In the Oregon wine industry, a few families are royalty. Names like Lett, Adelsheim, Erath, Knudsen, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Redford and Campbell are revered by those who remember the 1970s, when explorers broke ground in the Willamette Valley, planted Pinot Noir without much of an idea of where it might lead. They invented not only an industry, but also a way of life.
One of those fearless romantics was Cal Knudsen, who arrived from Seattle in 1971 and planted his estate vineyard a year later. Knudsen died in April 2009 after a long and fulfilling life as an integral part of the Oregon wine industry that helped establish two successful wineries.
Now his children are carrying on his work and launching a winery that will honor his name and pioneering spirit.
“I think he’d love this,” said Page Knudsen Cowles, Knudsen’s daughter. She and two of her three brothers are working together to create Knudsen Vineyards, a winery that will focus on Pinot Noir from grapes their father planted in the legendary red soil of the Dundee Hills.
Knudsen was a forest industry executive who fell in love with wine when he spent time in Burgundy. Upon his return, he planted the first large-scale vineyard in the Willamette Valley. It spanned 125 acres at a time when most other sites were not more than trials at 2-3 acres.
“Our father was in a position, because of his career in the forest industry, to invest a bit more heavily,” Cowles said.
Early on, he partnered with Dick Erath, who had arrived a few years earlier and produced the first wine in the Dundee Hills in 1972. Together, they ran Knudsen-Erath, with Knudsen growing grapes and Erath making wine. That partnership lasted until 1987, when they parted amicably and remained lifelong friends.
At that time, Argyle Winery was just beginning, and Knudsen supplied the grapes for the nascent operation. In 1990, he sold his holdings in Erath, invested them in Argyle and became its chairman, a post he held until retiring in 2007.
“He was a great inspiration to me,” said Rollin Soles, Argyle’s founding winemaker who recently moved to a consulting role at the winery along Highway 99W. “He was the foundation for starting Argyle. I worked with Cal for a long time. He was a great mentor to me.”
Cowles said her father was smitten with sparkling wine, and that made his relationship with Argyle — which makes some of the best bubbly anywhere — that much more appealing.
Erath eventually sold the winery he and Knudsen built together to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. The land and the surrounding vineyards are owned by Knudsen’s children, who are reviving their father’s pioneering spirit by launching a winery that bears his name.
“I think he’d think this was pretty cool,” Cowles said.
Neither Cowles nor her three siblings sought out careers in the wine industry, but their father’s legacy and the Dundee Hills vineyard remain a shared experience.
“We felt a lot of freedom to choose for ourselves,” she said. “This land is a real constant in our lives. We’re very proud of it. We love this land, and we’re excited about doing more with it.”
Cowles was born in Seattle, and the family moved to Portland when she was in kindergarten. She left the Northwest in the mid-1980s and has lived in Minnesota since 1990. She is a high-level volunteer for the nonprofit Trust for Public Land. Now that she and her husband are empty-nesters, she flies to Oregon every six to eight weeks.
Her brother Colin is an investment banker in New York City, and her brother David lives in Texas and is president and CEO of Ostrom’s Mushroom Farm. Their eldest brother, Cal Jr., lives in Woodinville, Wash. All except Cal plan to be actively involved in the new venture.
Their first wine is an estate Pinot Noir from the 2012 vintage and is in barrel at Argyle, where it is being overseen by Soles and winemaker Nate Klostermann. The first release, which will be next year, will be a mere 100 cases, enough for the siblings to begin to get a feel for the wine business and decide how they want to proceed.
With such a tiny amount, there are no plans to build a winery or open a tasting room.
“We’re starting pretty small,” she said.
The wine will be sold through a mailing list and at select restaurants and retailers.
In addition to the winery, the Knudsen children are carrying on their father’s wishes to slowly replant the vineyard.
“It’s something Cal set in motion years ago,” Soles said. “We’ve been tearing out perfectly good old vines and replanting them.”
Knudsen planted his vines long before phylloxera was an issue in Oregon. He came to realize he needed to slowly replant to avoid having the root louse destroy the vines. During the process, newer viticultural practices are being put into place, including higher-density plantings and new clones of Pinot Noir.
“Cal had the foresight and money to replant,” Soles said. “The good news is Page is continuing the program.”
And his legacy.
Andy Perdue is editor of Great Northwest Wine, a news and information website www.greatnorthwestwine.com