Wine the Roman Way: Oregon Vintner Revives Old Technology

At Illahee Vineyards in Dallas, Oregon, vintner Brad Ford is constantly using historical methods to improve his craft – by finding ways to revive old technology and bring it closer to the practices of earlier generations. He’s taking advantage of the slowdown of business caused by COVID-19 to pursue a project he’s long been interested in.   

Visiting Château du Clos de Vougeot in Burgundy, Ford saw a hand-carved wooden screw press. He was fascinated by the idea of building his own press, but thought that carving a screw was probably outside of his technical abilities. Instead, he decided to copy a beam press the Roman author Cato described in his monograph De Agri Cultura.   

When it’s finished, the one-ton, 60-foot (18 meter) beam will be the longest beam press in the U.S. It will be a bit longer than it strictly needs to be: Ford’s friend Erik Jensen, who teaches physics at Chemeketa Community College, did the math and admits he got it a little bit wrong. But, better too big than too small when it comes to crushing grapes.   

Ford’s most complete realization of his goal of reviving old winemaking practices has been his 1899 Pinot Noir, which is made using only technology available before 1900, avoiding the use of electricity and stainless steel. He’s hampered in this by the fact that many of the technologies which were available in the 19th Century are less accessible today: instead of hiring experienced teamsters for work calling for horses instead of tractors, he has to drive the horses himself. Fortunately, he has a pair he loves. Instead of loading his wine onto a steamboat to take to Oregon City, he has to paddle it aboard a canoe. Still, for purity’s sake, he makes the sacrifice.   

The new beam press will be useful in improving the authenticity of the 1899 Pinot Noir, replacing the current press where pressure is applied with jacks normally used to change car tires.   

“They’re filled with hydraulic oil,” Ford told VinePair Inc. “Did the Romans have that? No. But are they electrical? No.” Clearly, though, Ford will be happier when he has his beam press.  

Ford compares the work he puts into projects like the 1899 Pinot Noir and the beam press with the way that people learning a trade will traditionally grind their own blades or blow their own glassware.   

“You make your own knife, you make your own saw, you make your own pots or whatever you’re going to use for your craft. You have your tools and you know those tools are always sharp and those tools are the ones you need for the job.”   

Ford’s exploration of antique methods is more than historical curiosity or an affectation. Over and over, his scientific approach to winemaking continues to lead him to more natural techniques. “Every experiment we’re doing is moving us forward to more historical winemaking than modern, scientific winemaking, and more natural winemaking. It just produces the best wines.”   

By John M. Burt