Wine is as much about a story as it is about taste. At Owen Roe Winery in Washington’s Yakima Valley, there’s a story for each wine label.
The wine market is extremely competitive—there are more than 800 wineries in Washington State alone. To be successful in the wine business, it takes more than just making good wine.
Dave Ramey of California’s Ramey Wine Cellars, who spoke last winter in Washington at the statewide wine convention, told growers and vintners that success comes first from putting quality in the bottle, and then “telling the world about it.” Stories that resonate with consumers help wineries differentiate their product in the crowded market, he added.
David O’Reilly of Owen Roe Winery has perfected the art of producing high quality wines and matching them with stories that resonate. (Read how Owen Roe produces it’s wine in “Hands-on winemaking.”)
During Good Fruit Grower’s visit to the estate vineyard and winery in Yakima Valley during crush last fall, the Irish-born O’Reilly shared stories about the vineyard, wines, and his ties to the shamrock country.
“The Irish are quintessential storytellers,” said O’Reilly, who is both grower and winemaker. “Instead of branding our wine labels all the same—something that’s done to build brand recognition—I wanted every bottle to have its own story.”
That adds up to a lot of stories, considering O’Reilly makes around 30 different wines for Owen Roe’s Oregon and Washington wineries. (Read about some of Owen Roe’s wines in “Story in a bottle.”)
“There’s something about wine that makes these stories real and personal,” he said. “You get to capture a story and experience it through tasting. When you tell people these stories, they remember them.”
The winery is named after O’Reilly’s famous ancestor Owen Roe (Roe means red) O’Neill, the beloved Irish patriot who rallied the people against Oliver Cromwell in the 1600s. Owen Roe labels tell stories about Yakima Valley soils and terroir, O’Reilly’s ancestral castle in Ireland, the family crest, Irish history, and even sharecropping.
O’Reilly’s personal story is as interesting as the stories that go with each Owen Roe wine.
He is founder and co-owner of Owen Roe Winery, a partnership between O’Reilly and his wife, Angelica, and Seattle-based couple Ben and Julie Wolff. The company has a winery in Newburg, Oregon (Owen Roe Oregon), and one in Wapato, Washington (Owen Roe Washington).
O’Reilly grew up in Belfast in Northern Ireland during the sectarian conflict that lasted from the 1960s to 1990s. It was a deadly and violent time, resulting in several thousand deaths, including the killing of his uncles. When he was 13, his father moved the family out of the country for safety, eventually settling in the small, coastal town of Bella Coola in British Columbia, Canada. His father, once a political science professor, now owned a small logging company and the family of 14 survived in part on subsistence agriculture and having the children work for neighboring farmers.
“I always knew I wanted to be involved in some aspect of agriculture,” O’Reilly said. “I wanted to do something with value-added agriculture that would take me from the dirt to consumer.”
He graduated from Thomas Aquinas College, a small, Catholic, liberal arts college in southern California, where he also met Angelica. The college is modeled after the University of Chicago’s Great Books Program. Though his degree in medieval philosophy has little to do with winemaking—he studied the great minds of Aristotle and Plato and read original texts of medieval works in Latin—he left believing he could do anything.
“A number of graduates from the program are winemakers,” O’Reilly said. “That’s not surprising, because we studied the true, good, and beautiful, the same essence of agriculture. A winemaker is really a glorified farmer. ”
After college, he worked for several years at wineries in California and learned all aspects of the wine industry, from cleaning winery floors and equipment to technical winemaking to sales and marketing.
Yakima Valley appellation
Drawn to Pinot Noir wines, O’Reilly first settled in Newberg, Oregon, to make wine and opened a winery with a partner in 1997. He became familiar with Washington’s wine industry when he began sourcing fruit in 1999 from Yakima Valley’s DuBrul Vineyard, owned by Hugh and Kathy Shiels of Sunnyside.
“That first vintage I made wine from DuBrul Vineyard, I saw that the wines could age for 40 years,” he said. “I realized that the Yakima Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area) was a great growing region.”
O’Reilly’s foray into Washington began in 2007 with purchase of about 240 acres at Outlook, near Sunnyside. The Outlook Vineyard has 80 acres planted to wine grapes. His first Washington winery was housed in Sunnyside’s old Carnation milk facility, once home to Washington Hills and Apex wines. In 2010, a new partnership with the Wolffs was put together to purchase a picturesque 106-acre site overlooking the Yakima River.
The property, which they named Union Gap Estate, included 40 acres of wine grapes, 10 acres of cherries, and a home with sweeping views of Yakima Valley and Mt. Adams. (Read more about the flavor profiles at the Union Gap Estate in “Story of the soil.”)
A new winery was built on the site in 2013, though not in time to fully process grapes during crush. The 2014 harvest marked the first time state grapes were crushed and processed in the new Owen Roe winery.
“I could have gone anywhere to make wine, and I did,” said O’Reilly, referring to his work in California and Oregon. “But I love making wine in Yakima Valley. It is truly a world-class wine location. Yakima Valley, with its diversity, is like a painter’s palette of colors. There’s gorgeous ripe flavors with beautiful acidity.”
O’Reilly and his partners are just getting started at the Union Gap location. On the grape side, the vineyard is in transition to be certified organic.
“It’s easy to do organic here,” he said, adding that there are few pest problems. “Mildew is not a problem with the winds, but we also keep the fruiting zone open.”
He also hopes to have the cherry orchard be certified as organic.
At the winery, landscaping that included a large lawn area rimmed by basalt rocks was recently completed. Immediate plans are to build a barrel room in the hillside and a tasting room using native volcanic rock. An herb and vegetable garden to supply lunchtime cooks with produce will be planted next summer.
The master plan involves converting parts of the manor home into guest accommodations, complete with a commercial kitchen, to turn Owen Roe into an upscale destination winery that offers vineyard and winery tours, lodging, and special event meals.
O’Reilly sees the Union Gap location as the “gateway” to Yakima Valley wines. He plans to use the Owen Roe vineyard and winery, with its prime location, scenic views, and diverse soil types, to tell the story of Yakima Valley wines. •