R.J. and Juanita Lint made the switch from telecommunications to fermentation, and they're relishing every minute
Five years ago, R.J. and Juanita Lint stumbled upon a derelict dairy farm nestled in the rural hills between Forest Grove and Gaston. The land was overgrown after years of neglect.
But the Lints saw potential for the property. They saw a winery.
The couple started out slow, planting one acre of grapes at a time and working and volunteering at other local vineyards, building connections and learning all the while. And even though they've successfully brought their wine to market, their vino education is still ongoing.
'We're still learning something new every day,' Juanita said.
Winemaking came late in life for the Lints, who both spent their careers as telecommunications executives. Now they've escaped the rat race for a slower, more pastoral pace.
'We wish we would have started this sooner, but we wouldn't have had the money to do it,' said R.J. 'We love what we're doing now. We were in the corporate world before, and we'd take this any day.'
But behind the beautiful scenery of any winery is a lot of hard work, overcoming the ravages of pests and weather and keeping the cashflow under control.
And starting and maintaining a winery is a challenge financially. Launching a winery requires a huge amount of up-front capital, and vines don't yield a crop for four years after being planted.
R.J. and Juanita settled into the business by buying grapes from other growers and turning those into their own wines, but for Plum Hill vineyards, their first two years of grape production in 2010 and 2011 were rough. The weather created late harvests, which brought the ripe crop and the migratory birds together at the same time. One year, the Lints lost their entire crop.
The Lints don't use noise cannons to scare away birds, instead relying on fencing and nets.
Despite the trials they've had to overcome, they're looking forward to their crop this year. Every year, R.J. said, 'I just can't wait for the next harvest to make the next batch of wine.'
Sales up 25 percent
This year's crop of pinot noir and pinot gris has benefitted from good weather, with what could be a record harvest on the vines already. And sales have been up so far this year by roughly 25 percent, part of a trend across the state.
Wine sales in Oregon have increased 19 percent since 2004 overall, overcoming a one-year drop of 16 percent in 2009 triggered by the Great Recession.
Most local owners and operators found ways to stay in the market even with sales down and weather working against them, and the value of Oregon wine grapes almost doubled between 2004 and 2010. Luckily for Oregon growers, demand for the state's leading grape, pinot noir, keeps outpacing other varieties.
The Willamette Valley is the leading grape-producing region in the state, with Washington County's 79 vineyards producing the third-largest harvest in Oregon behind Yamhill and Polk counties.
Since the boom of the wine industry in the 1980s, Oregon growers have routinely received the highest average price per ton for their grapes compared to other states, and perhaps more significantly, according to reports from the Oregon Wine Board, Oregon still has a lot of room for growth compared to older wine-growing regions like California's Napa Valley, where saturation looms.
'We view the competition from other wineries as a good thing,' Juanita said, lauding the valley's close network of wineries. 'When you can hit three wineries without driving a ways, that's good.'
According to the Washington County Visitors Association, 34 percent of people who visited Washington County went wine tasting.
'Washington County has great wine and winemakers,' said R.J. 'There's land available for vineyards and for more growth, and most are family-owned and really personal. This county has the potential to be the Napa of the North.'
While the Lints make about 95 percent of their sales from their tasting room, their gift shop is also a draw for visitors, selling local handmade crafts, books, art and produce.
They attract many customers with events such as date nights, parties on holidays and special occasions such as 'Canines Uncorked,' a multi-winery event tailored to dog-loving oenophiles. Wine-seekers can also find the Lints at farmers markets and Forest Grove's First Wednesdays. And frequent customers can join the wine club, which offers discounts on wines, access to exclusive events and home shipments.
Since the winery opened, the Lints' business has been steadily expanding, but they don't want to get much bigger. They prefer to stay small, continuing to harvest their own crop, make their own wine and interact with customers who appreciate the fruit of the Lints' retirement.
'It's our life. Being able to have a vision and see a vision come to life is pretty exciting,' said R.J. 'We took in a stray farm. Now we're returning the land to how it should be managed.'