There's a version of Scott Elder and Stephanie LaMonica's story that goes like this: A young, restless couple falls in love with wine, and sets out for the wilds of Oregon to sow the earth with their dreams. They trade in cubicles for grapevines, they name bottles after beloved relatives; they learn lessons about faith, passion, and hard work.
That version, however, omits the camper. And the debt. And the psychic toll.
"I'm going to come up with the 10 essentials you really need if you ever wanna do something like this," says LaMonica, laughing. "And one of those things is definitely a great therapist."
The real story of how The Grande Dalles vineyard came to be isn't all gauzy sunshine and romance, and it's better for it. Elder and LaMonica have learned all of the sacrifices required to build not just a vineyard, but a legacy, from scratch, and along the way redefined the great American adventure.
"I was working for Intel in Ireland, and was housebound during this long, dark winter," says Elder. To pass the lonely hours, he scoured the winemaking books his soon-to-be wife had given to him. The reading turned into internet research, and within a few months of short, cold Irish days, Elder was searching Google Earth for available land in Oregon.
"When you're married to someone who has a dream larger than life, it's hard to know what you're getting into," says LaMonica. In this case, the dream got them into a wheat field in The Dalles, a section of the Columbia Valley AVA, 90 miles from their home in Portland. They drove to the area directly after arriving in the states, hoping it would suit their needs. Epic land negotiations followed, and then a very tense search for the one thing that could make or break it all: Water.
"That was a giant financial roll of the dice," says Elder of the price of hiring a douser to search for irrigation water. The gamble paid off, though, meaning the land was theirs to buy, and to work. And work.
"Every weekend we would go out to develop the land, every evening that we could," says LaMonica. With no investors and no trust funds to speak of, the couple downsized everything possible -- got rid of cars, sought out tiny living spaces -- and continued their day jobs as they learned the ins and outs of planting a field of fruit, including how to install deer fences, manage rural electricity, prune crops ("I love that part, it's very Zen," she adds), and keep away grape-eating pests.
Beyond rushing from their offices on nights and weekends to their camper parked in a field over an hour away, there was the night their son was born, when the vines couldn't wait, and the birthdays that bent to the needs of the farm.
"It was our other baby," LaMonica says. "We wanted to make sure that we got it right." Part of that mission involved telling their story the way they wanted it told. A copywriter by day, LaMonica spent hours formulating a brand, and a blog, theuncultivatedlife.com, that would capture each step of their learning process, blemishes and all.
Two years of toil and one new family member later, an amazing thing happened: Grapes. Real ones. Riesling and Cabernet Franc and Sangiovese, lining the hills they'd first seen via the internet, 5,000 miles away. Though the harvest was meager (and steadily under attack by local birds), and they had no winery to speak of, the couple decided to make their first batch of wine, blended at their kitchen table. And they fell in love all over again.
"Plenty of people told us that we couldn't do it the way that we did," says Elder. "But we believed in us."
The Grande Dalles inaugural releases, available now via store.grandedalles.com.
LEROY'S FINEST - 2009
Hard cheese, wet stone, and citrus on the nose, this Riesling is bone dry with almost surprisingly refreshing acidity; key lime notes throughout.
GAMPO - 2008
80% Sangiovese, 17% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc
Gorgeous ruby in the glass, with rich black cherry and freshly-tilled earth on the attack. Juicy and ripe throughout; delicate tannins and a long, coffee-inflected finish.
HOME PLACE - 2008
70% Tempranillo, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc
This is flat-out rugged, a frontier Tempranillo with rustic tannins, rich earthiness laced with hints of licorice, crushed white flowers, and tons of fat, red fruit.