Knudsen Vineyards takes next step as winery

By on April 20, 2015
Page Knudsen Cowles and her three brothers add to the history of their late father's legacy today with the first public release of Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay.

Page Knudsen Cowles and her three brothers add to the history of their late father’s legacy today with the first public release of Knudsen Vineyards Chardonnay. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

DUNDEE, Ore. — After decades of selling the family’s Chardonnay grapes to award-winning Argyle Winery, historic Knudsen Vineyards begins offering bottles of its own Oregon Chardonnay to the public today through its website.

Page Knudsen Cowles and her three brothers created the Dundee Hills wine project in 2012 as a tribute to their father, Calvert Knudsen, a Seattle-based timber executive and significant figure in the Oregon wine industry who died in 2009.

knudsen-vineyards-chardonnay-2013-label“We were the largest vineyard in the Willamette Valley in 1972 — at 30 acres,” Knudsen Cowles said. “And in 1975, we were the largest vineyard in Oregon at just under 60 acres.”

Grapes from those plantings led first to the expansion of Erath Winery into Knudsen Erath Winery and then Argyle Winery. Both remain two of Oregon’s most important wineries, although it’s been years since Erath Winery — owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates — has pulled from the 130 acres of vines surrounding its tasting room.

Knudsen Vineyards continues to sell grapes to Argyle, just not quite the same percentage since 2012. Today’s release started with a production of a mere 125 cases.

“We have a long-term contract with Argyle that we’re very happy about, and we sell them most of our grapes,” Knudsen Cowles said. “We had 410 tons off this vineyard in 2014, which was about double what we had the year before. At 410 tons, we can make 30,000 cases of wine.”

The wines for Knudsen — pronounced Kuh-NUDE-sen — will continue to be vinified by Argyle under the direction of Argyle winemaker Nate Klostermann in nearby Newberg.

Last August, the Knudsen family first introduced their boutique winery to customers with an offering of 2012 Pinot Noir, another 125-case lot from the Dundee Hills.

“We are not going to become a 15,000-case winery in the next four years,” she said. “We’re going to take it very slowly and make sure it works for us and works for others. I think a tasting room is in our future because that’s very important for consumers and to have them understand what we are doing. That will take a little planning.”

The family seems eager to consider a number of options, especially knowing its contract with Ste. Michelle will sunset with the summer of 2018.

“We do have a growth plan,” said Knudsen Cowles, who earned her undergrad degree at Yale and MBA at Harvard. “We haven’t talked about the details, but we love our property. We’re going to have full control of it after 2018, and we have some ideas on how we are going to go forward.”

Knudsen Lane leads to Erath tasting room

The road through Knudsen Vineyards leads to the tasting room for Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills of the north Willamette Valley.

The road through Knudsen Vineyards leads to the tasting room for Erath Winery in the Dundee Hills of the north Willamette Valley. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The success of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates’ work with Erath Winery since purchasing it from Calvert Knudsen’s longtime friend Dick Erath in 2006 has been remarkable in terms of quality and growth, which has surpassed 150,000 cases. And while many consumers may not be familiar with the history behind the brand —  which included a dozen years as Knudsen Erath Winery — wine tourists make a point of pulling off Worden Hill Road and onto Knudsen Lane to reach the Erath tasting room.

“One of the things that has been wonderful for us having Erath Winery in place for so long is that a lot of consumers know how to come up that road,” she said. “They know what the property looks like, and they know they like being here, so we are definitely taking that into account as we are thinking about the future.”

In recent years, the family has made a point of doing a better job of branding their father’s work by installing Knudsen Vineyards signs along the road to the Erath tasting room.

“Most people driving in will say, ‘Oh, this whole thing is Erath,’ ” she said. “It’s never been Erath. The winery has been Erath since Dick bought out my dad in 1987, but none of the grapes have gone to Erath since then. And why would you think otherwise?”

Today’s release fits style of Oregon Chardonnay

The Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay from the Dundee Hills makes for a delicious pairing with Chilled English Pea Soup with Green Garlic Mint and Creme Fraiche by Valley Commissary in McMinnville, Ore.

The Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay from the Dundee Hills makes for a delicious pairing with Chilled English Pea Soup with Green Garlic Mint and Crème Fraîche by Valley Commissary in McMinnville, Ore. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

The style of the Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay fits deliciously within the renaissance movement among cool-climate Oregon Chardonnay producers. Klostermann’s expression focuses on quince, white peach, apricot and jasmine notes with a lemon custard midpalate, backed by minerality and a cleansing burst of tangerine acidity. The balanced program with malolactic fermentation and 35 percent new French oak provides touches of subtle complexity, yet no distraction.

Klostermann, who took over from Rollin Soles as Argyle’s head winemaker in spring 2013, took charge from start to finish on the debut Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay ($45). He created 125 cases of the Chardonnay and 250 cases of the yet-to-be-released 2013 Pinot Noir.

knudsen-vineyards-pinot-noir-2012-bottle“Because the 2014 harvest was so robust, we might get up to 600 cases of the Pinot and 300 cases of the Chardonnay,” Knudsen Cowles said. “That would be a big jump. At this point, it’s all direct to consumer, so we’re going to work the website pretty hard.”

And when someone places an order, it will be handled by her, thanks to Oregon Wine Services.

“It kind of surprises some people. They’ll say, ‘How did you know what I order,’ and I’ll say, ‘Well, actually …” she chuckled. “I’ve learned about lot of e-commerce and setting up a website.”

And there’s little doubt Knudsen Cowles has a laser focus on her role as managing partner for Knudsen Vineyards. Her husband’s family operated Cowles Media Co., for more than 50 years, an empire that included the Minneapolis Star-Tribune until 1998. And yet despite living in Minnesota with her responsibilities as chair of the national board of directors for The Trust for Public Land, she’s become a regular attendee of the Oregon Wine Symposium and the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium.

“I’m here once a month,” she said. “My kids are now either in college or out of college, so I’m out here more frequently and for greater lengths.”

She’s also succeeding with placements in wine shops and restaurants, which includes local support from longtime wine-country icons such as the Dundee Bistro.

Knudsen planting portrayed on license plate

The upper portions of Knudsen Vineyards, which was established in 1971, serve as the backdrop for the Oregon Wine Country license plate.

The upper portions of Knudsen Vineyards, which was established in 1971, serve as the backdrop for the Oregon Wine Country license plate. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Department of Motor Vehicles).

At this stage, enough customers remember the Knudsen Erath Winery brand and longtime locals recognize Page’s face, athletic build and auburn hair. She and her brothers have reconnected with the family cabin atop the vineyard featured — a planting that drivers may recognize as the background for the Oregon Wine Country specialty license plate.

The inspiration for the scene on the license plate was an artist’s rendition of a Janis Miglavs photo with Bella Vida Vineyard in the foreground and neighboring Knudsen Vineyards as the backdrop.

“Dad got off the plane at a Horizon Airlines terminal one day and was walking through the corridor and this photograph was upon the wall and he did a double-take,” she said. “That’s my vineyard! So he got a hold of Janis Miglavs.”

Large-scale versions of that scene reside in the homes of all four siblings.

“We always lived in Seattle and never lived on the property, so it was always a drive for us to come,” said Knudsen Cowles. “It was a real passion of our father’s so he would come and stay for the weekend. It is a beautiful place. You don’t really appreciate it until you’ve been a lot of other places and then come back.”

Siblings continue stewardship of Knudsen Vineyards

The family cabin atop Knudsen Vineyards offers striking views of the Dundee Hills.

The family cabin atop Knudsen Vineyards offers striking views of the Dundee Hills. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

argyle-winery-julia-lee-block-blanc-de-blanc-2009-bottleWhile Knudsen Cowles serves as the face of the Knudsen Vineyards, her brothers Colin, David and Cal Jr.,  also have roles in the business. The vines continue to be managed by Allen Holstein, founding head of vineyard operations for Argyle Winery, but Mark Sheridan is in charge of the daily operations as he has for more than 25 years.

It’s a deep and natural relationship to the vines and the winery considering that Calvert Knudsen became part-owner of Argyle in 1990 and retired as chair in 2007 — just two years before his death.

And a tribute to their late mother, Julia Lee, lives on in spirit with block named in her honor, and Argyle creates a special bottling of sparkling wine spotlighting her.

“That block is right below the cabin, which is where she spent her last day on this Earth,” Knudsen Cowles said. “She was way too young to make that transition — she was 65 — so there was a real connection with place and those wines. And they make that Blanc de Blancs all from vines just below the cabin.”

It would seem to be merely a matter of time before Knudsen Vineyards produces a sparkling wine, yet there are no immediate plans, Knudsen Cowles said.

Children-led winery comes 4 decades later

Knudsen Vineyards

Cal Knudsen came to Oregon in the early 1970s to plant Pinot Noir and was an important part of two wineries. (Courtesy of Knudsen Vineyards)

This all started with Calvert Knudsen’s vision of vines along south-facing slopes and among the hillside trees in the red soils above the sleepy Highway 99 town of Dundee. His role as vice chair of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., afforded him the wherewithal to take risks and make investments in the Willamette Valley wine industry when no one else seemed prepared to do so.

“Our father was always very innovative in the vineyard,” Knudsen Cowles said. “In 1972, we planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay,” she said. “The north side of the vineyard is where we planted the Chardonnay — 13 acres in 1972 and 6 1/2 in ’73 and another 5 in ’82. After attending the Oregon Chardonnay Symposium, I now know that clones are important to some and not important to others, but at that time, the only clone that was available was Davis 108.

“In 1990, the Dijon clone became available after winemaker and wine growers started to realize that maybe the 108 in Oregon wasn’t the best suited for our climate,” she continued. “We had the benefit of having Robert Drouhin come in during 1987 and walk through the rows of 108 and say, ‘Is this even Chardonnay? I don’t recognize this.’ Here (in Oregon), Chardonnay would mature later than the Pinot, but in France, they mature at the same time.”

It didn’t take Knudsen much time to invest in French clones.

“Block 8-90 was planted in 1990,” Knudsen Cowles said. “Right down here below the cabin is the oldest planting of French Dijon clones 76 and 96 in the New World, not just in the U.S. or North America. That was Rollin Soles’ decision.”

Phylloxera fight set to end in 2022

Knudsen Vineyards

Cal Knudsen walks through his vineyard, circa 1983. (Courtesy of Knudsen Vineyards)

Their father, with input from Soles, Sheridan and Holstein, transitioned the southern half of Knudsen Vineyards to predominantly Chardonnay. What started as 9 by 7 spacings are being condensed to 5 by 5. Those Davis 108 and Draper clones have been replaced by Dijon clone 95. Block 9, planted three years later to clones 76 and 96, is the only block represented in the Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay.

“We’re in the middle of a major replanting plan because we do have some phylloxera in our vineyard. We don’t want that to be an issue going forward,” she said. “By the end of 2022, we’ll be completely planted to phylloxera-resistant rootstock.”

At this point, there is three times as much Pinot Noir planted at Knudsen Vineyards as Chardonnay, but there are plans to increase the percentage of Chardonnay. And 3 acres of Pinot Meunier occupy the highest elevation plantings on the property.

“The Pinot Meunier is very important,” Knudsen Cowles said. “Our father was totally into sparkling wine, and after he spent time in Burgundy, he felt that Pinot Meunier was the secret sauce of Champange, so he planted some Pinot Meunier, but he could never convince Rollin Soles to put any of it into the wine.

“After he passed away, Rollin came to me and said, ‘Page, your dad must be rolling over in his grave because I’m putting the Pinot Meunier in the sparkling rosé for Argyle, and it’s just flying off the shelves. People love it.”

So all the components are there for sparkling wine, and Argyle’s team has no peer in Oregon when it comes to the history, size and scope with bubbles.

Timing right for Knudsen Vineyards

Page Knudsen Cowles and her brothers considered starting the Knudsen Vineyards brand with the 2011 vintage, but Rollin Soles suggested they wait one more year, and the wines from 2012 have been worth the wait.

Page Knudsen Cowles and her brothers considered starting the Knudsen Vineyards brand with the 2011 vintage, but Rollin Soles suggested they hold off one more year, and the wines from 2012 have been worth the wait. (Photo by Eric Degerman/Great Northwest Wine)

Discussions for a Knudsen Vineyards label began in earnest during the spring of 2012.

“We had thought about starting in 2011, but Rollin, who was advising us at that time, pointed out that 2011 was kind of a challenging year,” she said. “He said, ‘You don’t need to start now,’ and that gave us a year to get our thoughts more organized. And, of course, to our great delight, 2012 was AMAZING! Now we wish that we had made three times the amount of Pinot Noir. It was flying off the shelves.”

At this point, the Knudsen family’s expansive network of friends takes a sizable portion of the first vintages of production.

The Knudsen Vineyards 2012 Pinot Noir ($55) sold through its 125-case debut production within 14 days of its August release. Announcement for the 2013 Pinot Noir will be made around Labor Day.

Members of the Knudsen Vineyards’ mailing list had 17 days to act upon the exclusive pre-release of the debut 2013 Chardonnay. That window closed, so today they join the public in vying for what’s left from the latest page of Calvert Knudsen’s enduring legacy.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the president and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for 15 years. He is a frequent wine judge along the West Coast and contributor to Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine, the region's longest-running golf publication.

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  1. Pingback: Knudsen Vineyards 2013 Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, $45 - Great Northwest Wine

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