uses some laboratory tests, ultimately knowing when things are ripe comes down to careful observation, and experience. “You can’t test for taste, but it’s the most important part.”

It’s a similar thing for Oregon wine country—which is why 1000 Friends works hard to strike the right balance there and throughout Oregon: supporting innovators like the Gladharts and other agricultural professionals in rural areas, while fostering sustainable, targeted economic development in communities.

If you’d like to stand with us to protect the land and promote the great communities that define Oregon wine country, please consider a gift through the 2013 Give!Guide. Winter’s Hill Vineyard has partnered with us to provide a number of rewards and incentives to our Give!Guide donors. Learn more here: