Winemaking in the pinot quarter
For all the estate wineries and vineyards drawing wine-lovers to the countryside of Yamhill County, it should be noted that one of the fastest-growing winery locations in the county isn’t nestled on a hillside or overlooking a rolling vineyard. It sits on an unassuming patch of asphalt in an otherwise quiet corner of downtown McMinnville.
Welcome to the Granary District, which has recently taken on another apt name — the Pinot Quarter.
As recently as 2000, there wasn’t much happening in terms of winemaking — Panther Creek Cellars operated from an old building across the street from Buchanan-Cellers (it’s now home to Elizabeth Chambers Cellars) and the Eyrie Vineyards ran their winemaking facility just a few blocks north of the Granary District. The change from grain to grapes actually began in 2002 when Rob and Maria Stuart set up shop in their current location along NE Fifth Street, drawn to the space in large part because it was available.
“It was ready. It was empty. When we started our winery, we really needed a turnkey situation because Rob and I didn’t have another stream of income,” Maria Stuart said. “We needed to start making wine and selling wine as quickly as possible so we could still have a paycheck.”
Fast-forward just over a decade, and it’s a different picture — R. Stuart and Co. is now joined by Robert Brittan’s operations, both for his own label and for Winderlea, while the end of the lot now hosts Dominio IV and Lumos wineries and Matello Wines now working out of a low-slung building across from the Grain Station. This doesn’t even count the number of private labels produced in these facilities for growers from around the region. The neighborhood has expanded very quickly.
Making wine in an urban setting presents its own unique challenges, mainly how there is never enough space. Ryan Kelly-Burnett, whose role as cellar master for Lumos is just one of many hats he wears, explains that with 12 varietals across six labels, quarters are tight.
“We’re way over capacity,” he said. “For every case made, it should be a square foot. We’re doing about 10,000 cases in an 8,000-square-foot facility.”
Near the end of crush this year, stacks of barrels and fruit containers on one side of the shop and fermentation gear on the other left Kelly-Burnett with only a few hundred square feet to move around in the middle of the shop. He explained that the company usually stores its cases, ready to sell wine on site, but must move its inventory to a storage locker during harvest in order to have enough space to physically operate. Functioning in this small area requires the mind of a Tetris master and a deft hand on the controls of a forklift.
“Your space doesn’t change, but you’re still accumulating capital — pumps, tanks, and all sorts of tangible items that create a footprint where you’re trying to figure out ‘Where am I going to stick this next?’” Kelly-Burnett explained. “Luckily, our ceilings are pretty high, so we usually end up going up.”
Stuart explains that the ‘expand upward’ rule is also in full effect at R. Stuart and Co. “One of the reasons that it works is because of the very high ceilings,” she says of the company’s approximately 6,000-square-foot facility. “Rob, my husband, is a master of going up, at using space vertically. There’s a lot of barrels stacked six, seven, eight high, etcetera.”
The challenges for those in the Pinot Quarter aren’t simply internal. Producing a lot of wine means bringing in more grapes at harvest, and there’s only so much space in the parking lot.
“It’s a little bit of a logistics game in the parking lot, to be sure, especially during harvest when there are so many trucks coming and going and so many forklifts zipping around,” Stuart said. “I likened it to a ballet in a newsletter that I wrote during harvest. All the moving pieces have to do what they’re supposed to do at exactly the right time otherwise there could be a huge collision.”
With a record harvest this year, Stuart said the fact there hasn’t been a parking lot wreck yet is a miracle.
“It’s really by luck. It’s a little bit of ‘first come, first served;’ if your truck is the first one to pull in, then the other guy's truck has to wait for a half an hour to unload it,” she said. “So far, there has been no calculated coordination, but somehow we managed.” It helps in those situations to know your neighbors, and it would seem that everyone does in the Pinot Quarter.
“Everybody is friendly. If somebody needs a tool or something, everyone’s always there,” Kelly-Burnett explained. “During harvest, it's tight and confined spaces for sure, but you’re still helping each other out. Some days, you’re working long hours, so you get mentally drained and fuses are a lot shorter then usual, but all-in-all it's good fun. It’s a small industry around here, so we’re all pretty close and good mates.”
Stuart views the close-knit community in the Pinot Quarter as something of a microcosm of the Oregon wine industry as a whole.
“The pioneers who were taking this risk on planting pinot noir and making wine really needed each other, because everyone else thought they were crazy,” she said. “Really, what’s happening in McMinnville has been happening in Oregon for 50 years. We’re just a lot closer together now.”
That proximity is very appealing to Stuart, who says that her company’s operation isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“We love being in town. Originally, Rob and I thought this would be a temporary situation, five years or so, and then we would buy a vineyard or build a winery or do something else and not be in downtown McMinnville anymore. We absolutely love it,” she said. “It’s great to be so centrally located during harvest, it’s great to be right in town where we can walk to Third Street where our wine bar is. We can walk to our house. It’s close to Davison Winery Supply. It’s close to everything we need. We love being in town and will likely not ever change that.”