Andrew Beckham has gone from ski bum to amphora artist and winemaker, using his degree in ceramics to spark a new old way of fermenting wine. He's pictured here with some of his Novum amphorae after this year's harvest. Photo by Rusty Rae.
Ancient-inspired vessels spark passions for Oregon winemakers
What happens when wineries use fermentation vessels inspired by ones dating from biblical times? Purity, of course, and good stories to tell, too. Andrew Beckham of Beckham Estate Vineyard didn’t always want to make wine. In fact, after earning degrees in history and ceramics from Lewis & Clark College, he took off a year to make the U.S. snowboard team. He then moved to Park City, Utah, tuning skis and generally living the dream of ski bums.
'While my main focus was in history, my dad told me to take classes that I enjoyed, that I had some passion for,” he recalled. His focus? Ceramics and pottery. At the time, Beckham didn’t realize his love of clay would lead him on a fascinating journey into the wine business. In Utah, he stumbled on a craft shop and began throwing pots and selling them to tourists. It wasn’t long before he was able to stop the ski waxing and concentrate on clay. Soon, he was running the craft shop. He met his wife, Annedria, in Park City, moved back to the Portland area and earned a teaching certificate. He’s been teaching high school ceramics for the last 19 years. Along the way, the couple had two children and bought some property in the Sherwood Hills. He logged the trees, pulling, by his estimation, 2,000 stumps, and planted the Beckham Estates Vineyard. That was 2007. Annedria showed him an article on Italian winemakers and their use of amphorae, Greek-Roman ceramic vessels used predominantly for the storage of wine. At first, it was challenging using his pottery skills to produce his own form. It took three-and-half-years of development, making the giant amphorae functional as well as aesthetic. Today, he offers his Novum — Latin for “new” — vessels for commercial use. Beckham is proud he’s locally sourced everything — from the terracotta clay to the stainless steel collars to the gasket that seals the vase. His process is proprietary, which required a significant amount of time and money to develop.
He adds, “Everyone in my community has helped to get the Novum where they are today.” Forty-plus months of development nearly broke Beckham’s spirit. The first 10 amphorae he fired cracked during the process. He was at his wits’ end, ready to call it quits and just return to being a ceramics teacher and wine farmer. Then, out of the blue, a guy came in and determined there was a 300-degree difference between the inside and the outside during firing. Beckham changed the process, rigged a temperature monitor and, finally, achieved success. Time- and material-intensive, Novum amphorae starts with 1,200 pounds of clay and 1,000 pounds of pressure in the formation. Firing takes 90 hours and another two or three months to cure. Current Novum amphorae hold about 84 gallons; next year, he’s planning to offer an amphora with nearly 100 additional gallons of capacity. With the design and manufacturing process under control, Beckham returned to his other job as a grower and winemaker, farming his 6.5 acres and sourcing grapes from others. In the cellar, he uses the amphorae in his own wine making process and was surprised at the level of purity in the wine. “There is no wood or tannin exchange to flavor to the wine — it was simply a much purer grape flavor,” he said. “And they age faster in the clay [compared to] oak casks — three to five months.” Beckham hopes to sell 300 Novum amphorae next year; 1,000 the following year.
At Keeler Estate, a Biodynamic vineyard in Amity, Gabriele Keeler (at right) touts the use of amphorae and concrete eggs as simply extensions of what she and her team do in the field. “It’s a marriage between the grapes, the terra cotta and the concrete. What we do in the vineyard, we move into the winery.” The amphorae come from Italy. Keeler notes, “They are close to the old amphorae of Greece and Egypt.” Of the concrete eggs, which are the predominant vessels the Keelers use, she adds, “It’s really a miracle — the vortex that is created in the egg moves the wine around gently — so punch-downs are not necessary.” The change in their winemaking process happened as a result of her son, Nicholas, whose business is selling French oak barrels. He found Nomblot in Torcy, France, a suburb of Paris, which manufactures the concrete eggs. Using the amphorae and concrete eggs for fermentation, Keeler says, is simple. “Our aim is to make good wine. These vessels make the wine more interesting. We think the amphorae and eggs express what is happening in the vineyard and winery. These vessels give pure flavors to our wine that are simply fabulous on one’s palate,” Keeler said.
Above right: Gabriele Keeler with their largest concrete egg that they have nicknamed "Darth". Photo by Rusty Rae.