Horses, Historical Winemaking & A Pinot Noir’s Epic Journey: Illahe Vineyards

Illahe Vineyards of Dallas, Oregon harnesses the power of draft horses to produce its wines, including a very special pinot noir made completely by historical techniques without modern technology.

Training in the vineyard. Photo by Megan Jones.

The heyday of the draft horse is long gone across most of the United States, with heavy horsepower generally replaced by faster, efficient fuel-burning tractors. Some farms still keep a team or two of the big horses around for small jobs or PR opportunities, while most of the heavy work is done by engine power. At Illahe Vineyards, however, tucked into the Willamette Valley of Oregon, the horsepower is authentic, sustainable and driven by real purpose.

“My husband Brad and I went to France a couple of times together,” describes Bethany Ford, the national sales manager at Illahe Vineyards. The vineyards and winery are a family affair, owned by Brad’s parents Lowell and Pauline who serve as the growers while Brad works as winemaker. “In France, they still use horses in the vineyards routinely, and we became really interested in using horses at our own vineyards at home.”

Brad has always been interested in historical winemaking, taking a look back at the longstanding traditions to learn the best ways to produce wine into the future. Harnessing real horsepower in the vineyard suddenly made a lot more sense.

Doc and Bea, Illahe’s Percherons

The Fords own a team of Percherons who work in the vineyard: a gelding named Doc and a mare named Bea. “They’re great horses,” Bethany describes with a note of pride. “Very mild-tempered. Doc is the even keel, and Bea is a little more headstrong, but they love to work. They’re great workhorses.”

Doc and Bea grab a snack of grape leaves. Photo by Megan Jones.

Doc and Bea came from a local teamster, who helped to train the team for their specific work in the vineyard as well as to train Brad and Bethany themselves. “I grew up with riding horses, but I had no driving experience, and I had never worked with drafts. Brad had no horse experience at all!” The Fords do have a vineyard employee who helps with the horses as well but Brad and Bethany do a lot of the work and driving themselves.

As for the horses’ role in the overall health of the vineyard, the team plays a critical role: “By using horses instead of a tractor, we reduce compaction in the rows,” Bethany describes. In the spring, the horses are driven individually with a horse-drawn mower to mow cover crop between the rows.

Mowing cover crop with a single-horse mower. Photo by Bethany Ford.

The most intense time for the team comes at harvest. “A full day in harvest season involves bringing fruit up to the winery all day. We’ll harness in the morning, then drive the team up and down the rows where the grapes are picked by hand. The vineyard is on a hill and the winery is at the top, so we make sure we rest partway up the hill and of course take a long rest in the middle of the day too.” The team gets the winters off and then gets in shape with lighter tasks around the vineyard all spring and summer so they’re fit and ready for harvest season in the fall.

Bethany and Brad carrying grapes during harvest. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Doc and Bea are part of the vineyard and winery in more ways than just their horsepower — Illahe has a Percheron Pinot Noir named in honor of the team. “We name our wines after things that we stand for, and using the horses and following historical winemaking techniques are important to us.”

A Truly Historical Pinot Noir

The concept of “historical winemaking” goes one step further at Illahe Vineyards as well — or perhaps many, many steps further. The winery’s 1899 Pinot Noir is hand-produced using only techniques available in the year 1899: no electricity, no modern technology and no modern winemaking methods or techniques.

“The idea started with the horses,” Bethany states. “We always made our wines using natural, historical methods, but in 2011, Brad decided to try to make a wine without using electricity. The rule was we could only use what was available in 1899.”

Working in the vineyard during harvest. Photo by Bethany Ford.

The 1899 Pinot Noir is wood fermented and hand pressed using a pulley system. The grapes, of course, are brought to the winery by horsepower courtesy of Doc and Bea; Brad is hoping to design and implement a horse-powered press in the future modeled after those used historically in Europe. A bicycle pump brings the wine to the barrel where it ages for two years.

Bringing wine to the warehouse. Photo by Bethany Ford.

The 1899 is then hand bottled, hand labeled and brought to the warehouse by horse-drawn wagon. Originally, a truck then came from the distributor to pick up the wine, which didn’t really sit well with Brad. “We put in so much work to produce this wine without any modern technology and then it was picked up by truck, which didn’t seem to be in keeping with the spirit of things.”

Brad’s solution? A mule-drawn stagecoach to transport the wine to the river, followed by a 96-mile canoe trip down to Portland. When a bottle of 1899 is purchased by a consumer and put in the car to go home, it’s the first time the wine has touched any modern technology in its life.

The mule stagecoach, bringing the 1899 Pinot Noir to the river. Photo by Bethany Ford.

Our hats are off to Illahe Vineyards and the Ford family for their commitment to producing sustainable wines with historical techniques, using good old-fashioned horsepower. Learn more about Illahe Vineyards by visiting the website.

Go driving!

Anna Caitlin Photography

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