2020 was a tough vintage for many West Coast winemakers. But for the two women in charge of growing grapes and making wine at the 80-acre biodynamic Johan Vineyards in Rickreall, Oregon, the twin challenges of COVID-19 and wildfire smoke played out against the backdrop of another momentous (and significantly more joyful) event: A Johan baby boom.
Winemaker and General Manager Morgan Beck’s son was born during the last days of the 2020 harvest, while Farm and Vineyard Manager Elise Hansen is set to welcome her first baby at any moment. Between wrangling the new flock of sheep arriving at Johan this spring (complete with livestock guardian dogs) and gearing up for the growing season, these two new moms sat down to talk sparkling wine, their favorite Austrian grape varieties, and how in winemaking – much like parenthood – there’s only so much you can control.
The 2020 vintage was really tough – COVID-19, wildfires, plus you were both pregnant! What’s the most important thing you each learned from last year?
Morgan: In general, I think 2020 has taught us all that there is a lot that is completely out of our control, and you can only control a few things in your immediate situation. For us, having those really grounded foundation pieces in place helped when Covid hit in the spring and wildfires in the fall. If you have some good roots, you can hang on and adapt and be more resilient in the end. A big piece of our puzzle last year was bringing on some key team members in early spring, and having a great, versatile team in place when we did hit those couple of speed bumps.
Elise: It feels good to act like you can control things. But farming teaches you that you absolutely can’t control the weather and so many other things. Being pregnant is also a lot like that. You think you have control, and you do not. All we can do is pivot and react to things. I think our 2020 farm share [a CSA-like share of biodynamic produce and Johan wines] was a great example of that. We’ve always wanted to have a farm share program, we’ve talked about it for years, and Covid gave us the push to make it happen. Now it’s growing, and becoming a bigger piece of what we want to do.
Elise, this is your first year as farm and vineyard manager. And how are you finding your previous decade of experience farming vegetables translates to the vineyard (and beyond)?
I’d always thought about making the jump from vegetables and animals to perennial crops, but it needed to be the right place for me. I didn’t think it would be grapes. I thought they were a monocrop, a spray crop, and not for me. But people told me about Johan and other places that were doing a different way of farming. There are a lot of possibilities here, and Dan [the former vineyard manager] was already moving in that direction. When you grow veggies, you grow them and send them off. That’s it. Whereas here, you grow grapes, you see them made into wine, and then you get to taste that product. It’s a totally different experience than growing annual vegetables.
Johan Vineyards has been releasing some really awesome sparkling wines recently, including pétillant naturel as well as traditional method sparklers. Morgan, what’s interesting to you about making sparkling wine with Johan fruit?
Johan has kind of a unique site here in the valley – we’re a little farther south, right in the Van Duzer Corridor. With pét-nat, since you don’t have that long process of tirage, it’s really important to be able to build the middle palate of the wine. You need that perfect balance of ripe fruit flavors and skins, but also plenty of acid, and that’s a really site-dependent thing. Another key piece is the pick date, making sure we’re choosing the right fruit on the property to work with. Because we farm onsite, we’re able to make decisions about canopy management and other things to get that perfect balance of fruit and acid for sparkling wine.
I’m also excited about this wild traditional method project. We have yet to find out if it’s going to work – although I think it will work – but we make a base wine, then pick and press, get a mother culture kicked off, and add that as our tirage culture. We won’t have added sugar or yeast. I’m hoping it works. I’ve tried a couple bottles here and there, and it’s going, but we’ll see in the next year and a half!
Johan Vineyards grows a number of varieties that are pretty unusual for Oregon. If you each had to pick one under-the-radar variety to sing the praises of, which would it be?
Morgan: I love the blaufränkish here at this site. It’s really well suited for Oregon. It has a lot of similarities to pinot noir, but it has just one more dimension of tannin and depth, and then one more dimension of spice and aromatics. And I am a sucker for highly aromatic wines.
Elise: I really like the zweigelt, which is a cross between blaufränkish and St. Laurent, which are all Austrian varieties. I had never heard of it, but it was really fun to watch last year because it puts out some huge clusters. Huge. The farmer in me just loves any plant that produces that much for us. And it’s very cool to taste what Morgan made from it. The first time I tried it, I did not know what I was drinking. It was really violet in color and taste. I could have sworn it was gamay.