Vineyard poses challenges, opportunities for winemaker

of Heidi Kramer/Alexeli Vineyard and Winery Phil Kramer of Alexeli Vineyard and Winery pours for a visitor during a vineyard tour in May. Events such as this, he said, help build community around a vineyard and winery.

MOLALLA, Ore. — When Anita Katz and her sons Phil and Tony Kramer of Alexeli Vineyard & Winery bought their 61-acre Molalla property in 2007 they got a steal of a deal. It came with an 18-acre vineyard.

Experts advised bulldozing and starting over.

“All the plants needed retrained; the wires were all very old school — late ’70s to early ’80s — there was an overwhelming problem with mites and crown gall and we’re going to have to replace every post in the next two years,” co-owner, winemaker, vineyard manager Phil Kramer said. “Sometimes I wish I’d taken their advice because of all the work we put into it, but the wine these grapes produce is amazing.”

He said it’s more worthwhile with a vineyard his size to make wine instead of just marketing its fruit.

“You get more for table grapes than you do for wine grapes and wine grapes are way harder and more costly to grow,” Kramer said. “There’s such a competitive market that even for the high-end fruit from renowned vineyards you’re looking at $3,000 a ton; that’s a buck-fifty a pound. That’s like reaching the low end of table grapes.”

Plus, he said, making wine is a lot easier than growing grapes.

“People think it’s all magical but people who just make wine spend very little time in actually making wine,” Kramer said. “Most of the time you’re doing other marketing and selling.”

Most of the 35-year-old vines are white grapes. Kramer recently planted a few red varieties which, since he doesn’t irrigate, may take 10 years to get into full production.

“There are many benefits to irrigating and we could put it in, but I kind of like the idea of a vintage being what a vintage is,” he said.

They’re converting parts of the orchard to vertical trellising in the event of future labor shortages.

“I’d rather have done all the work now so some machines could be used if we need them,” he said. “In 20 years I’d have shot myself in the foot for not being prepared for that.”

Alexeli has also begun selling wine in 5-gallon reusable kegs, in use by restaurants throughout Portland. Last year it saved the winery about 40,000 bottles.

Phil and his wife, Heidi, enjoy hosting events including a recent outdoor dinner attended by 120 people. Below the vineyard is a lake with a gazebo, a grassy area for events and a newly planted bamboo grove that may end up being the source of future posts in the vineyard.

“Every acre of a vineyard has about seven miles of wire,” Kramer said. “I’ve always thought that having a vineyard with no wire would be interesting, but it’s a lot of work.”

There is no off season at the vineyard and winery, but if Kramer ends up hiring somebody it won’t be for his wine-making ability.

“To me the chemistry is not complicated; not much beyond what I’d consider high school level,” he said. “I’d get someone who could fix an engine before someone who could make wine.”

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