an interview with Bethany Ford of Illahe Vineyards
photography by Anna Caitlin Harris
Bethany Ford fell in love with Pinot Noir in California’s Santa Ynez Valley while earning her degree in art. Inspired by the craft and process of making wine, and having always wanted to live in the Pacific Northwest, she moved to Oregon in 2005.
Bethany worked at several Oregon wineries before coming to Illahe, a small family winery. She now works as Illahe’s National Sales Manager alongside her husband, mother- and father-in-law, and two young children. Bethany can be found in her office snuggling with her new baby girl Miette, traveling to different markets around the country, or in the winery punching down fermenters and trying to learn some science.
Illahe began in 2006 by making a few hundred cases of its first vintage. This year they are making 10,000 cases of wine. Illahe’s focus is on handcrafted pinot noir and whites, with a vision of sustainability and longevity at the heart of everything they do.
CORDELLA MAGAZINE: What drew you to working with wine?
BETHANY FORD: I was an art major in college, so I was interested in finding a career that still treasured craft and using your hands. What drew me to wine was the process of making it, and the beauty of working with the seasons and the soil in a world where everything was modernized and on the computer. I saw winemaking as an art form. I discovered wine in California and really started enjoying it, but I didn’t understand it immediately—it took me a long time to develop my pallet. I moved to Oregon, worked in a tasting room on the weekends, and tried to learn as much as I could. I am still learning every day, and that’s what I like about it. It never gets boring!
CM: “Illahe” is such an intriguing name! What does it mean? Where does it come from?
BF: Illahe [Ill-Uh-Hee] means “earth” or “place” or “soil” in Chinook jargon. The Chinooks were a tribe in this area and they didn’t have a language, so that’s why they call it jargon. To us, it seemed like Northwest for terroir. We wanted a meaningful name that was geographical to the area, instead of just naming the winery after us.
CM: How did Illahe get its start?
BF: My father-in-law started the vineyard after a trip to Germany and Austria in the late 1970’s. He fell in love with the varietals there, and when he came back he and his wife decided to get out of the cherry business and started planting grapes, when grape growing was just beginning in Oregon. He experimented with some whites on our family farm in West Salem—grüner veltliner, müller-thurgau, pinot gris—and pinot noir, but pinot noir didn’t work at that vineyard site. When he retired in 2000 he bought an 80-acre site in Dallas, Oregon. We have a south-facing slope with sedimentary clay soil, and it’s at the right elevation—all great things for growing pinot noir. We currently have 60 acres planted, 40 acres of pinot noir. The rest are planted to pinot gris, grüner veltliner, riesling, tempranillo, and a few rows of lagrien, teroldego and schioppettino.
CM: What is your role in the family business?
BF: My mother- and father-in-law, Pauline and Lowell, are the owners and growers. My husband, Brad, is the winemaker. My official title is National Sales Manager, but I do a little of everything from office work, to travelling (we’re in about twenty states this year as well as Denmark, and we’re getting into Canada soon), to managing our wine club and events, to tasting in the cellar with Brad and our assistant winemaker Erich.
We all have our specific roles, which is nice, especially with a husband and wife team. We have our own unique jobs, so we can be separate or work together.
CM: As a part of a family-run business, what is your experience of the modern issue of work/life balance?
BF: We have a European lifestyle here. My in-laws live on the same farm that we do. It’s a historical farm—Pauline lives in the same house that she grew up in! We live in another house on the property and I’m able to have my kids go up to Grandma’s and Grandpa’s when I need to work. I still work from home two days a week because I want to be with my kids, but I’m so fortunate to have in-laws that support me and help me raise them.
CM: Has parenthood altered how you approach or think about your work at Illahe?
BF: Before I had kids, I wanted this business to work for Brad and I… and now I’m looking a lot farther into the future and I really want this business to work for my children. Lowell wanted that for Brad, so it would be great if we could continue it even further to another generation and beyond.
CM: Tell us about Illahe’s commitment to sustainability.
BF: We are LIVE certified, which means Low Input Viticulture and Enology, a certification developed by Oregon growers and winemakers. It covers vineyard practices and winemaking practices, so it’s a really holistic and practical approach to sustainability in the wine industry. We have a no-spray chemical list—we can’t use certain sprays in the vineyard, we can’t use certain chemicals in the winery. Because we are LIVE certified, we’re salmon-safe, so anything that is sprayed in our vineyard is not harmful to the streams. I joke that we keep the salmon safe so that we can eat it with pinot later. It’s a really good pairing with pinot!
We’re the only winery in Oregon to use draft horses in our vineyard. We have a team of Percheron draft horses and a team of Fjords, and we use them to bring up the fruit during harvest, and to mow between the rows in the spring. We’re working on making certain blocks completely horse-farmed. We are really interested in historical winemaking. Vineyards in France still use horses, so why shouldn’t we be using them to farm here? It takes a lot of time. It’s a continual learning process for us and for them.
We harvest rainwater from the winery roof into underground tanks, and we use that water for cleaning the winery. Because we’re on the top of a hill our well goes dry quite often, so we’re glad we did that. We also have solar panels, which powers about 50% of the winery. We’re just finishing building a cave for our barrels, which will save energy costs as well because it’s all climate controlled naturally.
We make our wine naturally—we don’t like to use additions like enzymes or powdered tannin to tweak the taste of our wines. All of our pinots are unfined and unfiltered. We try to make our wines in the old world style, so we do mostly native fermentations, meaning we don’t add any packaged yeast. Brad’s really good at chemistry, but he tries to stay as natural as possible and let the wine speak for itself. If there’s a problem he knows how to fix it, but he wants to make a wine naturally and in the way that will express the characteristics of the vintage and the varietal.
CM: Tell us about your 1899 Pinot Noir. What have you learned through the process of creating this wine over several seasons?
BF: It’s a really fun wine with a great story. Brad decided to try to make the 1899 in 2011. The rules were that we couldn’t make the wine with any electricity, modern winemaking machinery or equipment. Because stainless steel wasn’t invented until the early 1900s, we decided that the wine would never be in a stainless steel tank—it would always be fermented in wood and then put in an oak barrel. The 1899 project was an experiment, to see if the wine would be different from our other wines, and every vintage so far been distinctly different, which is interesting to see. Gentle handling makes a difference and the wine is beautiful.
We start by hand picking the fruit (which we do in our entire vineyard anyway) and bring all the fruit up by horse. Instead of putting the fruit on an electric sorting table, we hand sort it into buckets, and de-stem the fruit by hand-crank, which is really hard! Then we put it into a French oak wood fermenter, and we let the wine spontaneously ferment.
While it’s fermenting, a hard crust of grape skins forms over the top called a cap, which you have to get wet twice a day. Instead of using a punch down tool we just get in the fermenter ourselves and pigeage it with our feet, which is a lot of fun.
Next we hand press the fruit in our basket press, with a pulley system Brad and his friend invented together. After you press you have to pump the juice into barrel. The first year we used a hand pump to get it to barrel, but two of our friends (one from a bike shop in Portland and another in the wine industry) made us bike pumps! We don’t believe anyone in the industry has bike pumps except for us, which is pretty cool. So we bike pump the wine to barrel, and then when we’re bottling we bike pump it through the bottling line.
We also rack the old way. Generally people use what’s called a “bull dog” to pull the wine out of the barrel through the top, but we actually have wooden pegs on the bottom of our barrels like they used to use in Burgundy. We just hammer those out and rack the wine that way instead of using electricity. Brad actually racks by candlelight on principle. He turns off the lights and racks the way they would’ve done it back then.
We go as far as letter-pressing our labels, and then we put on the labels by hand. The first year we even put on the adhesive by hand. This year we used an old antique wooden labeler to label our bottles, which was really fun. We finish the product by putting wax on the top instead of capsules, which are a modern device.
It’s a lot of work… just ask our interns that hand- cranked de-stemmed and bike pumped the wine for hours this year, but it’s also fun and brings everyone together. Instead of spending your day with a pump or machine, you are spending it with another person, making wine together. It is romantic and beautiful.
CM: A winemaker’s livelihood is deeply connected to the soil and the seasons. What does this mean for you as a woman?
BF: It’s true, our lives are very connected to the soil and the seasons here. Especially in Oregon, no season is ever the same (at least not from what I have seen), and no vintage is ever the same, and that can be challenging and it can be exciting. You’re never complacent; things are always changing around you. It can be incredibly risky as a farmer sometimes, and it can be incredibly wonderful sometimes. This year we had a beautiful, beautiful year. In 2013 we had a really hot summer and then a monsoon came through right at harvest and could’ve ruined things (luckily, the wines from 2013 are beautiful). In 2011 we had one of the coldest years on record, and if we hadn’t had a nice warm October, we wouldn’t have even harvested our grapes. You’re at the mercy of nature and that’s something that is really humbling.
The soil is so important—you can’t plant pinot noir in most parts of the world. You can only plant it in these little tiny pockets of the world. It’s special that we live in a place where we can grow it but it can also be tricky. There’s a lot that goes into it.
I don’t know what that means for me as a woman. I feel like it makes me a better mother, a better person, more flexible… it makes me realize that I can’t control everything, and that’s good for me.
CM: What do you dream for the future?
BF: We hope to create a business that will last for generations, the way that wineries have become great in Europe. I want this to stay in the family and continue on as something my kids, and maybe even my grandkids, can keep building upon and keep creating for themselves (but we will see what they have to say about that when the time comes).
I’m fortunate to work in an industry that is still a craft and an art form. My kids get to grow up on a farm—they get to run around the barrel room, they get to drive tractors with their grandpa, and I get to bring my baby to work. It’s a really wholesome way to live. At this point in my life that’s what is most important to me, to be able to do good work and to be with my kids. It’s not always perfect, sometimes it’s really hard, but being able to have both of those things together is wonderful.
Anna Caitlin Harris
Anna lives in one of the most beautiful spots in the world, Oregon, and loves using the built-in overcast lighting and gorgeous green landscape as her photography studio. She is inspired by people and their life stories, and with her little magic box, she loves to help them capture the beautiful and genuine moments in their lives.