There is a history spanning 35 vintages at Yamhill Valley Vineyards, but no year at Yamhill Valley Vineyards has been filled with as many emotions as 2018.
Head winemaker Ariel Eberle and longtime vineyard manager Carlos Escobar celebrated a string of gold, double gold and Platinum medals for founder/owner Denis Burger and his family.
Alas, 2018 also marked the peaceful passing of Stephen Cary, who spent 25 years as the winemaker at Yamhill Valley Vineyards and mentored Eberle for a decade.
“He always had a great story, and he was a wonderful storyteller,” Eberle said. “Sometimes the story was just a dirty joke, but it was always pretty entertaining,” she added with a chuckle.
The year after his passing, Wine Press Northwest has selected Yamhill Valley Vineyards as the Oregon Winery of the Year for 2019.
Winemakers have known the prowess of Yamhill Valley Vineyards since 1984 when Cary helped launch Oregon’s Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference along the Umpqua River at the Steamboat Inn. A year later in New York, Oregon wines wowed a panel of 25 judges by sweeping the top spots at Oregon-Burgundy Challenge. One by Yamhill Valley Vineyards finished first. Soon after, Cary began distributing the Burger family wines, and by 1991, he became their winemaker.
Thanks to Eberle, who took over as head winemaker in 2016, and her decade of working with Cary, Yamhill Valley Vineyards made more headlines in 2018.
The year began with its selection to participate in the International Pinot Noir Celebration. It ended with Eberle’s 2016 Riesling earning a Double Platinum at the 2018 Platinum Judging for Wine Press Northwest after receiving a double gold medal at the 2018 Great Northwest Invitational Wine Competition. The 2015 Estate Pinot Noir and 2014 Reserve Pinot Noir each picked up a gold medal at the spring 2018 Cascadia International Wine Competition. And Eberle’s 2017 Estate Rosé of Pinot Noir was voted as Best Rosé and Best Oregon Wine at the Cascadia.
“That wine was very highly regarded,” Eberle said. “It was rewarding and helped give us confidence.”
Earlier this winter, the Yamhill Valley Vineyards 2015 Tall Poppy Pinot Noir ($75) won a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition in the $67 and Over category. It adds validation for the Burger family, who have planted 100 acres across their 150 acres of land near McMinnville.
“My parents wanted a small piece of land for a hobby farm on their way back and forth from Portland to their beach house,” winery GM Jenny Burger said. “They found it in the classifieds section on a rainy August morning. This all made no sense, but they fell in love with it.”
Growing up in the Willamette Valley, Eberle wanted to be a physician. She shifted focus, earned a biology degree from Oregon State University, then taught English for a year in South Korea.
"I got back from Korea that spring, and I ended up selling cars that summer in Beaverton, which is something that I never thought that I would do, but there weren't a lot of jobs in 2008,” she said.
By September, Eberle decided to pursue winemaking. Her mother compiled a list of favorite wineries, which included Yamhill Valley Vineyards. Eberle began working for Cary on the first day of the 2008 harvest - Oct. 13.
"I loved the wines that I had tasted from here, and when I met Stephen, it was like stars going into alignment for me to be here," she said. "Their intern from New Zealand suffered an injury and couldn't make it, so Stephen was scrambling. I told him that I was a hard worker and a quick study, and he took a chance on me."
Ironically, it was the second time Eberle worked for Denis Burger. The first was at his AVI Biopharma Inc., while she was a science student in college.
She plunged into the wine industry, twice working two harvests a year via internships in New Zealand through Cary’s connections. Eberle took several winemaking classes at Chemeketa Community College, and she also credits sessions at the Steamboat Conference for her development.
“This place has always had what it takes to make those wines,” Eberle said. “It's been a sharpening our knife and marketing ourselves better.”
Eberle, 36, is not related to the renowned Eberle family of Paso Robles winemaking fame. She and her partner, Noah Jones, and dog Indy enjoy hiking when not working at the 15,000-case winery.
“Every single person is responsible for the success of Yamhill Valley Vineyards,” Eberle said. “We love this place, and we love each other. I feel so lucky to be here and that they trust me to make a lot of the decisions.”
Now, her responsibilities include serving as president of the McMinnville Winegrowers Association and expanding Yamhill’s winemaker dinner program. Last spring, she stood in for Cary at the Steamboat Inn winemaker’s dinner featuring Yamhill Valley Vineyards and the Peirano family from iconic Nick’s Italian Café.
“That would have been his 25th winemaker dinner with Nick’s Italian Café at Steamboat, and it was such a special night,” Eberle said. “We plan on doing it in honor of Stephen going forward, and this year it is May 31.”
Last August, Yamhill Valley Vineyards toasted Cary during a celebration of his life. At his request, ashes were scattered in New Zealand, the Umpqua River at the Steamboat Inn and in the old block of Pommard that feeds the Tall Poppy program.
“There's a red-tail hawk here that I see almost every day, and I’m almost convinced that it's Stephen’s spirit,” Eberle said with a wistful smile. “At the very least, it reminds me of him, and I think he’s watching over this place and watching over us. He was such a lover of birds, and all of the bird feeders around the property are because of him.”