What’s it like to work on a winery?
My exposure to winemaking thus far has only been helping out during harvest. Long, enjoyable hours of carefully moving fruit and juice from one area to another. Cleaning, laughing, drinking, cleaning. The work was fast paced and often left me with more questions than answers. I had a focused snapshot of the winemaking process, but not the entire picture.
Working at Domaine Pouillon has allowed me to see the entire process–from pruning to vines breaking buds and eventually, to harvesting and fermenting. Here are some of the highlights from working at the winery from January to May, 2021:
Great wine begins in the vineyard
This is an old saying.. and one I had rolled my eyes at.. just a marketing term right? But now I appreciate how much work goes into the vineyard–basically all year, until the fruit is ready to be plucked. The healthier the fruit is, the easier it will be to transform into wine.
Since harvest is completed by winter, most of my hours have been spent in the vineyard. I was grateful for this, since it’s the area of winemaking that I’ve had the least experience with.
Ripping out vines
Winter vines are dormant, free of shoots, leaves and fruit. Thus, it’s a great time to make decisions about propagating, removing, or planting new vines. In one of the vineyards, we removed a few acres of vines that were malnourished or dead. This was accomplished by securing one end of a metal chain to the base of the vine and the other, to the bucket of a tractor. Then, liftoff!
Assistant Winemaker Teddi Fuller operates the tractor to rip out the dead vines.
Once all the vines are out of the ground, then we can mix the area to get the soil breathing nicely. Next, we add organic compost to the ground and eventually, replant with cuttings (young vines) to hopefully produce some beautiful fruit in a few years.
On the estate vineyards, most of the vines are in good shape. However, there are the occasional ones that die or are damaged (frost damage can be one culprit). For the one-off’s, it’s inefficient to use a tractor, so we simply remove by hand and shovel. Sometimes there’s a young shoot from the base (a sucker) that we can re-train to the metal stake. For more on training vines, see below.
Pruning, Training and Tying
Pruning is one of the most important decisions that a vigneron must make throughout the year. Prune too aggressively, and you’ll be left with a meager fruit output. Prune too little and have too much fruit, diluted flavor as well as possible problems stemming from the lack of airflow in the canopy.
Additionally, how the vine is pruned will result in consequences not only this year, but the year after as well. I spent time pruning in Sonoma at Small Vines winery, but other than that I was starting with a blank slate. Alexis (owner of Domaine Pouillon) stressed the importance of balance — leaving the proper amount of buds on each vine and setting up proper spacing to maximize airflow without leaving gaps. Every vine is like a puzzle; where do I cut in order to maximize the chance for best possible grape quality?
Once vines are pruned, they need to be trained. Training vines involves securing the trunk to a post (usually made from metal or bamboo). One project we worked on involved replacing bamboo stakes with metal ones, as metal lasts longer and won’t be subject to corrosion and breaking like bamboo. Vines will naturally have a mind of their own and by training the base to an upright post, you are helping them produce shoots in the desired vertical direction.
Shoots are the current year’s growth, and what will birth the fruit. Shoots grow from canes, also known as last year’s shoots (cane pruning) or from the cordon trunks (spur pruning). Left unattended, shoots will grow wild, using their tendrils to attach themselves to anything they can. Some vineyard managers and winemakers actually leave vines to grow like this and it’s called Bush Vine — popular in places like Swartland in South Africa.
Assuming you’re not aiming for Bush Vines, then you’ll want to tie the cane or cordon down to the trellising wire. This is done for two reasons: 1) to encourage vertical growth of the shoots and 2) to prevent the arms of the vines from blowing all over in the wind. The Columbia Gorge is extremely windy and when the canes produce their shoots with leaves, the plant will act like a large sail in the wind; tying down the wood to the trellising wire will keep the vine steady in squall-like conditions.
Suckering on the vineyard
After the vines are in a good place for growth, we wait for budbreak. This is exciting to see the transition from dormant wood to new growth for the upcoming season. Hopes are high with these beautiful green beauties spurting out!
Alexis Pouillon inspects a vine while suckering
However, not all growth is desired. There’s a fixed supply of energy that the plant can produce, so you only want that to be focused in the right areas (up, into the shoots that are spaced properly). Shoots will grow all over the vine — the trunk, the base and parts not intended along the arms; these are called suckers. Suckering is pretty simple — just need to remove them with your hand. This will eliminate unnecessary energy being transferred to undesired locations and instead, focused into the intended areas of the vine.
Compared to storm of working a harvest, the Winter and Spring vineyard work has been a cool breeze; sipping my wine instead of gulping it down. Taking a minute to really understand the process and the amount of labor involved. Learning, learning, learning.
Appreciating the rewarding feeling of working with my hands with the sun at my back. Four months in and I am so happy; confident that I made the right decision to devote my full attention to our dream of winemaking. Often times during the day, I have a feeling–one that I never had while working at a desk–that in this very moment, this is exactly where I want to be and want to be doing.
The Columbia River Gorge is different from the Columbia Valley. Quite different in fact from any wine region we’ve ever been to–and we’ve been to them all (mostly).
What makes the Columbia Gorge so unique? We’ve compiled a list.
1. Sheer beauty
The first thing you’ll noticed when driving to the Gorge (most commonly east from Portland), is how strikingly beautiful the approach is. The vast, quick-moving Columbia river flanked by large cliffside mountains, create an appearance of a long, running canyon. Waterfalls line both the Oregon and Washington sides with few noticeable housing structures (thanks to a strict preservation committee).
Many wine regions are beautiful, but often present a similar image of rolling hills, moderate climate and the “zen” of wine country. Few destinations have such eye-popping natural wonders, like Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams complimenting the foreground of waterfalls, rivers and vines.
2. Variety is the spice of life
To characterize the Gorge from a varietal and climate perspective is a difficult task. When people ask us, we usually respond with “well.. it depends”. To the west on the Washington side, you have a cold, rainy climate which barely reaches enough growing days to ripen white varietals and few reds. This region of Underwood is said to be getting its own Sub-AVA soon and is often compared to Burgundy.
As you head east in Washington, things start to warm up and by the time you reach the town of Lyle (about 30 miles east of Underwood), it’s roughly 5-10 degrees hotter with half the average rainfall. Here in Lyle, Domaine Pouillon works primarily with Rhone varietals (Syrah, Viognier etc..).
South of Lyle on the Oregon side is Mosier, where Analemma Wines is producing everything from Grenach to Cabernet to Pinot Noir to Gerwurztraminer. Adding another variable into the mix is the high winds which can create small pockets of microclimates.
Many regions are typified into one or two i.e. Willamette Valley: Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris, Margaret River: Cabernet and Chardonnay, Burgundy: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But in the Gorge, there are virtually endless possibilities.
3. So much room for activities!
We’ll just assume you’re not complete wine nerds like us who will spend a week tasting wine at 20+ wineries (this is not an exaggeration, and here are some tips). Thus, you and/or your party may want to fill the schedule with a few non-wine related activities.
There is no shortage of adventure here: Kite boarding, wind surfing, rock climbing, mountain biking, white-water rafting, horseback riding, sailing, hiking, kayaking, skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, snowshoeing.. you name it, it’s here.
4. Less developed than ______
Over the last 50 years, many wine regions around the world have transformed from sleepy farming areas to bustling tourist industries resembling the likes of Disneyland (we’re looking at you, Napa). Crowded wine regions not only make it harder to nab tasting appointments, but naturally drive up the costs ($100+ per person is not uncommon in Napa and Sonoma).
Not in the Gorge. Average tasting fee runs ~$15/flight and bottle prices are very reasonable.
Another perk of regions that are relatively unknown is the “pioneer” or “wild wild west” element. Since there are still relatively few producers, there’s not one tried and true format that others are copying nor are there any mega beverage brands that owns multiple properties; winemakers are channeling their entrepreneurial spirit and doing things their way.
At Savage Grace, Michael Savage is creating wines that are bright, fruit forward with high acid. Nate Reddy at Hiyu Wine Farm is making natural wines, with organically farmed grapes. Alexis Pouillon at Domaine Pouillon is creating french-style wines as an homage to time he spent working in the Southern Rhone.
Diversity is not just in the grapes, but in the styles and passions of the different winemakers.
5. Major airport proximity
Visiting the Gorge is easy. For those near Seattle or Portland, the Gorge can be accessed via a car ride. For those further away, Portland (PDX) is a major international airport and is less than an hour drive to the Gorge. This makes assembling a group trip a breeze and is one reason why this area is becoming a very popular wedding destination.
6. Cooler than you
Many warm climate wine regions are in trouble. Both from the perspective of fire danger and also global warming, forcing the replanting of certain varietals. Bordeaux and Napa are both reporting that the rising temperatures will result in their famous Cabernet Sauvignon grapes being replanted with Malbec and Zinfandel respectively.
While parts of the Gorge do get warm and have some risk of fires, areas like White Salmon and Underwood are considered cool-climate (classified by temperature growing degree days). On top of this, the wind and river proximity brings a cooling presence over the vines in the Gorge.
While traveling across the world's many wine regions, most often my favorites were ones that flew under the radar; those regions without national recognition but with massive potential. I would dream about one day running a small label in such a region, being somewhat of a pioneer to a region that would one day boom with tourism and superfans.
Three years ago, Cassie and I discovered the Columbia Gorge AVA by happenstance. We were blown away with the naturally beautiful terrain, the array of adventure activities and the budding wine scene. Ever since, we've used much of our vacation and remote flexibility to spend time here; we continue to grow more attached each day.
Dream of starting a winery
The goal of starting our own boutique wine brand remains our lifelong goal; perhaps a small winery facility and tasting room. But how does one attain this? We do have a fair amount of wine-related experience. Between us, we have:
Worked three harvests around the world
Hold certifications from WSET and Enology degree-in-progress at UC Davis
Visited & tasted in nearly every global wine region.
But even with this knowledge, there is still so much to learn about running and managing a wine label.
Learn by doing
Enter Domaine Pouillon: a boutique-sized winery in the Columbia Gorge producing ~2500 cases per annum, specializing in Rhone Varietals. It's a family-run operation complete with cool-climate estate Syrah vines and a small tasting room. The wines are fresh, bursting with aroma, acidity and depth--reminiscent of the types of wines we would find while traveling in Northern and Southern Rhone.
Domaine Pouillon is the type of winery that Cassie and I want to build down the road; it's the type of winery we seek out when we travel to new wine destinations. Locating the best small wineries around the world is the reason we started Wine Scribes. Thus, I've started working for Domaine Pouillon, channeling the motto of my alma mater: "Learn by doing".
First month on the job
The first month has been a cacophony of cellar and vineyard tasks including barrel topping, sampling, tasting, racking, bottling, labeling, sanitizing, vine extractions, trellising and even roof repair. I'm drinking from the proverbial fire hose and loving each moment.
This is the benefit of working with small wineries--learn more, faster by being exposed to as many duties and responsibilities as possible. The experience so far has been priceless and am confident that it will serve as the building blocks of our dream.
This year, nearly all of our lives have been touched by tragedy and hardship. Now, as we enter winter, we are counting our blessings and remembering the bright moments of the past year. Our fond memories of friends and family are made all the more poignant by our distance and the difficult contortions we must go through to guarantee mutual safety. Instead of dwelling on what we can’t do, we’ve chosen to send this note of gratitude for the amazing experiences many of us shared...
This year, we are thankful for those closest to us.
Despite incredible lock-downs, working from home, and worries about health, our intrepid crew stayed with us through it all. They even mustered their brilliant sense of humor as we asked them to dress-up for this year’s staff photo-shoot we titled “Masquerade 2020.” Alexis even found his inner Molière as he added humor to the occasional drudgery of mask-wearing.
This year, we are thankful for the buoyancy of the natural world.
Looking up into a clear blue sky! No planes, no clouds. I honestly can’t remember a time when the sky was as clear and bright as it was in April. Then there was seeing the animals reclaim “our” spaces after only a short two-week period of lock-down. Spending this magical time with those closest to us was a sweet gift we’ll look back on and cherish.
This year, we are thankful for the magic of childhood.
Yes, working from home and teaching your kids at the same time is hard. We have been blessed with this hard work. In our life, there are two small people who have forced us to explain in simple terms, the complex issues of racism, disease, and politics. They have taught us the real difference between big and little worries. They have kept our minds in the present and our eyeballs off social media.
This year, we are thankful for you.
Your willingness to flex and pivot - following us into the online world (for a short time!) and continuing to believe in our brand is really what has made 2020 a sensational year. In all honesty, when mid-March hit and closure was mandatory, we looked at each other and said, “Well, it’s been a good run.” Nonetheless, you have continued to surprise us and other small businesses in your ability to support the products and people that make up our communities. Yes, your support matters. Supporting each other and recognizing our shared humanity is the only thing that matters in this difficult time. When it’s time to re-open, don’t be surprised if the hugs are tight and we have tears in our eyes.
With deepest gratitude,
Alexis, Juliet, Teddi, Sara, Lorrie, Theresa, Jean-Pierre & Genevieve
May 19, 2020
Today, Alexis and I are celebrating our 13th wedding anniversary. We swore love, promised patience, and even committed to ourselves creating a place we could welcome everyone into. It’s no mistake that our tasting room has the intimate feeling of someone’s home.
Today is also day 64 of Covid-isolation in Washington State. Not a day has gone by since March 16th, that we haven’t had deep discussions, napkin diagrams of scenarios, or emotional derailments concerning the future of the family business. I know each day for you is a roller coaster ride filled with highs and lows. We are all on the same ride, just 6 feet apart. In many ways, it seems we have gone from a society of instant gratification to one of longing for human connection (something many of us squandered before now).
After deep discussion with our thoughtful staff, we came to mutual and unanimous agreement to keep the tasting room closed for the remainder of 2020. This was a difficult decision for everyone; however, we believe that it is best to remain closed to ensure our ability to fully re-open in 2021. For just about every small business I know, being partially open or open at 50% capacity with wary customers is a recipe for disaster. We are values-forward winemakers. We have always placed people and community before profit and now we are being called upon to put those values into action in a way we never could have imagined. Please know: we are longing to see you in our home, but we recognize this is a selfish desire when people’s safety is even the least bit in question.
The good news is… we have greatly improved our skills at getting wine to your home and have felt the deepest gratitude that you are choosing our wine to enjoy. New releases of our incredible wines will continue to pop up in your inbox! I want to reassure you that we WILL re-open when the time is right and when we can guarantee the experience of our family, our supporters and our staff is one of joy, and above all else, safety.
With gratitude – Juliet & Alexis Pouillon
Doubtless, many of us have been thinking about the mothers in our lives more often these days than we have in the past. Our mutual lockdowns have created an environment of nurturing ourselves in ways we may have neglected, bringing into stark relief what’s important, the closeness we crave and the necessities we’ve taken for granted. I am blessed with two mothers: my biological mother and my stepmother, both of whom I have come to have a greater appreciation for as I find new depth in myself to nurture and comfort my own children in these strange times. We can never thank our mothers enough for the time and love they gave us during their lifetimes. But let’s keep trying, shall we? Mom, thank you for always answering when I call, for being a friend and confidant, offering comfort when I need it, encouragement when I have given up, teaching me skills I never thought I would need (like sewing a face mask), demonstrating how to stand up for myself and earn respect, showing me when to speak up and when to stay silent. You are loved and your love continues to grow in your amazing, hilarious, and (sometimes) bonkers grandchildren.
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