During my recent trip to Oregon, dear friend Greg Lint (president of Oak Knoll Winery) wanted Jose and me to meet one of his sources for their lovely Pinot Noir grapes, and to see the vineyard where the fruit was being grown. Greg arranged a meeting with Bill and Sharon Beran, of Beran Vineyards. Bill is a renowned viticulturalist and winemaker in Willamette Valley, and we were going to meet with him to hear his story.
We met on a typical Oregon, gray day. During this meeting, I also came to learn that they supplied Pinot grapes to Erath, Ponzi, and Socol Blosser in the 70s and 80s, as everyone was brand building back then. Today, Oak Knoll Winery is the only winery to receive these coveted grapes.
In an earlier blog called, Lessons in Oregon, Beginning with The Early Pioneers at Oak Knoll Winery, I wrote about these wine companies, in relation to Oak Knoll’s early history and founder/winemaker Ron Vuylsteke. The Berans came onto this scene in the 70s, but only as grape growers at the time. The relationships for selling grapes began there with many prominent wine companies, including Oak Knoll. Ron Vuylsteke (a retired electronics engineer) and Bill Beran (a retired physicist) bonded. Of the nine companies below, you’ll see that Bill Beran supplied fruit to four of the nine. He was and remains a key player in many outstanding Oregon Pinots.
During the Pinot Noir era, which began in 1965, there were nine early pioneers in Willamette Valley established within as many years.
- David Lett, Eyrie Vineyard, 1965
- Dick Erath, Erath Vineyards Winery, 1969
- Dick and Nancy Ponzi, Ponzi Vineyards, 1970
- Ron and Marj Vuylsteke, Oak Knoll Winery, 1970
- Susan and Bill Sokol-Blosser, Sokol Blosser Winery, 1971
- David and Ginny Adelsheim, Adelsheim Vineyard, 1972
- Pat and Joe Campbell, Elk Cove Vineyards, 1973
- Bill and Virginia Fuller, Tualatin Estate Vineyards, 1973
- Jerry and Ann Preston, and Myron Redford, Amity Vineyards, 1974
Although Bill Beran began growing Pinot Noir with the above illustrious group, it wasn’t until 1997 that he finally decided to take that winemaking leap to create his own wine.
As we arrived at his winery, I was first struck by the similarities of the Beran’s winery and Oak Knoll’s. Most noticeably, both of them were originally dairy farms, and situated in places where pasture lands were part of their landscape and design.
- Both landscapes have changed to include vineyards.
- The feeding silos, created by the third Little Piggie (in the 3 Little Pigs story), were made of bricks, and became more trouble than it was worth to knock them down (just as the Big Bad Wolf discovered, when he tried to huff and puff and blow the brick house down).
- The grain silos are charming and have fascinating histories.
- Bill’s silo has a great sign on it (pictured), with the property being a homestead form 1875.
- Wild flowers grow within Oak Knoll’s… in the silence of being deep within the country.
- Both wineries are about a half hour southwest of bustling downtown Portland, and are therefore the gateway into Oregon’s Willamette Valley wine country.
The Berans are dedicated to the exclusive production of small quantities of premium estate bottled Pinot Noir. The vineyards were planted in 1972 and 1979. They lie within the curve of the Chehelam Mountains, and have spectacular, sweeping views of Mt. Hood (from their gazebo) and the High Cascades. The area took my breath away, and reminded me of my Maine roots. I could have been in Maine, for all I knew, if I had been brought there blindfolded, and asked, “Where are you?” I would have said, “Sabattus Lake,” where we swam in the summer until our skin shriveled like raisins. At night, we’d go to the Davis Dairy Farm to get milk that had been gathered that morning. It felt the same.
In 2009, Bill Beran produced 800 cases of Pinot Noir.
- The math ~ 800 cases divided by 24 cases [per barrel] = 33 barrels of Pinot Noir for the 2009 vintage (approximately, 792 cases, to be specific)
- That’s very manageable for one man, and was Bill’s passion for each season
When we arrived in September, brix was between 16 to 18 degrees. (Usual brix for this time would have been between 23 to 23.5.) Bill jokingly said that at that rate, they could be picking by Christmas. This year is going to go down in history as one that was extremely difficult, but it still hasn’t completely dampened everyone’s spirits. Bill said, “The berries are beautiful and just ready. All we need is a little more heat. We always drop fruit, and will drop more if ripening depends on it.”
Bill was a retired physicist when he began Beran Vineyards, now he’s retiring for the second time. Together, Bill and Sharon have four children. All are now grown and have professional careers of their own… They raised them well. Too well, actually, because not one of them has an interest in returning home and taking over the winery and grape growing. They all love to help during harvest; but it’s their dad and mom’s passion, not their own. And so, the Berans are talking to others who are interested in purchasing their home, vineyard land, and winery.
In Oregon, Bill told me, “We don’t strive for consistency. We can’t. That’s impossible. We strive for delivering the best flavors of that season. We’ve never had to irrigate. The vines were planted, and we let the roots go down deeply for their water. Everything we’ve ever done here is by hand, including hand picking and sorting. The entire process is done in one day… From picking to putting into a tank to ferment. From our kids to volunteer friends, we just get it done.”
Oregon’s weather is consistently inconsistent. It continues to remind me of Maine, and tells me more about why that famous coin flip of one man from Portland, Maine, and the other from Boston, Massachusetts had divine providence land on the Portland side, for naming the West Coast city. (True story, as told to me by an Oregonian.)
A testament to how inconsistent Beran Vineyard’s wine flavors are (because of their wacky growing seasons), we tasted and found the proof:
- 1999 Beran, Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir(one of Bill Beran’s first vintages)
- All Pommard Clones (45 percent being Dijon, 45 percent being Clone 4115, and 10 percent Wädenswil), the flavors of crushed strawberries and plums, along with earthy mushrooms and a touch of toasted oak told me I was in lush Pinot Noir heaven.
- 2006 Beran Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir
- The alcohol on this one was 14.5 percent, versus the 13 percent that’s usual. It was a very hot summer, with temperatures being the unusual 100s for Oregon. The ground turned into soils that were like an earthenware clay plot, Bill told us. Still, the rich flavors, more like a California Pinot, were still on the side of delicate, given their careful, handcrafting techniques to bring out the best.
- 2007 Beran Willamette Valley Estate Pinot Noir
- This one had a very cool summer, and the alcohol was 12.9 percent. Bill believes that this one “bloomed in the bottle.” The day they picked it was just perfect… And the next day the skies opened and it rained three quarter inches of rain… upon the vineyard, but not on their parade.
This education of Beran Vineyards gave me a much deeper education and appreciation of not only Oak Knoll Winery’s history and Oregon Pinots, but also a deeper understanding of the bonds that exist in Oregon wine’s country. The Berans and the Vuylsteke families were doing business as families, not as corporations, with their hearts and souls… which are all still intact.