It’s been 30 years since Ed King filed the paperwork with Oregon’s Secretary of State to launch King Estate Winery.
And from the start, the King family has been one of the Oregon wine industry’s leaders in responsible, thoughtful and innovative ways, creating the template for a wine-touring destination in the Pacific Northwest that has not been matched.
More importantly for consumers and critics, King Estate is producing some of the best wines in its storied history as winemaker Brent Stone and his team are using Biodynamic and sustainable methods to win gold medals, best-of-class awards and Platinums.
The wines might be best enjoyed at the acclaimed on-premise restaurant that overlooks the organically farmed vineyard and features a wide variety of farm-to-table ingredients from its greenhouse, orchard, bakery and cured meat house.
As a result of such accomplishments, King Estate is Wine Press Northwest magazine’s 2021 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.
“I am very biased, but there are only a handful of jobs out there that can check all of the boxes like this one does,” says Stone, who enjoys the 30-minute drive from Eugene that winery visitors view as a trip to the country. “And it’s a very pretty commute. There are no traffic lights, and the deer and the turkeys are the biggest hazards.”
Last fall, the iconic winery earned Platinum awards in Wine Press Northwest’s “Best of the Best” judging for its 2016 Pfeiffer Vineyard Designate Pinot Noir, 2018 Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Pinot Gris and 2019 Rosé of Pinot Noir. Each wine earned its way into the judging by having earned a gold medal or better at one of leading wine competitions around the world during the previous 12 months.
That showing came on the heels of having won three Platinums during the 2019 judging, those for the 2017 Pinot Noir, 2017 Domaine Pinot Gris and 2018 Rosé of Pinot Noir.
And this winter, Stone earned an invitation to the 2021 Platinum with an Outstanding! rating during our historic Tempranillo tasting.
Stone’s path to King Estate
It’s a bit ironic Stone would end up in the wine industry considering his childhood included living in Golden, Colo., not far from the Coors Brewing Co. While his parents both attended the University of Idaho, Stone earned a science degree from Utah State and a master’s in agricultural, food and life science from the University of Arkansas. That background led him to a wide variety of opportunities. He landed a sweet job with the Oregon Ice Cream Co., in Eugene. His wife, Barbara, works in the hops industry.
“I took the road less traveled, I guess, but who doesn’t love ice cream?” Stone said with a chuckle. “I was involved with product development, and there are a lot of the same type of elements of focus with ice cream as there are in wine. There’s a similar farm-to-table type production, only here the grapes are grown right in front of you.”
Stone, 42, was hired at King Estate to manage the lab for winemaker Jeff Kandarian, who is now at John Anthony Family of Wines in California’s Napa Valley. Along the way, Stone became the director of quality assurance.
Washington State University’s enology program helped prepare him for large-scale wine production. In 2018, Stone took on the role of chief operating officer and head winemaker.
“I had aspirations of working in the wine industry for a lot of years, and King Estate’s certainly an attractive company.” Stone says. “We’re given a lot of latitude and freedom to make the wine here, and I’ve never once struggled for a tool or a resource to make the best wine we possibly can. I absolutely give Ed and the family credit for that.
“We’re a big team, and beyond me is a great group of talented winemakers who work here,” Stone added. “I’m just one of them, and I will gladly be here another 10 years if they will have me.”
Plant pathologist Raymond Nuclo began working at King Estate in 2011 — the same year Stone arrived — and now serves as the director of viticulture. King Estate’s network of vineyard partners is scattered throughout the Willamette Valley, which explains why Nuclo spends a considerable portion of his time beyond the estate.
“His territory is from the California border up to Walla Walla and then some,” Stone says. “We work with about 50 growers and 25-plus varieties, which is why some years we’ll make 60 wines. We’ll do a 100 cases of Cabernet from Red Mountain, and a Pinot Blanc from the Illinois Valley. And we pay as much attention to each lot of $20 Willamette Valley-sourced wine as we do the $60 vineyard-designation wine.
“I’m fortunate to get to experience so many different aspects of the wine industry, and to have such an exciting lineup that includes estate fruit and Biodynamic wines is a great tool to recruit winemakers here to come work for us,” he adds.
And then there’s Meliton Martinez, who marked the 1993 vintage as his first year for King Estate. He’s been the vineyard manager since 1999.
“He deserves a ton of the credit,” Stone says. “He knows every detail about each block, each clone and the condition of those vines. And he’s just an absolute gentleman. I’m such a huge fan of his.”
In 2016, King Estate became home to the largest Demeter-certified Biodynamic vineyard on the continent, which means there are no herbicides, synthetic fertilizers or pesticides on the property. Instead, Nuclo, Martinez and their crew spread more than 1,000 tons of compost across the 460 acres of vines. A whopping 300 acres are dedicated to Pinot Gris.
“t would say that about 25% of our wines carry the Biodynamic label,” Stone said, “Our biggest production Biodynamic wine would be the Domaine Pinot Gris, but estate fruit still makes up the lion’s share of our King Estate Pinot Gris.”
King Estate continues to make history for its work with Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris. Now, consumers need to pay attention to its Sauvignon Blanc program. Stone’s team — led by Andrew Belzer, Matt Danner and Barrett Rosteck — involved both stainless steel and concrete fermentations, which made for a bright yet rich Sauvignon Blanc that earned gold medals across the country with a bottling that highlighted Croft Vineyard in Salem and went beyond a club-only production for the first time.
“The whole team is thrilled by how that wine has been received,” Stone said. “There’s so little of it planted in the state, and we thought this could be a pretty good opportunity to help define a style for Oregon Sauvignon Blanc.”
And while there was self-applied scrutiny to put its best foot forward with Sauvignon Blanc, there’s significant internal pressure to maintain the standard for the Domaine Pinot Gris program.
“It’s also Ed’s favorite wine, so we can’t mess up,” Stone chuckled.
From King Radio to Kings of Pinot
The natural beauty throughout the Willamette Valley proved to be irresistible to King, who decided to transition from practicing law in Alaska and focus on becoming an entrepreneur. His father, Ed Jr., turned King Radio in Kansas City, Mo., into a global titan in aircraft electronics.
Now, inspired by a business degree from the University of Oregon and looking to do more than own a couple of small vineyards, the son soon agreed with his father’s vision to do something more ambitious.
“I was involved in other businesses and projects at the time, and I didn’t realize where we would want to go in terms of scale,” King said. “In other words, I thought (Ed Jr.) was thinking about a modest project, but after we talked about it, we realized we wanted to be part of a national presence for Oregon wine. We were very interested in being a national brand, and that meant being bigger than the neighborhood winery.”
The King family now are stewards of the 1,033 acres that surround the winery, visitors center and restaurant, the latter of which opened in 2006. Vineyards only make up about half of the estate, which includes 40 acres of native oak woodlands and 150 acres of marshes, riparian habitat and wet prairie.
“It’s important to our family that King Estate Winery lives its philosophy of respecting our land,” King says.
Visitors to the property can easily spot the series of raptor boxes that have been placed throughout the estate since 2009 as a joint project with the Cascades Raptor Center. That collaboration includes a release program for rehabilitated birds of prey. They help control pests in the vineyard.
Solar energy also has played a role at King Estate. This year marks the 10th anniversary of a program that installed 4,100 panels across 4 acres, generating enough electricity to power 100 homes.
The family’s care of the land, their wholesome approach to farming and the natural beauty of the property have made it a special place for various members of the King family to gather and spend a portion of their lives on the estate. And they share it with nearly 200 species of flora and fauna. Kincaid’s lupine is among the handful of species on King Estate that are listed as endangered species by the federal government.
All of those natural features come together to provide a stage for a level of agri-tourism that is unmatched in the Pacific Northwest, a showcase of the natural bounty for the state’s wine industry.
“Oregon’s cool climate and cool sites offer possibilities matched by only a few places on earth,” King says, adding, “Although as we all note, climate change seems to be happening so fast that many of our assumptions are under pressure.”
Stone points out that one of the best barometers King Estate has for its Pinot Noir program can be found at Pfeiffer Vineyard.
“It’s the single oldest partner of King Estate Winery, and Robin Pfeiffer and Ed King’s relationship dates back to the beginning 30 years ago,” Stone said. “In fact, the first vintage of King Estate was entirely Pfeiffer fruit, and we still have a great personal relationship with them. It’s almost an extension of the estate, we know it so well. And Robin still delivers the fruit to us here a lot of the days.”
Extending the Willamette Valley appellation
On a number of occasions, efforts by King Estate have benefited those beyond Territorial Road. Among those was their support of the petition to the U.S. government for the Willamette Valley American Viticultural Area to be expanded south.
That work, which King Estate began in 2013, was approved in early 2016. It allowed King Estate to list its 100 percent estate bottlings with “Willamette Valley” as the AVA, rather than simply “Oregon.”
Among the most successful stories at King Estate was the Acrobat brand, which the King family launched in 2008 and subsequently sold in 2018 to West Coast giant Foley Family Wines.
Sparked by the thirst for nicely priced wines during the Great Recession, demand prompted Acrobat’s production to top 150,000 cases, approaching that of King Estate.
“Selling Acrobat was great for the company, but I was sad to see it go,” Stone said. “As a winemaker, you get attached to brands and products, but it had grown beyond what it was ever intended to be.”
And yet the King family continues to take a regional approach to its program. Its North By Northwest brand showcases its interest in Washington state, featuring fruit from the Walla Walla Valley and Horse Heaven Hills.
And Stone’s young Tempranillo program relies on Sonrisa Vineyard, an emerging site in the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills. At one point, Ed King considered building a winery and tasting room north of the Columbia River.
“We preferred having the wines at the home winery on many occasions because we were just simply able to do a better job that way,” King said, “And the distances — sending staff across Oregon and Washington — just absorbed time and energy in an inefficient way. We still believe in the future of Washington wines, very much so.”
There could be additional exploration with two white varieties, Albariño and the Austrian star Grüner Veltliner.
“I have been a fan of Grüner since I first tried it at Chris Israel’s restaurant in Portland — Grüner,” King said.
Last year, King Estate also got behind legislation in Oregon that permits a winery to operate as many as five tasting rooms. Until the bill became law, the limit was three. Domaine Serene seems poised to be the first to benefit from the legislation when it is scheduled to open a satellite tasting room in Bend, giving Grace Evenstad a fourth retail presence in Oregon.
“The tasting room/lounge/shop model is one that I am very interested in,” King notes. “I value this idea for Eugene, Bend, Portland and perhaps Lake Oswego or West Linn.”
Meanwhile, bottles of award-winning King Estate wines are available in all 50 states. That allows the Kings to serve as ambassadors for the rest of Oregon — particularly with fish-friendly Pinot Gris. It’s been a poignant project on many levels for King Estate and a delicious homage to the late David “Papa Pinot” Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards, who paved the way in the Willamette Valley for both Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris.
“We had a friendly, collegial relationship,” King says. “He gave me an inscribed bottle of his 1994 Eyrie Pinot Noir that I still have. A true pioneer of Oregon wine, one of the joyful originals.”
Many of Oregon’s most famous wineries benefit from the involvement of multiple generations, and while family is more involved than ever at King Estate Winery, alas, Ed Jr., died in 2012.
“My wife Jodee handles a great deal of our direct business, including the wine club,” King said. “My son Justin is national sales manager and has really done a strong job. And son Taylor handles our graphics and design work — and has had a hand in many package designs and marketing deliverables.”
Stone says that family touch is appreciated inside the cellar and beyond.
“Ed is very hands-on with the company, but not the winemaking,” he says. “Ed knows everyone’s name when he walks through the winery, and even though this is a nationally distributed winery with a big footprint, there’s still this small-family winery feel around here.”
The only time there might be any conflict is when college rivalries get stirred up between Oregon State and Oregon. Stone is happy to stay on the sidelines.
“I’d say the winemaking side is very heavily Beaver Nation, while Ed and the marketing folks and the financial folks are Duck alumni, so there’s a great representation of both schools,” Stone said.
When King looks back on the concept that he and his late father dreamed for this remarkable winery along Territorial Road more than 30 years ago, it now seems to be more sustainable than ever as King Estate prepares to once again welcome visitors for dining and indoor tasting in the wake of the pandemic.
“There has been plenty of change and now outright disruption, but it is a resilient business — thanks to the industry and thanks to our customers,” King said.
Eric Degerman operates Great Northwest Wine, an award-winning media company. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
Visiting King Estate Winery
80854 Territorial Highway
Eugene, OR 97405
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day
How the Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year is chosen
The Winery of the Year is selected based on longevity, quality, reputation, industry involvement, facilities and other considerations. A winery may win the award once.
Past Pacific Northwest Wineries of the Year
2020: Clearwater Canyon Cellars, Lewiston, Idaho
2019: Palencia Wine Co., Kennewick
2018: Long Shadows Vintners, Walla Walla
2017: Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Roseburg, Ore.
2016: Walla Walla Vintners, Walla Walla, Wash.
2015: Maryhill Winery, Goldendale, Wash.
2014: Stoller Family Estate, Dayton, Ore.
2013: Chateau Ste. Michelle, Woodinville, Wash.
2012: Thurston Wolfe Winery, Prosser, Wash.
2011: Zerba Cellars, Milton-Freewater, Ore.
2010: Vin du Lac, Chelan, Wash.
2009: Wild Goose Vineyards, Okanagan Falls, British Columbia
2008: Dunham Cellars, Walla Walla, Wash.
2007: Elk Cove Vineyards, Gaston, Ore.
2006: Barnard Griffin, Richland, Wash.
2005: Ken Wright Cellars, Carlton, Ore.
2004: L’Ecole No. 41, Lowden, Wash.
2003: Sumac Ridge Estate Winery, Summerland, British Columbia
2002: Columbia Crest, Paterson, Wash.
How the regional wineries of the year are chosen
Regional wineries of the year are selected by Wine Press Northwest based on blind tastings, visits, accolades and other considerations. Wineries of the Year must have completed five vintages, while Wineries to Watch must have been in the business for five commercial vintages or fewer.
Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year: King Estate Winery, Lorane, Ore.
Washington Winery of the Year: Mellisoni Vineyards (Chelan)
Washington Winery to Watch: Valdemar Estates (Walla Walla)
Oregon Winery of the Year: Cardwell Hill Cellars (Philomath)
Oregon Winery to Watch: Awen Winecraft (Medford)
Idaho Winery of the Year: Vine 46 (Lewiston)
Idaho Winery to Watch: Veer Wine Project (Caldwell)