Last Week at Owen Roe

The air is laden with clouds and light rain, the most common weather in this part of Oregon.  I am getting closer to St. Paul, about an hour outside of Portland, passing roadside produce stands and fields of peppers and corn.  My destination is Owen Roe Winery, a boutique winery that sources grapes from Washington and Oregon to make artisanal wines with wide Texas distribution through Glazers.  Texas broker Chuck Weintraub suggested I visit them during my trip to the Pacific Northwest, as he sensed I would be drawn in by the location and his longtime friend, winemaker and former Dallasite Aaron Berlin.

The winery is tucked away with a small black and white sandwich board of a sign.  I am introduced to Aaron upon my arrival.

“So you’re coming from Dallas?” Aaron asks rhetorically.  “You look like you’re straight out of the Pacific Northwest.”

I scratch my chin, my face unshaven after three days at my college reunion in Walla Walla.  “Yep,” I remarked.  “Texans don’t know what to make of me, because most of them I know don’t make it up to the Pacific Northwest.”

We walk toward an alcove with a table of wines to taste.  When he pours a glass of Kilmore Pinot Noir, I ask about the origins of the winery name.  Named after Irish Gaelic soldier Owen Roe O’Neill, Irish owner David O’Reilly was inspired by O’Neill’s loyalty to his kin, a mindset he strives to utilize at his winery.  Aaron describes examples of this generosity, such as the opportunity for staff to make their own wine using the facilities, and lunch prepared by an on-site chef each day for staff and visitors.

Owen Roe O'Neill, Irish Gaelic soldier and source of the winery's namesake

We taste the remaining wines, ending with the recent release of 2010 Sinister Hand, a Grenache-based blend that shows with a restrained and juicy gentleness, just emerging from its shell with youthful vigor.  He asks if I want another glass of something before he shows me the production facilities, and I revisit the Kilmore Pinot Noir.

“I’m excited you like that one so much,” he remarks.  “I was nervous about this vintage…”

2010 Sinister Hand, a blend of Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre

We remove bungs from barrels of white wine, mostly chardonnay.  The odor is initially overwhelming, an ammonia that numbs my entire palate for the glass of wine in my hand.  Intense aromas of banana, overripe mango, and passion fruit come through, manifesting themselves restrainedly together in the bottle, free of lees and wood, when we return to taste some newly opened bottles from the production facility.

He shows me projects from former on-site chef Jesse Skiles, now crafting wines for his label Fausse PisteOne vat holds grapes macerating in their own juices, and another is equal parts Syrah and Viognier piled in individual layers as an experiment to see how separating them in such a way will affect the flavor.  I taste raw viognier grapes, juicy syrah grapes, and somewhat more rough-skinned merlot, all of them sweeter than I would have predicted, hinting at the concentration that may come through as they ferment.

We hop in my rental car and drive ten minutes to one of their vineyards producing grapes that currently go into their Sharecropper Pinot Noir.  Aaron is worried many of the grapes have been consumed by birds and pests, since they had not covered the vineyard with netting yet.  He is pleasantly surprised when we arrive.  The grapes are tart, not quite ripe, and few seem to have been lost to the unwanted predators.

One of Owen Roe's nearby vineyards with Pinot Noir grapes

We head back, and I taste the Sharecropper Pinot Noir with a lunch of pasta mixed with brussel sprouts, corn, and braised pork shoulder.  I then head downstairs to speak with Aaron one last time before I depart.  I ask him what prompted him to leave Dallas for Oregon and how he specifically became the winemaker at Owen Roe.

Unable to survive solely as a musician, he explained, he eventually took a job at specialty wine store Pogos and started reading some magazines about wine.  “I thought ‘this is cool,” he said.  “People drink good wine often; they eat well.  I’d like to be a part of it.’ ”  He left Dallas in 1998 and took a job at Argyle Winery for three years before securing his current position at Owen Roe.  Though it took awhile to regain financial stability, he explained, “I’m happy now.”  Twenty minutes passed quickly, and I shook hands with him and headed to the airport.


“So,” Chuck said as we took our seats at a table with Randal Grahm (of Bonny Doon Vineyards, the focus of my upcoming post), “how was Owen Roe?  I bet it was nuts with production going on…”

“It was actually very laid back,” I responded.  “A very casual visit.”

“I want to hear all about it.”

As I reach the end of this chronicle, I wonder what I can tell Chuck that will intrigue him so.  My visit felt relaxed and everyday at its core, with no big surprises or monumental stories.  Perhaps Aaron’s comment when we first met alludes to my slight confusion about what excites people so much.  In all my college years living in wine country, many of the wineries do not lend themselves to tours, and merely want to produce good wine and sell it all on-site.  Owen Roe is an exception insofar as their wines have wider exposure, yet their facility feels like a departure from their unique packaging.  The winery and its team are a no frills bunch simply trying to get the most out of what they do, and bring that same spirit to one another, day by day.  Perhaps this mentality seems natural to me, but may be more unusual than I realize.