As I drove down the dirt driveway to Brick House Vineyards, southwest of Portland, Oregon, I was struck by its ramshackle grace. It was raining yet sunny, and three dogs came out to meet me, barking. The buildings were on the lower slopes of what amounted to an amphitheater; higher on the slopes and out into the distance were the vineyards. I parked next to a dilapidated tractor shed, which was next to a sprawling garden. The wood-sided barn of a winery and tasting room was steps away, and down a little drive was the eponymous house of brick.
It was almost a wine-country cliché, the kind of place that corporate wine brands want to replicate with sketches on labels and evocative names. For the most part the wine we drink comes from made-up places, but Brick House is real.
Those made-up places are the brands that invoke a sense of location as pure marketing ploy. Scores of such labels crowd store shelves. No actual bridge is sited in the brand Painter Bridge, just as no wine relevance or coordinates are given on the website for Owl Ridge. The controversy that erupted over the wine brand Napa Ridge stemmed from the fact that no part of the wine was from Napa Valley, no matter that there’s no place called “Napa Ridge.” (Courts ruled this practice illegal.)
Sometimes you can sense the profundity of a certain wine place just by visiting it—that at least honest, if not great, wine is made there. That was the case when I visited Napa’s Stony Hill Vineyard a few months ago, where 60-year-old Chardonnay vines are dry farmed on steep Napa slopes. And it’s certainly the case at Brick House. The vegetable garden and the house (in which winemaker Doug Tunnell lives) just yards from the vineyard indicated the intersection of wine growing and daily life.
I was eager to try the wine, because I knew that it came from a vineyard its owner looked at every single day. Tunnell told me that when a wealthy friend once came and asked him if he had any advice before planting his first vineyard, Tunnell said, “Build a house right in the middle of it and live there or have your vineyard manager live there.”
I tried Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with Tunnell there in his tasting room, which wasn’t really a tasting room at all, but more like a cabin, with its old couch, wooden table, books, and telescope. The focus here was clearly not on selling wine or impressing guests (Brick House is not open to the public), but on simply growing the most honest wines possible. I felt exactly what the corporate marketeers hope I’ll feel in their metaworld when confronted by their label art and branding statements. But it never really works that way—it’s too easy to see through both the branding and the wine.
2005 Brick House Vineyards Cuvée du Tonnelier Pinot Noir—I was struck by the complex aromas of this young Pinot. It has a full, holistic sense of the grape and the vineyard, smelling of raspberry and cherry, with aromas of leaves, bark, and violets thrown in. In the mouth it has a wonderful suppleness born of a preponderance of ripe, soft tannins that give the wine breadth, depth, and a lacy texture not common in most Pinot Noir.