The Real Dirt

How to launch a vineyard in your spare time (and survive)

 


Update: The Grande Dalles first releases are now available online.

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.
Related video
Stephanie LaMonica discusses the threat of fire to the vineyard during the hot summer months.
Born a farmer's son and trained as a chemist, Scott Elder was (and is) working at Intel when the itch to start a vineyard really set in. He'd fallen in love with wine as a graduate student studying abroad in France; 16 years later, on another international assignment, he knew he had to take the leap.

"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
100% Riesling

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.

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Comments

  • Like I posted on my Facebook page: Most people dream...and some live the dream. What an incredibly inspiring article for any wine lover who has even the merest hint of the agrarian spirit in them. Good stuff.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 12:18 PM


  • Snooth User: IKAL 1150
    Hand of Snooth
    99010 1,339

    Wonderful and congratulations on your first vintage!!!

    Jul 29, 2010 at 2:01 PM


  • Snooth User: Kyle Graynor
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    455797 7,445

    Great read, inspirational story

    Jul 29, 2010 at 2:29 PM


  • Great story, very pertinent as I am in the process of starting up a winery in Wisconsin. The only disappointing part is that the story focused exclusively on the vineyard, not the winery. That's perfectly fine, but I was hoping to hear a bit more about their winery challenges. Based on my own experience, vineyards are a LOT of work and can be a huge money sink. The wine is such a great value-added product, that's what makes all the rest of the efforts worthwhile. Again, it was a very good story.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:04 PM


  • Snooth User: Carly Wray
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    196958 852

    There's no winery yet, per se -- their big venture for now is the vineyard; the winery comes next! We'll definitely check in with them as they build in the winery in the upcoming years. I'd love to hear your story, as well. Am very interested in the challenges facing wine start-ups.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:16 PM


  • Snooth User: BBQ Phil
    330232 13

    I am curious as to what made them interested in planting Sangiovese versus something like Pinot Noir? And - please pardon my ignorance - but are they purchasing the Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon juice? I agree - great story and more information regarding the winery and production would be very interesting.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:22 PM


  • Snooth User: Carly Wray
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    196958 852

    All of the varietals included in the blends are also grown at The Grande Dalles.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:27 PM


  • Congratulations! Your hard work is paying off!

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:57 PM


  • Snooth User: jayz
    263437 6

    Way to go! Passion conquers all. Close friends of ours did it in Oliver, British Columbia and are making fantastic wine. Opening for retail next year. It has been 8 years of labour and love. Hat's off to all who follow their dream.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 3:58 PM


  • hey! thank you, everyone, for your kind words and felicitations. you don't know how much that means to us. we've been at it alone for a long time. thank you, thank you.

    @bbq phil - it's predominantly a warm-weather site, not cool like in the valley where most PN is grown. we chose sangiovese because we fell in love with it while living in Ireland, on a trip down south to Italy -- after extensive research on scott's part, he saw that growing conditions out on our hillside would be highly suitable to it.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 4:57 PM


  • Snooth User: Soulkeeper
    194063 10

    The timing on this is incredible. My wife and I have only recently started to learn something about making wine. We'll be starting our third batch tomorrow. It has definitely been a learning experience. We open a bottle every week after it has been bottled so we can understand how the wine is changing.
    When at the in-laws farm over the 4th of July holiday we brought a bottle from our first batch for to my wife's brother. A friend of the family popped the question, "have you considered stating a vineyard?" Frankly, my wife and I had not ever considered started our own vineyard. The farm is some 90 minutes from where we live now, but we've been kicking idea around some now. I think we need to be a lot more educated on what this will entail before jumping this bandwagon. But oh does the wagon sound so good! :)

    Jul 29, 2010 at 5:19 PM


  • Snooth User: MsGoGo
    520686 2

    As the daughter of a retired farmer in California's Central Valley,Wray's account of LaMonica and Elder's experience made me teary with memories. There is romance, of course, in working the land but it's also so challenging. I remember my father rushing out in the middle of the night to put smudge pots throughout the citrus orchards and driving into a canal because the tule fog was so thick.

    Congratulations to Elder and LaMonica for their dedication and perseverance in pursuit of their dream and to Wray for a great article.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 5:22 PM


  • Snooth User: nvansicklen
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    211788 549

    Winery in Wisconsin? That just sparked a very special place in my heart. Please tell me more. I am a Badger through and through. Always wanted to see more wineries. Our climate rivals Oregon and Washington.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 5:24 PM


  • I honor your commitment, dedication to what you love, and to the craziness of doing what you've done. Exceptional. I wish I could taste your wines, and will visit your winery/tasting room when you are ready to serve. Thanks for living the dream that we can share vicariously. Good luck with future vintages. Cheers.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 5:28 PM


  • Planting a vineyard and growing grapes is a lot of work and a huge money sink indeed. At this stage I don’t even want to think about how much time and money (plus I don’t want to get Stephanie going…), but the grapes, the land, the people, the wine are personal and inseparable for us.

    We make the wine, under my direction at all stages, at a custom crush facility. We hope to have our own place some day, but as Stephanie can recite in her sleep, “we gotta sell that wine first”.

    Scott
    The Grande Dalles

    Jul 29, 2010 at 5:50 PM


  • We also were in high tech careers, and planted first Pinot Noir in Oregon, (grew there for 10 years) and then relocated to Ohio and planted an all vinifera vineyard on soil similar to St. Emilion, southeast facing slope, draining to a river. My blog also documents the joys, heartache, and terror! (http://www.kinkeadridgewinery.typep...). Before you ever buy vineyard land, see winegrower Ron's Top Ten List of Viticultural Mistakes on the Viticulture/Enology Technical Information link of our web site, http://www.kinkeadridge.com. Two of our wines were rated in the Top 100 Exciting Wine Finds in the World by Tom Stevenson, British wine writer, a Viognier/Roussanne and a Cabernet Franc. Good luck to everyone who starts this journey!

    Jul 29, 2010 at 6:15 PM


  • Well, even though Wisconsin is not really known nationally as a "wine region" - let's face it, we're a lot better known for our dairy and artisan cheese industries - there are two new developments here that allow us to make some really outstanding wine these days. First, a new generation of educated wine makers is emerging (I count myself as one of them) in the Midwest and that alone will contribute to the production of superior products. Second, there is a new generation of cold-hearty grape varietals that are both in the pipeline and already coming online these days (planted and producing), perhaps best typified by the new Marquette grape. These interesting new hybrids now allow Midwest wine makers to use non-vinifera fruit to make excellent wines that were previously unattainable.

    The winery that we are starting will be in Dane County, Wisconsin - just outside of Madison. We plan to sign a letter of intent within the next week on a more "urban" property. No vineyard to start (it will follow later), but with plenty of local vineyard contacts, we'll be looking to bring area grapes to the crushpad next Fall. Until then we will have to make due with frozen grapes, juice, perhaps a little bulk wine, and fresh grapes brought in from outside the area this winter.

    We are currently seeking private investors (wink-wink), so if you know anyone who might like the idea of having an investment or ownership position in a Wisconsin winery, please let us know. We can forward more information to them.

    If you are curious about Fisher King Winery and our progress, just check out our webpage at http://www.fisherkingwinery.com

    Sláinte Mhath!

    Alwyn Fitzgerald

    Jul 29, 2010 at 6:17 PM


  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 7,837

    Great story, Carly. Bring on more of these! At least as far as this reader is concerned, don't hesitate to include more nuts-and-bolts, mechanistic details of their process and work, too....

    Jul 29, 2010 at 6:37 PM


  • Snooth User: nvansicklen
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    211788 549

    Alwyn...I am interested in investing. Please ping me some additional information to nick@snooth.com

    Jul 29, 2010 at 7:00 PM


  • Snooth User: Soulkeeper
    194063 10

    For those who might have an interest in growing your own grapes, below is link that has some good starting information.

    http://mtngrv.missouristate.edu/Pub...

    Jul 29, 2010 at 7:01 PM


  • Hi Nick, I will email you directly next week with additional information on the winery and the investment opportunity. I have a Term Sheet that I could send you today, but might as well wait until the latest financial projections are updated next week.

    FYI, we just bottled two whites (the website still needs to be updated), one bone dry and the other a semi-dry. They are both made from a local varietal LaCrescent. Flavors of Apricot and grapefruit. The semi-dry (about 1.5% RS) is really pleasant. A great, light summertime sipping wine.

    By chatting about Fisher King, I'm certainly not trying to take away from the great story of the Scott and Stephanie's Oregon Odyssey. Their own tale is still fully appreciated!

    Jul 29, 2010 at 7:46 PM


  • Snooth User: mdhobson
    543375 1

    Once everyone does all of the dreaming, I would be glad to bring you back to earth. We started in 1985 and , now, sell about 2,ooo cases/ year ( depending on Mother Nature) We grow the grapes, make the wine, bottle, sell and even deliver to restaurants and stores. We started late... early 40's. My husband is living his dream fueled by a passion I wish I understood. And so it goes...

    Jul 29, 2010 at 8:12 PM


  • scott, you can't get me "going" anymore about all THAT -- that's what the great therapist is for...

    stephanie
    the grande dalles

    Jul 29, 2010 at 8:50 PM


  • Snooth User: BBQ Phil
    330232 13

    Stephanie - thank you for the response on the decision to go with Sangiovese versus PN; it is great that not only is the climate more appropriate, but that it is a grape you enjoyed while visiting Italy! Excellent! I wish you and everyone at The Grande Dalles the best of everything.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 9:13 PM


  • To mdhobson, there definitely are the operational realities of running a winery. It obviously is not all glamour; it is a business after all. Hopefully with your 2,000 cases you are successful, making some reasonable money, but having a little fun at the same time? There is nothing wrong with pursuing a dream. But you have to be fairly certain it's what you really want to be doing...

    Jul 29, 2010 at 10:19 PM


  • Was out in Wash. state at a wine making conference this past May and took a ride east of the Dalles to Cascade Cliffs Winery and tasted their Sangiovese.Fantastic.I think you will do very well with this varietal.Good luck and hope to get a chance to purchase some of your Sangiovese.

    Jul 29, 2010 at 11:26 PM


  • Snooth User: drcoco
    244263 25

    As another couple inspired by the Pacific Northwest and living in Portland, I love this story. I will be seeking out this vineyard and hoping to buy some Oregon grown Sangiovese!

    Jul 30, 2010 at 10:53 AM


  • Snooth User: asknise
    508369 6

    As a fellow Pacific Northwesterner with a passion for wine I will definitely be looking in to trying their inaugural wines. I think I found my new heroes today!

    Jul 30, 2010 at 12:20 PM


  • Snooth User: Mike Hill
    124082 1

    Fisher King: You mentioned La Crescent in Wisconsin. I agree it's a winner, and I would like to try it, but, like so many other interesting varieties, we are forbidden to plant in Washington. We have many sites here which are too cold in winter (altitude, bottomland, etc.) for most vinifera, so the hybrids would be ideal to fill in the low places.

    Grande Dalles: Congratulations on the realization of your dreams! I wish I had done the same thing earlier in my life (when I also was was a copywriter in Portland at Cole & Weber). Now, I have great land in the Okanogan, have tested a few viniferas and hybrids... and am too old to go on from here. So, be happy you started when you were young and have had to make more sacrifices.
    Your rewards will grow with your vines.

    Best Wishes

    Jul 30, 2010 at 6:11 PM


  • what clone of sangiovese? any chance it was the grosso?

    Jul 30, 2010 at 8:28 PM


  • how encouraging, your responses - thank you, thank you, all of you.

    we were *supposed* to have our website/e-comm info up by now, so for all of you who asked, feel free to e-mail me: stephanie (at) thegrandedalles (dot) com - and i will let you know when it's up (hoping in next two weeks)

    @BBQ you're welcome, and thank you.

    @stumptownsteve and others interested in sangiovese, it's the brunello clone

    stephanie
    the grande dalles


    Jul 30, 2010 at 9:42 PM


  • Wow, very inspirational. I know all about working hard and living your dream (I am on my second career). Wine for me is a relatively new love and I have certainly entertained the idea of starting a vineyard. I keep telling people that owning a vineyard and winery will be my next life. Your story inspires me.

    Jul 31, 2010 at 12:23 PM


  • Mike Hill - Wow. I assume it is the State of Washington that is preventing you from planting hybrids like LaCrescent? What is their rationale for taking that position? As a hybrid it cannot cross-pollinate with other grape varieties, so that can't be the reason. You'd think the wine industry in your neck of the woods would be open to trying nearly any other grape types - particularly those developed here in the US - just to see what will and will not grow in your region - more importantly to expand the options for growers and winemakers. I don't think LaCrescent would ever take the place of Sauvignon Blanc, for example, but for some growers and vintners it might offer a good alternative.

    Jul 31, 2010 at 6:47 PM


  • Doing my corporate thing, planning to grow grapes. I don't really want to make wine. Will sell the grapes and decide about winery life later.

    Aug 03, 2010 at 3:55 PM


  • Snooth User: truevous
    548564 1

    I may have missed it, but what about a time line? Acreage?

    Aug 05, 2010 at 5:02 PM


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