Oregon Winery to Watch: Division Winemaking Co.

March 16, 2015 

Much of the hip vibe pouring from Portland’s urban winemaking community seems to be emerging from the block of Division and Southeast 35th Place.

And while the name might signal something divisive, that’s not the feel Thomas and Kate Monroe have created. Rather, It’s just the opposite at their Southeast Wine Collective in Portland, and the exciting wines they’ve bottled as Division Winemaking Co. made them an ideal selection as Wine Press Northwest’s Oregon Winery to Watch for 2015.

“They have such a great attitude,” said Jacksonville grower/winemaker Herb Quady of Quady North, our 2012 Oregon Winery to Watch. "They are showing leadership through an example of openness and collaboration. Also, they're showing their wines in major markets. It's hard to imagine a greater representative for this vibrant wine scene.”

Last year, the Monroes grabbed the attention of judges at Wine Press Northwest’s Pinot Noir competition with the Division Villages 2013 Methode Carbonique Pinot Noir, a fun, fruit-forward, nouveau-style red created using whole-cluster carbonic maceration in cement. It was elegant and understated with its low alcohol (12.5%) and price ($19). It was one of five bottlings under their Villages brand, which include Chenin Blanc and Gamay Noir.

“They are typically not oak-aged, and we use concrete for those fermentations,” Thomas said. “We want them to be immediately drinkable and affordable.”

Their primary Division brand features single-vineyard wines with Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Gamay Noir, Cabernet Franc and several blends. They also produce bubbles, their Crémant de Portland Brut Urbanique made with Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Gamay Noir. Their background groomed them for Portland’s recent “Loiregonian” movement.

“Some friends of Kate’s family owned an estate winery in the Loire Valley that got us started on the road we are on,” Thomas said. “I got burned out in the financial services industry, which was getting crushed in the 2008 economy, and we wanted to do something for the both of us that we could create using our skills.”

Kate, 33, a Colgate graduate with a background in event management and catering, was born in Bahrain, traveled the world and grew up in the Loire Valley, raised by her mother, who is from Madagascar, and British businessman father.

As newlyweds, the Monroes began to live their dream in the Loire Valley. Kate would translate their morning viticulture and enology lessons into English for Thomas, who found work in Burgundy.

“Those places really inspired what we do now,” Thomas said.

Thomas, 36, was raised in St. Louis and lured to the University of Denver by skiing. He was working in finance for Wells Fargo and living in San Francisco when he met Kate. It wasn’t quite love at first sight, but wine was their first common thread during a cruise in San Francisco Bay among mutual friends.

“There was no wine on this boat, only really (crummy) beer, and there was a bottle of wine sitting on the table downstairs in the cabin, so I opened it,” Thomas said. “I really got a proper talking to from Kate, and I immediately became intrigued."

Kate quipped, “I found him drinking my wine then, and he still opens bottles that he shouldn’t!”

Their first date included a bottle by Domaine Drouhin-Oregon, and the only wines poured at their wedding reception were from Oregon and Champagne.

“It was Kate’s family who was really into wine and kept telling us about all the different Oregon wines,” Thomas said.

Soon after arriving in Oregon, Thomas worked on wines at Methven Family Vineyards while Kate joined the tasting room at Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Their plan for Division stems from a business school project by Thomas when he created a plan for an Oregon-based winery, but in reality it took capital from Kate’s father to get started.

“The first few years of this couldn’t have happened without Andrew’s help,” Thomas said.

By 2012, they created the Southeast Wine Collective. It features a tasting bar for four wineries, small plates and a neighborhood following. Combined production at the collective tops 8,000 cases. There are more than 20 grape varieties being worked with at their incubator, yet some of the labels produce fewer than 100 cases.

“We have 10 wineries at the collective, and we have a waiting list,” Kate said. “We didn’t expect to be that popular that fast.”

These days, the Monroes spend a fair bit of time on the road meeting with growers and their accounts across the country, allowing them to combine sales trips with skiing and “hippie concerts,” Thomas said. “We’re music nuts."

In Portland, they live just six blocks from the winery. Their constant companion is Butch Cassidy, the English Lab namesake for their Black Dog label.

The next year, the Monroes began in earnest with 320 cases under the Division brand from the 2010 vintage. Production from 2014 will top 3,000 cases as their distribution channels span the West Coast as well as in Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Missouri, New York, Alberta and Ontario.

“It’s amazing how it sneaks up on you,” Kate said.

Eric Degerman is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at www.greatnorthwestwine.com.

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