In Character: Profile of Erath Vineyards' founder, Dick Erath

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Friday, September 01, 2006

The grounded grower

Wine pioneer Dick Erath sells his operation but takes his beloved vineyards with him into a new future.

By Robin Doussard

To get to the farmer’s house in the red dirt hills above Dundee, you turn off the main highway and carve your way through miles and miles of grapevines. The last few turns take you down then up dirt roads until you’re 750 feet atop a hill, deep inside a vineyard. It is here that the farmer has put his elegant, comfortable home, built low and wrapped with windows precisely so he can keep watch on his vines, which run right up to the edge of the house to embrace him. “I talk to them,” says this grape whisperer. “You can tell if they’re happy.” And the tall, gentle pioneer has devoted his life to making them happy.

Even though Dick Erath sold his winery, his name and his considerable legacy to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, he did not sell his grapes, which sprawl over 114 acres of the Dundee Hills. “I knew there would be an empty spot when I sold,” he says, sitting on his shaded back porch overlooking the sprawling valley, his crystalline blue eyes gazing at the vines that reach toward him. “Which is why I wanted to keep the vineyards.”

The sale of Erath Vineyards, one of the oldest in Oregon, is just two days old on this blistering mid-July day, and Erath is home, while down the road at the winery the new owners are moving in. The modest tasting room, where Erath and his family once lived, bustles: The staff is training on a new computer system; HR sessions are under way. The flushed (the wine or the weather?) visitors sipping Erath’s pinot noir legacy at the bar don’t notice the shift happening around them.

It is an exciting, anxious new chapter for Erath, the largest pinot producer in the state, a change that local winemakers see as good for everyone’s business — an $800 million industry that has grown from five wineries in 1970 to more than 300. Ste. Michelle brings more resources and big ideas, such as a focus on the higher-end wines and talk of a new winery. “We’re not looking to completely change Erath but to shine it up,” assures Jeff McBride, Ste. Michelle’s point person for the Erath deal and general manager of Conn Creek Winery in Napa Valley. “We don’t move fast,” McBride says to the unseen audience that waits to judge how the Erath legacy is handled. “We measure 10 times and cut once.”

Whatever new suit is made for Erath Vineyards, it will happen without the visionary founder who moved from California to Oregon to work for Tektronix in 1968, bringing with him the wild-assed notion that grapes would grow under all this rain and the belief that wine is food, not an elitist drink. Erath set out to make the best pinot for under $20 and along the way helped birth Oregon’s now-considerable wine industry. He has received the prestigious Oregon Vintner Award for his lifetime achievement, but it was the fact that he and the other early Oregon winemakers worked together — “that the monkeys shared the coconuts” — that matters most to him.

Knowing his two sons — Cal, 39, and Erik, 41 — didn’t want to take over the business, the 71-year-old Erath looked for the past 10 years for the right exit plan. He finally found it with Ste. Michelle. Based in Woodinville, Wash., and owned by conglomerate U.S. Tobacco, it’s one of the largest producers of premium wines in the country with about 4 million cases of wine a year. Despite its size, Erath believes Ste. Michelle is the right fit for his operation, which he says produced 90,000 cases of wine last year. “They got a pinot, and my legacy will continue,” he says, neatly summing up the match. Ste. Michelle, whose holdings include Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest, Snoqualmie and others, also has a 10-year contract for Erath’s grapes.

With his first child in safe hands, so begins the farmer’s next season. But spare the waning harvest or sun-setting metaphors because there will be no retirement. Erath, with a history of his progenitors living well into their 90s, has good genes and intends to put them to full use.

“I don’t want to be nailed down,” he emphatically says, describing what is next for him. He owes Ste. Michelle 12 days of consulting time in 2007, then “I’m out.” He plans to visit farmers in Australia and Europe and has other ventures in the works. One of the most important to him is the Erath Family Foundation, which the deal helped finance. Erath’s wife of 16 years, Joan, will sit on the board with him. He wants the foundation to focus on funding research programs in viticulture and oenological science at Oregon’s universities. “And very practical things,” he adds, such as language classes for the vineyard workers.

And, oh yes, there is another wine venture, but please don’t tell the delicate, thin-skinned Scarlett O’Hara pinots that their farmer is toying with another.

Erath owns 200 acres near Willcox, Ariz., halfway between his winter home in Tucson and the New Mexico border. This past spring he planted 16 varietals of big, robust reds such as zinfandel and syrah on 14 acres that sit in the high desert. The Arizona wine scene is like Oregon three decades ago, he says, just a handful of wineries, getting a little notice.

Ah, but this time around, at his age and with a bit more money than when he first pulled into Oregon, he can take it a little easier. “I won’t be pounding the stakes in the ground like I did 30 years ago.” The new vineyard’s name? “Wayward Winds,” Erath says, laughing. “It is sort of a wayward project.”

But not so wayward that his Scarletts should worry. Making pinot is like “painting the Sistine Chapel,” says Erath, describing his enduring affair with it. “You’re painting with every color under the sun.” He deems pinot the most challenging, and the most rewarding, because “it doesn’t quit on you.”

In that, you can believe, the farmer and his grapes are alike.

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