Weekly Interview: Doug Tunnell

Posted by | Posted in Interviews | Posted on 08-31-2012

Each week, as regular readers know, we pose a series of questions to a winemaker. This week, we’re featuring Doug Tunnell, the owner and winemaker at Brick House Vineyards in Newberg, Oregon.

Doug’s winemaking career began somewhat accidentally 1988. That year, while working overseas as a foreign correspondent for CBS news, he learned that Burgundy’s famous Drouhin family had purchased land in Dundee, Oregon to launch a U.S. winery. He had fallen in love with wine while living in Europe, and grew up in the Willamette Valley. So he made a decision to purchase land near his childhood home so he could soon move back and start growing grapes.

Within two years, Doug found a 40-acre parcel — half covered in hazelnut trees — near the eastern end of the Chehalem Range, and started planting grapes. Today, about 19 acres of the property are planted to Pinot Noir; another ten are split between Chardonnay and Gamay Noir.

At first, Doug’s plan was to run an organic vineyard and sell the grapes. He was still working for CBS and was looking forward to life as a farmer once his contract finished. He quickly realized, though, that the numbers would never add up if he simply sold grapes. So after leaving CBS in 1993, Doug began making wines with the assistance of Steve Doerner at Cristom. Like most Oregon winemakers, Doug is eager to talk about all the many vintners who helped him along the way, including John Paul of Cameron Wines and Michael Etzel of Beaux Frères.

I visited Doug (together with John Trinidad of SF Wine Blog) on my recent trip to Oregon for the Wine Bloggers’ Conference – and the wines simply blew me away. While Doug is best known for his stunning Pinot Noirs, his Gamay Noir was the most electric wine of my trip.

Check out our interview with Doug below the fold.

What is your general winemaking philosophy?

We strive to grow and produce wines in harmony with Mother Nature. While this sounds simple enough, the implications are profound. To remain true to that principle in Oregon’s north Willamette Valley, we must embrace the reality that our wines will be different from one vintage to the next. No two growing seasons are the same and thus we don’t set out to produce the same wine year in and year out. We aim to find excellence by optimizing the ever-changing palette of flavors and aromas Mother Nature provides us.

Courtesy of John Trinidad.

What’s open in your kitchen right now? 

A half bottle of J. Christopher 2011 Croft Vineyard Uber Sauvignon Blanc; a sample of the (just bottled) 2011 Brick House “Select” Pinot Noir; and the remnants of an incredible 2005 Vincent Dancer Chassagne Montrachet 1er Cru Tete du Clos, which won’t last long!

Who are your favorite winemakers in history, through personal account, or their wines?

I gravitate to winemakers who farm or seek out vineyards that are fuzzy with grasses and other plants under the canopy from a lack of herbicides; who carefully consider their soils and its microbial populations; who value native yeasts and are compassionate to all living things.

Here in Oregon I think of Michael Etzel at Beaux Frères, Brian O’Donnell at Belle Pente, and Myron Redford at Amity Vineyards, just to name a few.

In Burgundy I cherish time spent with some of the passionate young producers of Chassagne, like Vincent Dancer, Pierre-Yves Colin Morey, and Bruno Colin. I could go on…

What new winemakers are you most excited about, and why?

I have really been impressed by the work of Brian Marcy and Clare Carver at Big Table Farm outside Gaston, Oregon. They make their wines with great passion and considerable courage!

How do you spend your days off? 

Ideally, walking our labrador retriever Jewel on the beach at Neskowin or reading Barbara Tuchman on 14th century France. It used to be skiing and running, but the knees are gone!

What’s the best wine you’ve ever tasted? The most interesting? 

One of the best, a 1990 Volnay Champans from the Marquis D’Angerville.

One of the most interesting, a 2002 Blauer Zweigelt from Hofkellerei Fürst Liechtenstein, the prince’s cellar. It blew our minds!

What’s the oldest bottle in your cellar? The most expensive?

The oldest is probably a bottle of 1982 Georges Duboeuf Morgon that I’m hanging onto as a kind of experiment. The most expensive? Probably some bottles of 2005 Armand Rousseau Clos St. Jacques, 1er. cru.

Courtesy of John Trinidad.

I could probably survive on a diet of fresh grilled Oregon albacore, 2005 Domaine Roulot Meursault 1er Cru Les Poruzot Dessus, and an unlimited supply of 2001 Henri Jayer Vosne Romanee 1er Cru Cros Parantoux for a very long time!

What’s your biggest challenge as a winemaker?

Understanding the language of Mother Nature — choosing the right day to pick, the right proportion to de-stem, the right time to barrel down. There are few templates and no recipes!

What’s your favorite wine region in the world — other than your own?

Burgundy, without doubt.

Is beer ever better than wine?

Now that’s like asking if strawberries are ever better than oranges or orchids more beautiful than lilies!  Don’t confuse categories — I love great beers, too!

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

That I didn’t really set out to be a “winemaker” — I still sort of recoil at the term. At Brick House, my initial goal was to successfully grow organic winegrapes in the north Willamette Valley. I really only came to producing estate wines because I had neglected to do my homework and understand that was the only way to be truly sustainable, by turning a profit. To this day I prefer the word “winegrower” for what I do.

If you weren’t making wine for a living, what would you be doing? 

With luck, we’d be living on a boat in the San Juans. Without it, I would most likely be trying to negotiate the rolling decks of continuing a career in journalism into the 21st century — doubtlessly an exercise in frustration.

How do you define success?

An integrated life in which one can live one’s highest ideals with integrity and constancy. In vinous terms, success is when my wine is a true expression of our hillsides, our farm, and vineyard. I live there too, alongside our vines. A successful wine includes an expression of my dreams.

Comments (2)

  1. I visited Brick House a couple of years ago…a truly beautiful site, with a friendly staff and a delicious tasting line-up. Estate Chardonnay and “Evelyn’s” Pinot Noir are my favorites. Thanks for posting this interview. -Chris

  2. A nice interview with my favorite winegrower. And I can truly say that by any definition, Doug and Brick House are a total success!