Making a Case for the Old Ways

Percheron draft horses Doc and Bea pull a wagon full of pinot noir grapes during harvest at Illahe Vineyards. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

When Lowell Ford retired in 2000 and bought his 80-acre dream land in the hills in Dallas, Ore., he envisioned a low-commitment operation where he could sell grapes to local winemakers and spend his winter months relaxing in sunny climates.

But his son Brad Ford had a different idea. After apprenticing at four area wineries and learning the tools of the trade, Brad wanted to try his hand at winemaking, and he wanted to do it in a sustainable way.

Fast forward 13 years, and Illahe Vineyards is one of the most successful boutique wineries in Oregon. The family operation has carved out a name for itself in the competitive Northwest wine industry with its hand-crafted, moderately-priced pinot noirs and an attention to detail that ensures Brad personally tastes from every single barrel before anything is bottled.

And then there are Doc and Bea — the horses.

One of Illahe’s signature traits is the use of draft horses to harvest grapes for some of its specialty wines, including its trademark, the 1899 Pinot Noir. Made from the exact same grapes as Illahe’s $20 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, the 1899 pinot is created without the use of machinery or modern winemaking equipment. Not only do Doc and Bea replace the buzzing motors of tractors and ATVs, but workers de-stem the grapes and press, rack, bottle and cork the wine by hand.

“I’m trying to make wine in the simplest, most ancient way possible,” Brad says, taking time out from a busy Thanksgiving weekend open house to chat. “If the average person on the street thinks it sounds like a lot more work, the truth is, it is. But it also makes it more beautiful.”

The result is astounding. While the $20 pinot noir comes from the same grapes, it couldn’t taste more different from its 1899 counterpart, priced at $65. The Willamette Valley pinot is a smooth, sweet drinking wine — perfect for a meal — while the heady nose and dry finish of the 1899 pinot seem like a wine snob’s dream come true. The price reflects not just the difference in taste, but the amount of labor and effort that goes into a product made using only materials available in 1899.

“We are hoping that people are willing to spend a little more to support a place that is trying to make wine in the most natural, sustainable way possible, without the use of fossil fuels,” Brad says.

Brad’s dream is to make more of Illahe’s wines in this manner, and while the entire winery is certified as sustainable by LIVE (Low Input Viticulture and Enology), his hope is that someday all 80 acres will be harvested by horses.

Foundation for Success

The Ford family built Illahe Vineyards on 80 acres near Dallas. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Brad, 43, grew up on his family’s 110-acre property in West Salem, in the same house where his mother, Pauline, was raised. A love of the land and a deep interest in making things grow were part of Brad’s heritage.

The family grew grapes at their home since 1983, experimenting with varietals such as Müller-Thurgau and pinot gris. When father Lowell, 69, retired from his job as dean of students at Chemeketa Community College, he helped start the school’s Northwest Viticulture Center, where he is now chairman of the board. Lowell purchased the south-facing piece of land in Dallas to grow grapes commercially in 2000.

“Being an Oregonian, growing up on a farm and being close to his grandmother influenced Brad a great deal,” Lowell says. “He traveled the world in his 20s, but he put his roots back down. I think he wanted his kids to grow up in a rural environment, close to the land.”

We are hoping that people are willing to spend a little more to support a place that is trying to make wine in the most natural, sustainable way possible, without the use of fossil fuels.

Brad worked at Chemeketa as a grant writer and part-time English instructor, teaching poetry and literature. While he enjoyed the job for a time, he craved change.

After working at different Willamette Valley wineries, and getting experience in all aspects of wine production, Brad approached his father about turning the vineyard into a full-fledged winery.

“I had a lot of hesitation,” Lowell says, laughing at the memory. “Pauline and I were going to take it easy, and this didn’t fit with our plans. For us, it really came down to family. Our value system was, we’re willing to do the extra work because we are building something that can be handed down to our kids and grandkids.”

The Ford family picked the name Illahe, a Chinook word meaning “earth,” “soil” and “place.”

“To us, it conveyed our values,” Lowell says. “We are about place, which is community and also family.”

Illahe started small, producing 400 cases in 2006. Making a name for a small, handcrafted wine operation is not easy, and the Fords had no money for marketing. Lowell personally called distributors around the country, convincing them to try the wine and hoping the product sold itself.

Portland resident Alan Koch is a member of Illahe’s Cellar Club, which wine enthusiasts can join to receive special discounts and shipments of limited releases. He sampled Illahe’s wines in its first year of business at a private wine-tasting fundraiser and became a fan for life.

“I was simply blown away by the way Brad Ford had crafted that wine to show off the delicately nuanced grape, that I think most of us were still beginning to fully appreciate,” Koch says. “I think for many of us back then, you discovered wine and winemakers you wanted to follow just to see what was ahead. Brad was one of those winemakers to watch.”

Early on, Brad made a decision that would lead to Illahe’s greatest success: despite the labor-intensive production, the family decided to keep most of their wines in the $15 to $20 price range. When the Fords produced their first wines in 2006, it was unheard of to find a small boutique pinot noir produced in Oregon at that price range. Then the economy tanked in 2008, which became a game changer for Illahe Vineyards.

“The demand was pretty high before the recession,” Brad says. “But after the recession, that $20 price point really made a difference. Then we went to 4,000 cases pretty quickly.”

You discovered wine and winemakers you wanted to follow just to see what was ahead. Brad was one of those winemakers to watch.

In 2013, Illahe produced 6,000 cases of wine and distributed them in more than 20 states. Lowell is particularly proud that their wine was served to President Obama during a tour in Maine of communities hit hard by the recession.

As their business grows, they’re experimenting more with old-style techniques. Brad built a wood-fired kiln for fermenting the wine. He wants to make the funnels they use to sift the wine out of clay instead of plastic. And about 25 percent of the vineyard’s harvest is now brought up by horse, a number that Brad hopes to continue to increase.

Brad says his original reason for using horses was that he thought it was romantic. Soon, however, he started to see the big picture of what making wine in an older style could mean.

“What it comes down to is that the more I learned how you can use machines and chemistry to manipulate wine flavors, the less I liked it,” he says. “We’re always challenging ourselves to use the most ancient materials we can, and produce the wine in the most ancient way possible.”

Deep Roots in Salem

Bethany and Brad Ford carry buckets of grapes during harvest at Illahe Vineyards. Photo by Diane Stevenson.

Brad’s interest in simplicity and art translates beyond his winemaking. Illahe is open to the public only on special occasions, and on those days, Brad can be found spinning tunes from his collection of vinyl records, which includes everything from Rolling Stones to the Modern Jazz Quartet.

An artist and poet, Brad’s concrete poetry — which visually conveys meaning through a graphic arrangement of letters and words — can be found online, and one of his pieces is in a print catalogue of the work of Salem artist D.E. May, a close friend of Brad’s. In fact, it was meeting May that helped solidify Brad’s decision to stay in Salem.

“I wanted to flee when I was younger, like a lot of people who grow up here,” he says. “Meeting Dan May was huge for me. He was one of the neatest and most interesting people I’ve met, and he liked Salem, so it changed my perspective.

“When I was 25, I thought I would have to leave Salem to meet interesting people. Then I realized that it’s all inside the individual person whether something is interesting or not.”

Brad says he’s found the simple qualities of Salem to be most inspiring for his art — from his poetry to his wine.

“I like the industries here. I love the trains and the people,” he says. “I love that railroad underpass on Portland Road. I love that it’s not pretentious.”

I thought I would have to leave Salem to meet interesting people. Then I realized that it’s all inside the individual person whether something is interesting or not.

When Illahe’s sales started booming during the recession, they hired national sales manager Bethany Williams to help keep up with increasing demand. The hire proved to be fortuitous, because Brad and Bethany fell in love and married, raising a family which now includes their son and three children from Brad’s previous marriage.

Bethany Ford, 30, maintains a blog on the company website and serves as the extroverted side to Brad’s quieter nature. She pushes Brad to try new things, joking that she likes Arcade Fire while “new” music for him is from the 1970s.

The couple shares a commitment to keeping the focus of Illahe on sustainability, and producing wine in the simplest way possible.

“I want to slow things down,” Brad says. “The original experiment with the horses and shoot thinning  (pruning) the fields by hand was to see if we slowed down and took more care, would it produce a better-quality product? And I think it makes a difference.”

Lowell says he is proud of what his family has accomplished, and especially to see Brad’s journey to becoming an accomplished winemaker.

“Brad is getting better and better all the time, and the scores (for the wine) are getting higher each year,” he says. “I work more hours than I did before I retired, but it’s passion and it’s family, and that is what’s important.”

Angela Yeager works in communications for the state of Oregon. She co-hosts a film review show, Reel Film Snobs, on CCTV and loves supporting local music.

Diane Stevenson is a freelance photographer and videographer who specializes in shooting candid portraits and landscapes. On weekends you can find her pouring wine at Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall.