Laurent Montalieu was born in Germany and moved to the postcard-perfect Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe when he was 1 year old. After spending his formative years there, he headed to Bordeaux to study when he turned 16. There, his great grandfather owned a vineyard but, contrary to popular perception, it wasn’t a frontrunner when a young Montalieu considered his career options. In fact, it wasn’t even one of the choices. As destiny would have it, wine turned out to be Montalieu’s vocation, who went on to become one of Oregon’s most celebrated wine virtuosos.
Montalieu was introduced to the world of wine through friends with whom he went skiing. “In France, I studied in an engineering school of agricultural technique, and it was right next door to the viticulture and enology school. I made great friends with those guys and got connected to the world of wine,” Montalieu says. Hanging out with his ski buddies meant traipsing around vineyards and helping with various chores. This cemented his love for wine and the rest is history.
Some of his impressive credentials are those of a winemaker, wine consultant, entrepreneur and investor. He is also the founder of NW Wine Company, Oregon’s largest land-holding winery. With an entrepreneur’s spirit and an appetite for risk, Montalieu invested in a tiny single-vineyard AVA called Red Hill Douglas County, fully nestled within southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley AVA. What led him to bet on this minuscule AVA? The wonderful microclimate and the red volcanic Jory soils. Rich in iron, the soil is fabulous for growing wine grapes — creating wines with great structure and a lovely mineral backbone.
We spoke to Montalieu about his journey so far and why he invested in Red Hill Douglas County AVA.
As a wine industry stalwart, could you tell us about your journey that brought you to where you are today?
I’ve been fortunate enough to call Oregon home for 30-plus years. I essentially came almost directly into Oregon through Napa Valley, after having studied winemaking and enology in Bordeaux. As I wanted to learn more English, I got an internship in Napa Valley. That’s what got me jobs in Oregon. And I started three different projects. The first one was Bridgeview in South Bend, Oregon. The second one was WillaKenzie in northern Willamette Valley. Then since 2003, I’ve been kind of on my own, starting a new company called Northwest Wine Company. There’s also Soléna Estate, a winery named after my daughter. I was fortunate to have an exit strategy in place — a larger company purchased Northwest Wine Company and all of its assets from me. I am still the CEO of Northwest Wine Company, and own shares there. In 2020, I bought a property in Douglas County called Red Hill. We sold it along with Northwest back in August. So that’s kind of a snapshot of my winemaking journey.
Tell us a little about your winemaking legacy. Did it influence your style of winemaking?
I am originally from Bordeaux, France. My great grandfather was a winemaker. But we had kind of lost that tradition because we owned a small farm that was divided in between three brothers. Eventually once the next generation came in, it became too tiny. In that sense,I didn’t have any kind of heritage in terms of a production facility in Bordeaux. Most of what we do in Oregon is Pinot Noir, so Burgundy and Beaujolais styles would have trouble kind of being reflected into those varieties. I think my style of winemaking is hopefully being true to the soil, the microclimate and the terroir. I’m all about respecting the property as much as possible.
Why did you invest in Red Hill Douglas County?
I worked with the fruit way back in 1987. So I knew the vineyard and what made it special. I love the beautiful volcanic-origin soil that makes for very lifted wines. The wines have both finesse and delicacy. The fact that it is a single-vineyard AVA makes it very unique and very special. That’s pretty much the only one in the United States. There are some in France of course, but I doubt there are any around here. We own almost 1,000 acres of vineyards in Oregon, and in all the vineyards we try to be as organically friendly as possible. We have replicated that concept at Red Hill as well. My vision is to create a brand around the AVA. I think it is going to be a pretty outstanding area for producing great Pinot Noirs in the future.
How have you seen the Oregon wine industry change over the last three decades?
I think what’s been really amazing in the industry is that we’ve seen a lot of high-quality Pinot Noir being produced, and a lot of cooperation among all the different vintners and growers. It’s been pretty amazing — this is helping everybody in raising the quality level of the wine. So it’s been fairly fascinating.