As is often the case, the start of a winery began with a sip. Thomas Monroe, co-owner of Portland’s Division Winemaking Co., says he and partner Kate Norris were initially inspired to create a winery in Oregon in the mid-2000s after tasting the dynamic yet restrained New-World-meets-old-winemaking-style of the Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs. The two were living in California at the time and about to head to the Midwest for business school.
Business school ultimately led to winemaking school in France during the great recession, but all the while, Oregon and the amazing wines of producers such as Belle Pente, Evesham Wood, Domaine Drouhin and others really stuck with them. They also had a chance to visit the area and connecting with the Portland community and family wineries really made an impression on them. Monroe says,
“The climate of this state — not only in terms of weather, but also in terms of the spirit of those that live here — inspired us to make the move to Oregon and start thinking about growing a winery after our studies were complete,” Monroe said.
While working and studying in France, they were exposed to a wide variety of wines, many of which were made with less well-known varieties in the U.S., such as Gamay and Chenin Blanc. They also discovered what winemaking and growing techniques resonated with them and realized they wanted to try to add to the composition of the Oregon winemaking industry. And in 2010, Division Winemaking Co. was born.
Their evolution has generally followed their interests and instincts about wines as they’ve realized what they felt they could add to the wine conversation. And though they have rightfully come into their own as winemakers, according to Norris, “We continue to evolve each vintage with new ideas and both small and more significant changes to winemaking and growing approaches as we gain experience and understanding of all aspects of our industry.”
Their innovation must he headed in the right direction, for Division Winemaking has received countless accolades and attention from press across the U.S. and beyond.
But why did they choose Portland? While it’s a bit farther from the vines than many of those places in France, they simply felt that their winery should be in the community they live in, adore and want to support.
“Frankly, the term ‘urban winery’ wasn't really something we were aiming for back in 2012 when we built out the winery,” Monroe said. “We felt very connected to our community and had come from France where many of the wineries were in the villages and towns that surrounded the vineyards, not actually in the vineyards, which is more common in the U.S.”
It was also a lot less expensive to repurpose an existing building within the city rather than to start fresh, building a facility in the Willamette Valley. Monroe added, “And in 2011, when we started this process, the economy, and our small brand, were still very dicey!”
Division Wine Co. has become well known for being one of the first wineries of Oregon to really focus on Gamay, which now makes up over half of all its wine. Norris says,
“We knew from the start that Gamay had an important role to play in Oregon, and the Willamette Valley specifically,” Norris said. “We co-founded the I Love Gamay Festival, which has a focus on Oregon Gamay producers, each year (done virtually this year, so far), and we hope this festival and the collective efforts of local Gamay makers, growers, and lovers has helped put Oregon on the Gamay map.”
In addition to their now five or six Gamay bottlings yearly, they have also received recognition for their Chenin Blanc, and their Loire-inspired red blend called Béton, which is now their largest production wine.
Monroe and Norris have put a lot of effort into building the reputation of their Gamay program, as well as the Béton and several of their other wines, including Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc, plus the Oregon standards — Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
When asked which wines are their favorite to produce, Monroe explains, “They all offer their own challenges and rewards, we would probably stop making them if they became a bore, but wines like the Béton and the Pinot Noir "Un" cuvée are the most complex to produce; they have many layers to balance and blend — and for both these we are trying to make an excellent wine at a modest price.”
Norris said, “The most thought-provoking wines, and the ones that scratch the intellectual curiosity, are our yearly experiments; some work out amazingly, some not so much.” That said, their favorites change by vintage because there's always a few wines that seem to jump to a new level or evolve in an unexpected way.
Monroe noted, “The 2018 Chardonnay ‘Trois’ Johan Vineyard made a significant step up and has been really exciting for us, from the cellar into bottle. Kate's 2017 Gamine Syrah from Mae's Vineyard in the Applegate is really unique too for its near-perfect harmony with the wildfires that influenced the region that year, which seemed to not affect her wine adversely and perhaps only added to the complexity and intrigue of this wine.”
Instead of owning vineyards, Division Wine Co. partners with a variety of well farmed, terroir-expressive vineyards across the Pacific Northwest, most of which are either biodynamic or organic. One benefit of these partnerships is that Norris and Monroe get to work with the grape varieties they worked with in France as well as others they have an interest in.
Norris said, for example, they realized some of those varieties weren’t planted yet in the Willamette Valley or it wasn’t really the right place for them to grow.
“Take our Chenin Blanc vineyard in the Yakima Valley,” she said. “We really had no interest or foresight to work with Chenin in Washington, but we could not find any near us in Oregon. After our first harvest with the fruit from a nearly 50-year-old block of own-rooted Chenin in 2013, we were so impressed with the results, we just kept doing it. That vineyard has become a part of our fabric.”
The same is true for Herb Quady's vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. Monroe describes those granitic soils as very special and says they make really exciting wines, so it’s worth it to manage the distance. That said, they've realized that managing so many vineyards in so many places is difficult, so they’re trying to streamline it some.
“Our future will likely see more focusing of vineyard sites as we've begun this year to plant vines on leased lands in the Willamette Valley,” Monroe said. “Ownership would be very nice too but hasn't been financially workable for us yet. If you know anyone who wants to buy us a vineyard, have them give us a call!”
For now, Division Winemaking will remain in Southeast Portland. In 2019, they made about 7,500 cases in what has become known as the Southeast Wine Collective. Monroe and Norris formed the Collective in 2012 when they realized they could not yet financially support an entire winery.
“We were just too small and inexperienced,” he said, “and we had several friends looking for space too, so serendipity took over and the SE Wine Collective was born.”
Located in the vibrant Division-Clinton neighborhood of SE Portland, the Collective has become a part of the emerging hub for Portland’s food and drink culture. Norris and Monroe founded the Collective as a multi-faceted urban winery designed to bring together like-minded winemakers who are sustainably growing their businesses by establishing a venue for commercial custom crush wine production. Now home to seven wine labels, the Collective ultimately represents a new generation of winemakers looking to create unique styles of wine, with a purpose and a story.
The 5,000-square foot urban winery space also features Oui! Wine Bar + Restaurant where executive chef and food personality Althea Potter prepares her rustic and seasonal menu served alongside Division Winemaking Co.’s and the resident’s artisanal wines. The trio of businesses Norris and Monroe have created — the winery, wine bar, and restaurant — has not only become a community cornerstone, but also a place people seek out to feel right at home.
TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.