DUNDEE, Ore. — When a pioneer decides to retire, many customers and fellow winemakers have to wonder what will happen to quality and image.
That had to be the case in 2006, when Dick Erath sold his iconic winery in the Dundee Hills to Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, Washington's largest wine company.
Six years later, all concerns have dissipated because not only has Erath's legacy as one of Oregon's finest wineries been preserved, but an infusion of capital for new equipment has also allowed winemaker Gary Horner to increase quality. In fact, being owned by a large company has allowed him to become even more creative and delve into the intricacies of Pinot Noir at a level previously unrealized at Erath.
"After the acquisition, the message came from Ted (Baseler, CEO) that 'We want to help you make wine better,' " Horner said. "I pulled out a short list of improvements I wanted to make. Ted said, 'You don't quite understand. I want you to prepare yourself for the toughest vintage, the best vintage, the biggest vintage.' So I pulled out a longer list, and I got everything I needed."
Nobody in Woodinville calls up to tell Horner how to make his wine. They don't question him when he produces 12 different Pinot Noirs in a vintage.
"The Erath philosophy is still here."
Baseler could not be more thrilled with the results.
"Wineries tend to be on a shoestring budget," he said. "We can bring in the resources to provide the equipment and expertise to take an outstanding operation and make it superior. We did that at Erath. We brought in more French oak, and we immediately put in a sorting table."
The company also lowered yield rates in key vineyards to increase quality -- all while basically tripling production to nearly 100,000 cases, making Erath one of the largest in Oregon.
"This winery for us is a home run," Baseler said. "It's over the fence, beyond our expectations. We have been able to take the single-vineyard wines and dramatically increase the ratings and critical acclaim. Gary is making more of them than in the old days."
Baseler, who has been used to drinking Washington wines from his nearly three decades in the wine business, drinks a lot more Pinot Noir at home.
"Erath comes out of my cellar at least once a week now," he said.
Horner's path to Erath began in Seattle, where he grew up as the son of a Boeing engineer. He earned a bachelor's degree in pharmacy from the University of Washington, then headed to Philadelphia to study for his doctorate in the same field.
Horner didn't grow up in a wine-drinking family, but he caught the bug in college when a buddy would open his cellar whenever Horner cooked a meal.
"He was bringing over first- and second-growth Bordeaux and grand cru Burgundy. Something went off in my head, and I got hooked."
He began making wine at home in Seattle in 1985, using superb grapes from Andrews in the Horse Heaven Hills.
"It was horrible," he laughed. "I really screwed it up."
Short courses at U.C. Davis helped shore up his skills. Then he met David Adelsheim of Adelsheim Vineyard and Terry Casteel of Bethel Heights at an event in Seattle.
"The Pinot bell rang in my head."
He sold his house, quit his pharmacy job and moved to Oregon. He started at Bethel Heights in the Eola-Amity Hills in 1988, then worked at Witness Tree in 1992. He moved to Washington in 1995 to work for Brian Carter at Washington Hills, then headed back to Oregon in 1998 to make wine for Benton-Lane.
In 2003, Erath hired him as its head winemaker. Today, he and his family live in Sherwood, halfway between the winery and Portland.
"I'm a pretty happy camper," he said. "It's a great challenge to make all these single-vineyard wines. I'm certainly not bored."