Q&A with Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, Elkton, Oregon
Q: Terry, why did you start a winery?
A: For me, it kind of just happened as I became more and more interested in home winemaking.
My first home winemaking adventure was in 1975. (As background, San Francisco is my home town and I had moved earlier that year to Fairfax, in Marin County.) I got a call from my uncle who had been doing a little small-scale home winemaking, and he and my aunt had run across a farmer in eastern Contra Costa County that had a sign announcing u-pick grapes for sale. That was a Tuesday evening, and between then and Saturday, I picked up a winemaking book, poured through it, went to the local home fermenter shop in San Francisco, bought what I learned would be needed, and also bought a used 60-gallon barrel from DiBella’s on Harrison Street.
I arrived at the vineyard at 7 am on Saturday. It was a beautiful scene—farmhouse, barn, vineyard and orchard and this old Italian fellow comes out to greet us and says, “Before we go to work, we need to have a little wine, and since it’s before lunch, we will have white wine.” He took us into the corner of his barn lined with shelves of jugs, pulled one down and poured us a little glass. We went out and picked a half ton of grapes, and then he said, “You guys are great, stay for lunch.” Well, a homemade spread of Italian treats with him, his wife and neighbors, and by then the red wine flowed. When I got home to Fairfax, I had told my hippie friends there would be a grape stomp in the driveway. It was all too much fun!
Q: Why did you become a winemaker?
A: What really pushed it was the following year when I was racking that first wine in the garage. A couple came up and introduced themselves and said that they had planted a vineyard in Anderson Valley. (My day job was working longshore/warehouse on the San Francisco waterfront.) I started lending a hand in the vineyard on weekends and, in exchange for some grapes, hauled back to a couple of Bay Area urban wineries the fruit on the company truck, which my boss let me borrow on weekends. I got to know pretty much all of the wine people in Anderson Valley over the years, so I kinda grew up working with cool climate varieties—Pinot, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. I began to think this all was more fun than my day job, got my garage bonded as a home occupation in 1986 and that first year’s production was 300 cases of Anderson Valley Pinot and Riesling and Brandlin Vineyard/Mt. Veeder Zinfandel. Then it was hitting the streets of San Fran after work to peddle wine—with no sales, business or marketing education.
Q: What’s your vision of the future of winemaking?
I am happy to see things trending away from the big, overripe, over-extracted style that came to dominate the ’90s or thereabout.
Q: Tell me about the importance of selecting a location to grow your fruit.
A: IT’S EVERYTHING! It’s why we are in Elkton, where Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer have been grown since 1972. We knew could not afford California real estate. By then I was making pinot from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in California as well as Anderson Valley and in discussions with friends in the industry had talked of a warming climate and thought coastal river valleys would afford the best available insurance to remain cooler, drawing in air off the Pacific and inland areas warmed.
Q: What is it that you love about the wine industry?
A: It’s an all-consuming passion. And most people in this industry feel the same way. There is a lot of collaboration.
Q: What’s in a name?
A: A lot. I never wanted to name the brand after my name but a friend, Travis Fretter, who had one of the small urban wineries that I delivered grapes to in Berkeley, told me it certainly couldn’t hurt when I was out selling my wine. It’s good to have your name on the bottle in that case.
Q: Tell me about your label design.
A: Most of ours are simple. Our color is the color of our soil. I’m not sure if it is the best, but with the abundance of lighter shades of whites and creams on the shelves, when you walk into to a shop, our stands out and is easy to spot. We now have some really cool labels for our new sparkling wines, and also now for our Fino Pinot.
Q: That all sounds great, but where does Sue (Terry’s wife and partner) come into the picture?
A: Okay – I’ll come clean. What really brought me to this is having met my life’s soulmate at a wine tasting in Jackson, Wyoming. I had met a Jackson resident on a fishing trip in the Wind Rivers Range in 1990. He was a total wine geek and I said, “Why don’t you get a brokers license and sell my wines in this market?” I saw it as a good excuse to spend more time fishing in Wyoming. Surprisingly, he did. He became my Wyoming broker and I visited over Memorial Day Weekend every year for a consumer and trade tasting. I met Sue there at a tasting in 1998. We chatted at the table and seemed to have things in common, so I invited her to join me and my wine and fishing buddies at the Snake River Grill for beer and pizza.
Long story short—after falling in love through a heart-rendering exchange of letters—she moved west a year later. She joined me in San Francisco and immediately fell in with my wine business. Although we both had our day jobs, we both worked in the winemaking and we both got out on the streets to sell our wine. And we both started to yearn for something other than making wine in a warehouse in Richmond and started to want our own place and put our roots down and plant a vineyard of our beloved Pinot Noir.
Q: How did you come to choose southern Oregon?
A: I had a fondness for Oregon—first fishing up this way in the ’70s, having friends move to the Umpqua in the ’80s and then getting my first IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration) invite in ’94. So, our search for property ended with us discovering Elkton in 2001—the cool coastal river climate that we had been searching for. We moved from San Francisco to Elkton in 2002.
Q: Well, that’s more like it! Tell me what you did next.
A: Sue and I did most all of the work getting our vineyard planted. We did all of the layout, fencing and got help from the local high school graduates to stick the vines in the ground and do some of the post pounding.
Sue has been at my side for all that we have done since she moved west in ’99. She had worked in the medical field in Jackson and has great people skills. She hit the sales trail in the Bay Area like I had been doing, with no sales background, but understanding it’s all about relationships.
Brandborg would not be where it is today without her. She handles all of the office work and manages distribution—everything on the business side. Between our first year here and our first hire to help in the front of the house and the cellar, it was just the two of us, from 2,500 cases to 6,000 cases.
I tease her to look at what she got herself into after picking me up at a winetasting! So, we are both self-taught through working within this industry, and we gratefully acknowledge all of the collaborative advice, council and education we have received.
Q: What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a winery owner?
A: Well…the saying in this industry is that to make a small fortune, you’ll need to start with a large one. Not many of us do start out that way, so you have to have a passion for and enjoy what you are doing. Never be shy about seeking out advice or asking questions—most folks are very open to sharing what they know.
And always try to be better. One of the fun things about this is the constant opportunity to learn and apply what you have learned as you strive for the best.