If not for a fondness for border collies, Mindy Mayer probably wouldn’t be raising Kerry Hill sheep in Idaho’s Snake River Valley.
And if circumstances had been different on Aug. 16, 2007, there would be no Kerry Hill Winery. Instead, hers is an ongoing tale of triumph over horrifying tragedy. And now it includes the revitalizing of a 35-year-old vineyard and launching a brand with the help of winemaking talent Tim Harless.
“My way to keep moving and being positive has been to do new things, so I don’t think about all that I’ve lost,” Mayer said. “But that’s part of my story, too. I’d always thought about raising border collies and sheepherding, so after the accident, I thought, ‘I’m going to make my todays matter.’ ”
Last year, Hat Ranch Winery, owned by Harless, was named Idaho Winery of the Year. Thanks to his early success as Mayer’s winemaker, Kerry Hill is the 2020 Idaho Winery to Watch.
According to a recent Portland Business Journal article, Mayer owns 13 McDonald's restaurants, starting on Aug. 1, 1990, when she became one of the first women to own a McDonald's franchise in Oregon. She’s discovered that the wine industry has little in common with running a McDonald’s.
“Everything is by the rule book with McDonald’s, and they have a manual for everything, almost,” she said. “What I find really fun and challenging with wine is there is no rule book.”
She was 60 when the floatplane that her family chartered struck a tree, crashed and caught fire 27 miles north of Ketchikan, Alaska. The accident claimed the lives of five family members that spanned three generations — her husband, David, her "golden boy" son Eric, daughter-in-law Christine and twin grandchildren Allison and Trevor. Mayer’s injuries included a broken pelvis.
“They thought that I wasn’t going to live or walk again,” she said.
Mayer would slowly recover from her physical injuries and return to managing Green Tree Enterprises, but her outlook on life had changed. And as it turns out, one of the world’s leading trainers of sheepdog trialing is Patrick Shannahan, who lives in Caldwell, Idaho. He encouraged Mayer to invest in the Idaho wine industry.
“He’s become a very good friend of mine,” Mayer said. “I’ve taken him along on this journey, and we have a true love of wine.”
She learned Wood River Vineyard, a 35-year-old planting, was available. Mayer grew up near Sacramento, Calif., and her father farmed walnuts and almonds, but growing grapes has been a learning experience, particularly after the vineyard with prized varieties such Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, Carménère, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo had been neglected. The sale closed midway through a vintage, and Wood River’s 10 acres with 10 grape varieties hadn’t been irrigated or pruned for three years.
“Of course, nobody wanted to buy the grapes,” Mayer found out.
And then there was her first attempt at rebranding the vineyard in 2016.
“I named it Vigneto Albero Verde, and I thought that was very elegant because it is Green Tree Vineyard in Italian,” Mayer said. “Except that nobody could say it.”
Thanks to quick work by Harless, a retired commercial airline pilot, Kerry Hill already is producing some delicious wines as Mayer continues to rehabilitate the vineyard.
“Tim has been amazing to me,” Mayer said. “He's been the best part of all of this.”
Last summer, each of her first four Kerry Hill wines earned a medal at the 2019 Idaho Wine Competition, led by silvers for the 2018 Bobwhite Chardonnay and 2017 Domaine House Red Wine.
“That was cool,” Mayer said. “You’ve got to start somewhere, and I’m thrilled. I've had a lot of encouragement from people in the industry around here, and I’ve enjoyed the challenge. And my family, including my grandson, who wanted me to get into the hops, is really proud of me.”
Her young portfolio also included a small lot of Willamette Valley Pinot Noir produced by acclaimed Oregon winemaker Isabelle Dutartre, a connection made through a friend. And last summer, Harless shared some insight on managing the Kerry Hill vines.
“The vineyard’s in so much better shape than it was a year ago,” Harless said. “The flavors we’re getting are way, way better.”
Outside of her new tasting room and production area is an event center, sheepherding wagon, fire pit, demonstration vineyard and habitat area with native plants and flowers. Spread throughout her commercial vineyard are raptor and bat boxes as well as a “McHive” for bees.
“I wanted it to look just like a McDonald’s,” she said with a smile.
Mayer still maintains her home in Oregon City and manages the restaurants out of her office in Wilsonville with her daughter, Randi, and son-in-law.
However, she seems committed to her Idaho projects beyond the special breed of sheep that are featured on the Domaine House Red label. Her investments in the Snake River Valley also include a farm that’s four miles away from the winery and 10 acres of alfalfa. The plan is to spend at least a third of her time living near Kerry Hill Winery & Vineyard.
“My place is going to be a destination, even if it is in the middle of nowhere,” Mayer said. “I know that sounds kind of crazy, but that's kind of the way that I am.”
On Dec. 6, she staged the grand opening of the Kerry Hill tasting room. That night, she flew from Boise back to Portland to be in the stands and watch her grandson, Jackson, win an Oregon state high school championship in football. On Sunday, she was back at Kerry Hill to close out her first weekend of tasting room sales.
“I don’t feel that I’m too old to do this, and I take my dogs for a 5- to 6-mile walk every day,” Mayer said. “I lost five of the closest people in my life in one day. I want to make new memories and not look back.”
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Kerry Hill Vineyard & Winery
25264 Homedale Road
Wilder, ID 83676
This story was originally published March 27, 2020 5:21 PM.