David and Sara Specter are the owners of Bells Up Winery, a true boutique winery with an estimated 2017 vintage production of 400 cases. What they lack in numbers, they make up for in heart. One of the defining moments as they embarked on their new adventure from corporate tax attorney in Ohio to vintner in the Willamette Valley came when Sara’s mentor, Kelly Lynn Armstrong Palmer, died at age 40.
Sara recalled Palmer’s advice: “Take a risk,” “Make a change — big or small,” and, “Don’t be afraid.” Along with their young daughter, the couple packed up their hectic and fractured life and moved to the Willamette Valley to begin Bells Up.
On their five acres of grapes, they are the proud caretakers of 14 rows of tribute vines, the first row planted in honor of Kelly. Subsequent rows are a roll call of personal memories; Nancy Lusk Jacobs, Ian Patrick Kennington, Michelle J. Vosmeier, Morrison Bockenstette Gee, Lillian Jewel Batt. ...
It is only fitting that the motivation for them to find their “Bells Up Moment” and live each day to the fullest would stand sentry over the fruits of their labor.
Each time they tell the story of their tribute vines is an opportunity for those cherished friends to touch another person and keep their memories alive. James Elliott Muse, for example, was stillborn to dear friends of the Specters, who were deeply touched by the dedication of a row to their son.
“To have another physical place in the world, to have that plaque there, is a way for him (James) to live on, even though he never even took a breath. In general, it’s an amazing tribute, what they do there to dedicate a row. That certainly means a lot to my wife and me,” Jordan Muse said.
Eminently transparent, the Specters further recognized that if they applied Kelly’s advice in a moment of emotion but found themselves caught up in the challenges of life a second time around, they really would have learned nothing. Sharing their story during intimate tastings reminds them of why they traveled 2,500 miles to start anew.
Over the course of a year, the Specters cleared blackberries, dead Christmas trees and garbage from a 10-acre plot of land that seemed destined to be theirs. Located on Bell Road, it brought a big chunk of Dave’s life full circle. From the sixth grade through college, he played French horn and many of his greatest travel memories are linked to that. Dave knew he wanted the horn theme to play into their new adventure and the aptly-named street was the perfect segue.
“Bells up” is that shining moment during a performance when the French horn players lift their instrument in the air and all eyes and ears follow them. Dave and Sara encourage all their customers to share their bells up moments proudly and often via a social media hashtag.
Their wines are each named for a composition featuring the French horn: George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” Franz Liszt’s “Symphonic Poem No. 3: Les Preludes” and Gustave Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, for example.
An appointment-only winery, Bells Up is easily accessible. Dave and Sara live on site and often all that’s needed is a phone call from the end of the road and Dave will be there to personally greet guests at the tasting room door. With more advance notice, the winery’s live edge table or the patio with gorgeous vineyard views is carefully set.
What guests look out on is an estate vineyard planted to Pommard, Wadenswill and three different Dijon clones of Pinot Noir. After nursing their fledgling vineyard for a few seasons, Bells Up proudly brought in their first harvest in 2017 and Dave crafted the 2017 Prelude Rosé of Pinot Noir. It is certainly no accident that they dubbed their first-ever estate wine Prelude, as fans of Bells Up wait in eager anticipation for the subsequent arrangements.
One of those just might be a bottling of Seyval Blanc. Planted in 2015, Bells Up is the only Willamette Valley vineyard growing this hybrid grape, a fond Cincinnati memory that took root along with the Specters. Far more popular on the east coast, the wine variety won Dave two national amateur winemaking competitions. Now he’s interested to see what the Willamette Valley will produce.
Bells Up Winery Tasting Notes
2017 Rhapsody-Pinot Blanc, Eola-Amity Hills
A lesser-planted varietal in the Willamette Valley, the time this Pinot Blanc spends on its lees gives it an almost still sparkling wine profile with a lemon meringue creaminess and some distinct brioche notes. The front palate shows mandarin orange, changing to stone fruit mid-palate, with a whisper of silky caramel on the finish. $22
2017 Prelude-Rosé of Pinot Noir, Bells Up Estate Vineyard
As the first all-estate wine for Bells Up from their first harvest, this is one to drink now and store a couple bottle away to see how it evolves over the next two or three years. Not hanging its hat on strawberry or raspberry, this is more lush and fresh, like a medley of berries. It has a hint of sour cherry on the finish, with savory mushroom notes that linger. $22
2015 Titan-Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton
In the record books as a notably warm year, 2015 still produced a delightfully fruit-forward wine with a nice balance of acid and tannins. Mingling blueberry and bright cherry, its youthful expression shows ageability with light bramble and white pepper on the finish. $40
2015 Villanelle-Pinot Noir, Yamhill-Carlton
Made from free-run juice, the wine’s velvet mouthfeel is captivating. It evolves from pour to last sip with deep cherry, blackberry and plum notes, offering a medley of distinct yet luscious vanilla, clove, tobacco and allspice and layers of earth and spice on the palate. $54
2016 Firebird-Syrah, Walla Walla Valley
Co-owner Sara is becoming known for her Grape Pie, which she pairs with this outstanding Syrah for special guests. This rich, deep and opulent wine is from the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley (not in The Rocks) and stands up to the intense flavor of cardamom in the pie without being a face-smacking tannin-bomb like some Syrahs. Think of it as a gateway Syrah for Pinot Noir lovers with romancing violet aromas and a palate of blueberry and cocoa. $40
This story was originally published September 13, 2018 12:00 AM.