No wine spectators here:
Alumni find their American dream among the clusters
By Joni Moths Mueller
It’s late January when this story is written so feel free to envision Pat Dineen, Evan Roberts and Jim McDonough sitting with their feet up, relaxed, maybe doing nothing more than thinking about last fall’s harvest and the grapes they babied into American wines.
It’s a brief break in a crop cycle that bottles countless hours of planting, coaxing and, finally, collecting fruit at its flavor climax. Of course, that hardship is generously offset by the mixing, tasting and doctoring that go into creating the award-winning cabernets, pinot noirs, syrahs and chardonnays that are the pride and prejudice of Dineen, Crowley and Wren Hop vineyards.
If you’re starting to feel a little jealousy because your American dream didn’t lead you to viniculture, know this: These guys didn’t take a straight path to nirvana. In fact, McDonough reached paradise only after nasty encounters with ants, wasps and poison oak.
Pat Dineen, Bus Ad ’62, and his wife, Lanie, owners of Dineen Vineyards, found their way to the Yakima Valley of Eastern Washington after Pat’s 40-year career in banking, 40 years spent indulging a predilection for fine wines. They sipped and tasted, bought and collected from wineries worldwide and somewhere in the back of his mind, Pat nursed an idea.
Earlier in life, as in when Pat was a Marquette student, he couldn’t have been happier to go to school and leave behind his family’s 80-acre farm and the 365-day calendar of growing feed and tending a herd.
“My father passed away when I was in sixth or seventh grade so we all worked on the farm growing up. I was not very fond of it,” he says.
Pat didn’t anticipate a return engagement. But when he and Lanie began retirement planning, ancestry must’ve beckoned because they started looking for a place to take their love for wine to ground level. They wanted to grow it.
“It seems like agriculture stays in your blood,” Pat admits with a chuckle.
They chose land in a region known as the Washington desert, east of the Cascade Mountains on the same latitude as Bordeaux, France. As Pat describes it, the land provides two critical ingredients: loads of sun and fairly poor soil that by some magic of nature encourages grapes to bubble.
Benefiting from a banker’s caution, the Dineens’ initial stake was small, just 12 acres bought in 2001, land once covered with apple trees with a high bench and south-facing aspect and, at its peak, splendid views of Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams. Dineen Vineyards grew to encompass 92 acres with parcels of grapes for cabernet, cabernet franc and syrah, parcels named for the Dineens’ daughters and grandchildren.
“This year we’ll have it completely planted for the first time,” Pat says. “It’s much different than the family farm that I grew up on, but agriculture is agriculture. You have to plant a crop, cultivate it, take care of it and harvest it. It’s more of a passion and hobby than a business, but with a little bit of luck we may make a profit this year.”
Dineen Vineyards grows grapes for more than 25 boutique wineries and bottles a precious “couple hundred cases” under the Dineen label. That very special reserve is set aside for the enjoyment of friends, neighbors and visitors at the tasting room. In 2012, Dineen’s first entry in competition won a double-gold award.
Evan Roberts and Jim McDonough’s paths to vintner share so much in common with Pat’s experience that it feels as if this could become a step in an official vintner’s manual. Maybe it could be the chapter titled: Family ties.
Evan, Comm ’92, an entrepreneurial student who founded a successful computer animation business his senior year, was drawn to wine and joined a local group of wine enthusiasts called the Bacchus Wine Society. Milwaukee’s proximity to Chicago meant a parade of “amazing wine makers” could travel just 90 miles north to teach their trade to eager acolytes. Evan’s fascination with wine waxed while his interest in computer graphics waned.
“The computer animation business was really fun but we were flying by the seat of our pants,” he says. “We were the only ones in the Midwest and when our computer and electronic components would break down, we’d be sitting there with flashlights and screwdrivers trying to figure out a fix.
“As I appreciated wine more, it was like ‘that’s something I’d like to do,’” he remembers. “I wanted something that I would be proud of and I could put my hands on and share with everyone.”
Which is why Evan and his wife, Rebecca, were susceptible when family began coaxing them home to Oregon, wooing them with bottles of Oregon wine and articles about the state’s viniculture.
“I started doing research and reading as much as I could about viniculture and growing grapes,” Evan says. “We’d been gone 11 years so I hadn’t seen how much the Oregon wine scene and Oregon in general had changed.”
Evan apprenticed at a local winery to learn the trade under the guidance of master vintner and friend John Prosser. Next, he wanted to strike out on his own.
“I knew I wanted to do my own label, and I met Tyson Crowley, who was working for a really well-known winery in Oregon called Cameron,” says Evan. “The more we talked, the more we realized we loved the same elements in wine. It was a perfect match.”
They founded Crowley Vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and focused on older clones of chardonnay and pinot noir. In 2005, Crowley Vineyards produced 50 cases; it was a modest start. This year’s harvest was 2,600 cases. Evan sees further growth in the coming year and, hopefully, an additional market with distribution in Chicago/Milwaukee.
“Our wine-making practices have been old-world techniques with new-world fruit,” Evan says. “We have specific ways we want our grapes farmed. Because we make our wines naturally — don’t add acids or sugars or yeasts — we have to be vigilant when it comes to harvest time. As my wife says, grapes are like babies; they come when they come.
“A lot of people want bigger and bolder fruit, and they let it ripen and ripen and then add acid after fermentation to balance out the wine. We like to get fruit at its peak and use native yeast, don’t add anything except sulfites to preserve it.”
Crowley does two small, single-vineyard bottlings. “But our main wines are our blends, the spring release, Crowley’s Willamette Valley, and our founding wine, and my personal favorite and fall release, Entre Nous,” says Evan. “It’s from three vineyards using old vines and clones blended together with the high notes and the softness of aromatics to get that floral delicacy.”
The past year’s spring release of Crowley Chardonnay was named the No. 1 white wine in Oregon by Portland Monthly, which called out “a perfect example of the new Oregon Chardonnay, with lively acid and light well-integration oak aging.” It sold out in eight weeks.
Following a father’s dream
Both ideas — striking out on your own and a family tie — explain why Jim McDonough, Jour ’88, found himself scouting Sonoma wine country.
Jim didn’t learn to appreciate wine from tasting the best. He grew up on the South Side of Chicago and remembers his dad’s friends bringing gifts of Italian jug wine to the dinner table, “scary chiantis in straw baskets,” he says.
What he did learn to appreciate was his dad’s lifelong dream to be involved in the wine business.
After graduating from Marquette, Jim went to work for Leo Burnett advertising in Chicago. He moved to San Francisco in 1992 and began working on winery accounts. To sell it, he says, he had to learn it.
“To create a campaign you need to know the business inside and out,” Jim says.
He took frequent field trips to nearby Napa, signed up for classes at a local culinary school and took courses on viniculture at the University of California–Davis. “It was total immersion,” he says.
Pretty soon, Jim was ready, and the Russian River Valley of Sonoma called.
“We searched for a vineyard for two years, covered miles,” Jim says of the search he and his wife, Jennifer, undertook.
He laughs recalling their keystone escapades into wine country, an almost foreign adventure far from Chicago’s South Side and light years away from Jim’s comfort zone at the time.
“We were attacked by an ant colony, saw mountain lion meals, fell in mud trenches, contracted poison oak, stepped on wasp nests — talk about being out of your element,” he says. “You need blind faith to enter a business you have very little experience in.”
But what’s a wasp sting when, as the Wren Hop Vineyards website explains, “the McDonough family shares a ridiculous passion for wine”?
In collaboration with “rock star winemaker Russell Bevan,” Jim says, his family founded Wren Hop Vineyards in the Russian River Valley in 2008.
“I grossly underestimated the time it takes to run a winery,” he admits. “You’re running a business, farming a vineyard, walking and sweating it out through bud break, fruit set, veraison, harvest and bottling. We contract with really good producers and pay top dollar, but that’s our model — trying to create the Aston Martin of wine vs. Ford Escort.”
Wren Hop released its first wines — two pinot noirs and one chardonnay — in 2009. The pinot noir caught the attention of wine critic Robert Parker, who scored it high. The 600-case harvest sold out in weeks.
“My dad is so proud we actually made this happen,” Jim says. “Our wine is full-throttle California style — it’s the loudest person at the party and perhaps the best dressed, as well. We have no interest in being part of the status quo. We want to create the ultimate expression of pinot noir, concentrated and complex. Maybe that’s the American way — try to perfect the craft and then get better and better at it."
Grow this grapevine by sharing the names of more Marquette alumni-owned wineries with Marquette Magazine.