Charity is part of Oregon wine DNA
By Paul Omundson
Whether you call it Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa or Hanukkah, the holidays are about giving. If only the season of charity was encouraged throughout the year. For many winegrowers, this is the case.
In September 2020, a major fire started at the northern end of Ashland. Fueled by high winds, the Alameda fire swept down a nine mile path, destroying nearly 3,000 structures and killing three. Leeward, Simple Machine Winery in Talent Town was totally destroyed. An inventory of 30 barrels and 20,000 bottles of wine was destroyed in a pile of ashes. Tools and equipment were made redundant.
As his cellar was engulfed in flames – everyone was evacuated to safety – Simple Machine co-owner Brian Denner recalls a phone call he received from Jim Bernau, CEO / President of Willamette Valley Vineyards, asking if everyone was safe and what he could do to help.
âOut of the blue, he calls,â Denner marvels. âOne of Oregon’s biggest wineries helps one of the smaller ones,â noting that he and his wife / business partner, Clea Arthur, are all of Simple Machine’s staff.
Bernau’s appeal and generous donation of fruit helped the couple see a way forward, and that was just the start. What followed was a huge wave of help from their own Rogue Valley wine community.
The couple’s friend, Brian Gruber of Barrel 42 in nearby Medford, led a campaign to stock up on donated fruit for Simple Machine, so they could keep producing. âWe crushed over 27 tonnes of fruit last year, about half of which was donated. This is the most ever for us under the Simple Machine label, âsays Denner. âIt allowed us to continue. “
Gruber’s business partners Herb Quady of Quady North and Nicole Schulte warmly welcomed the suddenly homeless Operation Simple Machine to their facility five miles away.
âThey invited us at the height of harvest activity. There really was no room, âsays Denner. “But they made room.” Denner then became a full time member of the Barrel 42 harvest team, working every day to help make the wines for Barrel 42. Later that day he was working on the wines for Simple Machine. Gruber, Quady and their staff took care of fermenting the Simple Machine at times when Denner couldn’t be there.
Meanwhile, as the couple rebuilt, donations of equipment and tools poured in. Denner has also generated much needed new cash flow with “futures,” an arrangement whereby customers pay up front for wines to be made and delivered in the future.
The recovery effort culminated with the reopening of a new 2,700 square foot cellar and tasting room built on the cement slab healed by ash from the original structure. “This blackened ground adds character,” says Arthur. âIt makes us humble and reminds us of how far we have been able to come thanks to so much generosity. “
Three months ago, with only generator power at the start, they started making wine in their new facility. They are now fully operational with the recent opening of their tasting room.
Things turned around at harvest this year when Gruber’s press broke at barrel 42. âI was very happy to have helped crush his grapes,â says Denner.
In a nice ‘re-gift’ twist, imagine winemaker Eric Weisinger’s surprise when Denner showed up recently to personally present him a case of Pinot Noir at Weisinger Family Winery in Ashland. The wine was made from fruit Weisinger donated to Simple Machine last year. Denner also surprised him with a designated vineyard on the label. “Ah, he didn’t have to do that,” Weisinger said, visibly touched by the gesture.
Asked about the daily âfreebiesâ from winemakers, Weisinger spoke about his own interactions with other area winemakers, Rob Folin of Ryan Rose Wine and Kiley Evans of 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery.
âRob and I help each other a lot during the harvest. When one of us is out of supply (like tartaric acid), the other is always ready to provide. The three of us share wine information and little discoveries. Rob even came over to help me out on big days when I ran out. And this year, Kiley was able to get me some fruit. It’s a collaboration that helps us all.
âI loaned all kinds of equipment to colleagues including barrels, racks, tanks, yeast, ML bacteria, lab reagents, bottles, corks, all kinds of things Evans adds. âBut I think the most important thing we shared this year was the harvest staff. Our guys helped where needed and the other valley crews stepped in when we needed a big harvest crew. We all shared the work to bring it all in.
For winemakers, charity is more than just equipment, supplies, or even personnel. âWe always compare, share ideas,â explains Folin. âMaybe one of us hits more often, does it in the morning, not in the evening. All kinds of slight differences. With people you trust, you can talk to each other about what you notice. be that in Malbec the tannins are really aggressive so we’ll talk about that and might change the fermentation temperature.
Folin has abundant laboratory equipment that he is happy to use for his colleagues in need of laboratory work. âIf someone wants alcohol percentages, we can do a whole barrel in half an hour,â he says. âWe can get information for you very quickly. I get a lot of six packs of beer dropped off here for doing this stuff.
Folin admits that the wine industry‘s culture of sharing, swapping and moving supplies as needed isn’t just a Rogue Valley phenomenon. âIt’s common all over Oregon. ”