Driving down the backroads in the heart of Oregon wine country, it would be almost impossible not to notice the quilt-like patterns that the rows of vines and blocks of native vegetation between them make, amid the rolling hills. In the more natural areas, the canopies of Oregon white oaks break up an otherwise white sky this winter day, and on the posts of many grape vines, raptors sit, waiting to embark on their next hunt, or perhaps digesting between meals.
I passed through the town of Monmouth not too long ago, and now find myself further into the western side of the mid-valley, nestled on the eastern slope of the Coast Range. I am on my way to meet the vineyard manager of Erratic Oaks, Lisa Zuniga. She has worked in this position for over a decade now, and has seen a gradual shift in what roles women play in viticulture over this time.
Erratic Paths to Wine Growing
Before my arrival to Erratic Oaks, I look up a bit of the vineyard’s background. Out of 202 total acres, 135 acres are planted, leaving about a quarter of the acreage for native vegetation. Similar to many Willamette Valley vineyards, the planted acres include pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay, and Riesling grapes, primarily on the southwest facing hills. Nearby, the 3,000-foot Coast Range creates a rain shadow over the Willamette Valley, mitigating the effects of what otherwise would be a more maritime climate, allowing for warmer temperatures to occur during the growing season. This climate, coupled with the unique soils situated here, set up prime conditions for growing these kinds of grapes.
Volcanic, marine, and Missoula-flood sedimentary soils can be found on this property, and the former half of the name Erratic Oaks pays tribute to one especially unique aspect of the local geology. Erratics are rocks that differ from the size and type of rock native to the area in which they rest. Here, that has manifested in large granite boulders, likely brought to this spot about 15,000 years ago when the Glacial Lake Missoula flooded, creating much of the Columbia and Willamette Basin landscapes we see today.
Keeping this geologic context in mind when talking with Zuniga, her story seems all too fitting for where she wound up. Zuniga didn’t come to manage this vineyard as her first career; She was inspired to become involved in viticulture long ago, while on a trip to southern California’s Temecula Valley, well-known for growing grapes. She and her friends visited a vineyard there, where she was given permission to walk through the vines.
She tells me, “As soon as I stepped out there, I didn’t know anything about wine. I didn’t know anything about grapes—but something about the feeling and the energy really resonated with me.”
Back in Oregon near her hometown of West Salem, Zuniga spent many years focused on raising her daughter. Once she was grown, Zuniga dove headfirst into viticulture coursework at Chemeketa Community College and soon enough, landed a job in the Firesteed Tasting Room in 2004. She worked there with winemaker Bryan Croft for about a year and a half before becoming the manager for eight months. She then found her way into production and stayed there for three years. Next came warehousing, then bottling, and finally, she made it into the fields in 2007 at the then one-year-old Erratic Oaks Vineyard.
Zuniga’s First Years Managing, Changes Since
With only 33 acres planted at the time, Zuniga has seen the production area at Erratic Oaks triple since she began, as well as a changing culture in the acceptance of women working in and managing the vines.
“I came in it still fairly early… there were a lot of men in the business, so I didn’t get to talk to a lot of women at all,” she recollects. “There were some of course… but winemaking is what they were seen for” rather than the growing of grapes.
During her first year, Zuniga was managing a primarily all-male crew and often felt the effects of not having an extensive educational background. “I didn’t know a lot, so there was no respect on that end, and then I was a woman, so there wasn’t a lot of respect on that part.”
She reasons, “A lot of the guys I was working with had been here a long time, and change is hard. After I realized that I was the boss and that it was going to be up to me to get what I needed, all of that kind of changed. So any guys that wanted to stick around and work with me could,” she laughs, “but I only got one guy that’s still here [year-round].”
Zuniga credits the encouragement of consultant Luke Pedotti to her eventual understanding of her role. At the start, she would spend about ten hours a week with Pedotti.
“He’s always been that person standing behind me, saying ‘you can do this’ and ‘you are so much smarter than you know’ and ‘why are you calling me about this, you know the answer,’” she says. “It finally came down to him saying, ‘I’ve got to cut the chord with you, you don’t need me anymore’.”
Today, the make-up of Zuniga’s crew is mostly female, which was a gradual change over time. Then, most contractors wouldn’t let women do any of the pruning, likely due to biases held about their physical abilities. Pruning is an especially labor-intensive aspect of vine canopy management, and vital to maintaining enough exposure of leaves to sun, so that fruit quality is not diminished and disease is prevented by any excess of shade. The task is more dependent on people than machinery, and depending on the speed of growth of the vines, involves long days: “You’re out here 10 hours a day, 11 hours a day, seven days a week sometimes,” says Zuniga.
In addition to allowing women on her crew to do the more traditionally male task of pruning, Zuniga also got them involved in tractor operations and machinery maintenance, saving the vineyard the cost of going to the shop unless absolutely necessary. Since she grew up racing cars, it wasn’t a stretch for her to share her love of mechanics with others.
Other changes initiated by Zuniga include the ever-decreasing use of pesticides on the vineyard. Before she began, roundup was used four times a year, every year. “It was just a practice that was held,” she describes. “I knocked it down to twice a year my first two years, once a year after that, and we haven’t used roundup in three years.”
While she’d like to learn more about biodynamic practices, she recognizes that for the time being, “they aren’t my grapes,” and “first and foremost is the safety of the crop.”
Economic, Historic, and Ecological Aspects of Oregon Vino
The safety of the crop is a big deal in economic terms. In 2017 alone, Oregon’s wine grape production was valued at $192 million, just behind California and Washington for the highest value in the United States — which totaled at $3.5 billion. Within Oregon, the Willamette Valley produces about 73 percent of the state’s wine grapes, with pinot noir making up 60 percent of production as well as planted acreage, making Erratic Oaks spread of crop not unordinary.
Oregon’s Wine Country is growing as well. Between 1981 and 2016, the number of vineyards in the state increased by 27 a year, while the acreage planted increased by 753 acres per year. Pioneered primarily in the 1960s and ‘70s, the start of the new century saw greater recognition of the region worldwide, yet the roots of Oregon viticulture can be traced even farther back to actual pioneers.
One of the first vineyards was established in southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley in the 1850s. Settler Peter Britt and his family started Valley View Vineyards in the small town of Jacksonville, which operates today under the slightly different name- Valley View Winery. Over a century later, post-prohibition, three University of California Davis graduates ventured north to Oregon: Richard Sommer began Hill Crest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley, while David Lett and Charles Coury traveled farther north to the Willamette Valley in 1965. Following on their heels came the families of Adelsheim, Vuylsteke, Ponzi, Campbell, and Blosser.
In 1995, these legacy family operations and others joined together to establish Oregon wine that was both high quality and ecologically-minded, by creating an eco-certification program. Commonly referred to as LIVE, Low-input Viticulture and Enology was incorporated as a non-profit in 1999. Its certification programs included standards accredited by the International Organization for Biological and Integrated Control (IOBC), a group of applied researchers who have been widely recognized over the 60 years they have been working in sustainable systems.
Naming just a couple of the stringencies vineyards must follow to be LIVE-certified; they must utilize only green and yellow-rated integrated pest management methodologies, and keep at least 5 percent of their land unplanted as an ecological zone. Erratic Oaks—with a quarter of their acreage remaining naturally vegetated—meets these requirements, and Zuniga, as vineyard manager, has the task of completing detailed paperwork annually to attest to their compliance. In addition, a third-party inspector visits the vineyard every third year to check in.
In 2018, LIVE’s membership included 323 vineyards and 39 wineries in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho; producing over 6 million cases of wine. Each year, members meet to go over the standards and any new rules that may come up. These meetings also function as networking opportunities for viticulturists and perhaps especially so, for the growing number of women in the scene. It was at LIVE meetings that Zuniga has gotten to know Rebecca Sweet, a viticulture instructor at Chemeketa Community College and Leigh Bartholomew, and vineyard certification officer at LIVE.
To Zuniga, the likes of them should be seen as a positive for everyone involved: “When you have both men and women working together like that in this kind of business, there’s so much more there to offer each other,” she explains, “the coalition of everybody together is always such a good idea.”
If the geologic setting and Zuniga’s path to wine growing are considered erratic, it is meetings like those hosted by LIVE that help create connections in the social landscape as quilt-like as Oregon wine country.
After all the hefty paperwork, even heftier physical labor, and the sometimes added strain from stressors of sexism, Zuniga has her crew out harvesting grapes in September of each year. This is an especially meaningful time for Zuniga, one in which the energy that the vines produce is most easily felt: “There’s a certain silence. I’ll walk through the vines after we harvest them… and you can almost feel that sigh, that ‘okay everything’s good, we can relax’… I feel very connected to the land and the plants out here.”
It is for moments like this, that Zuniga suggests making your way to the fields, be it visiting a vineyard or working at one. In relation to the latter, she says, “It is super hard work. People that are working the hardest are the people working in our field… work with them, have them teach you, and it will be very rewarding.”
If the reward of sweat equity is not enough, Zuniga urges one to remember that post-harvest, “Then you get to drink the wine.”
By Ari Blatt