Inspiration often is just around the corner. In the case of Oregon Pinot Noir producer Ryan Huett, his sprang up not far from his eco-resort in the jungles of Costa Rica.
California winemaker Kerry Damskey, whose fame has included the launch of a 500,000-case winery in India, generated headlines in 2012 for planting vineyards at 6,000 feet of elevation near prized coffee plantings in Central America.
“I knew he was involved in a group of investors who bought land 10 miles from my property,” he said. “They planted the first 25 acres of vinifera, and that started my interest.”
Information is scant on the development of the Costa Rica tier of Damskey’s 3 Corners brand, but Huett already has scored better in the Pacific Northwest. The independent catastrophe adjuster from Comanche, Texas, received two double gold medals last summer at the Oregon Wine Competition, both for Pinot Noir. His 2015 Raylee, a $15 bottle, earned a gold medal at the 2017 Great Northwest Invitational.
As a result, Huett Cellars is Wine Press Northwest’s 2018 Oregon Winery to Watch, and his rise in the industry is astounding. At age 46, he’s done well as an insurance adjuster, using that “extremely lucrative” occupation to help create small resorts in Costa Rica.
But Huett and his wife Tammy, a hospice nurse, wanted their two boys to spend the second half of their childhood in the U.S., so they looked for a year-long home exchange. Her love of wine and his spark to make wine made it easy.
“We knew we weren’t going back to Texas, and we pinned it to either Colorado or Oregon,” he said.
Classwork at Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Wine Studies Center helped Huett get his foot in the door at Laurel Ridge Winery. His inherent ability to stay composed and work in the midst of chaos served him well during crush at the property near Carlton with roots dating back to 1974.
“I went from intern to head winemaker in 10 months at one of the oldest wineries in the state,” Huett said. “I worked for Susan Teppola, whose husband, David, was friends with Charles Coury and Dick Erath. David was an eccentric and a rebel.”
Laurel Ridge went through tough times after David Teppola lost his battle with cancer in 2006. Huett found ways for the Teppola family to retool and get the winery back on track.
“I was super-green on the winemaking side, but I had built a couple of businesses successfully, and Susan didn’t have an inventory system,” Huett said. “So I put some different things into place and that made a big impact on her.”
The scale of production and custom-crush work at Laurel Ridge — 20,000 cases in 2016 — afforded him insight and introduced him to industry leaders such as Lonnie Wright, the storied Columbia Gorge grower who has become a trusted friend. There’s also Chris Berg of Roots Wine Co., John Derthick of Lujon Wine Cellars and Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Co.
“One thing I’ve learned is to never plant a vineyard,” Huett said. “The risk involved is so enormous.”
His efforts not only lifted Laurel Ridge, but also launched Raylee and Huett Cellars.
“Laurel Ridge had big contracts with good vineyards, and I would go talk to the neighboring vineyards, looking to find similar profiles in the same area for half the price,” Huett said. “That’s allowed me to put out some great wines.”
Huett refers to Raylee as his “unicorn” and a “Pinot to the people,” a pursuit that requires time in the cellar.
“I quickly fell away from the single-vineyard thing for that, but I spend weeks blending to create the best wine I can,” he said.
The price point and deliciousness of the entry-level Raylee wines opened doors for Huett. A year ago, his rosé of Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris sold out in two months. They are back at grocers such as Market of Choice, New Seasons and Roth’s.
“It is uber-competitive and so difficult to come into a grocery story and say, ‘Here is my $40 bottle of Pinot Noir and you want to buy them’.” Huett said. “People will laugh you out of the door.”
Huett readily credits a string of warm and bountiful vintages for allowing him to enter the Oregon wine world with the 2014 vintage and find shelf space alongside giants such as A to Z Wineworks and Wine By Joe.
“The goal of Raylee was to pave the way of Huett Cellars. There are always people who want to pay more for a bottle of wine, and I don’t want to disappoint them either,” he said with a chuckle.
The 2016 vintage marked the turning of the page for Huett at Laurel Ridge, with the 2017 vintage being crafted along Northwest Old Wagon Road near Carlton where he is building and sharing a tasting room with Chris Barnes of Artem Wine Co./Chris James Cellars.
They seem so complementary that they offer a combined wine club. Huett’s social media skills and offerings of Huett Cellars Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel will help Barnes.
“He’s over-the-top smart and a great white winemaker, while most of my recognition has come with reds,” Huett said.
Superstitious? Apparently not. They are set to unveil their tasting room on April 13.
Even though their two boys now are young men — if the youngest had been born a girl, then her name would have been Raylee — the Huetts don’t plan on growing their Oregon business beyond an annual production of 1,500 cases. The book is not closed on Costa Rican wine-themed retreat, however.
“Damskey really should have been planted farther north where it is drier, but those vines are planted in volcanic soils that produce the best coffee in the world,” Huett said. “I’ll let them figure it all out down there, and I’m rooting for them!”
This story was originally published March 19, 2018 12:00 AM.