Connecting the dots via Knudsen Vineyards

For me, this is what the wine industry is all about.

Mid Summer, 1995: The Mall of America had been open for three years, and the hottest restaurant in the Mall was California Cafe. I was there waiting tables, scrapping together every bit of money I could while attending the University of Minnesota. I didn’t know wine, but I was starting to get into it. I asked the wine manager what to buy to learn about Pinot Noir. He suggested a wine from Knudsen Erath in Oregon. Traveling to northeast Minneapolis, going to Surdyk’s for one of the first times in my life, I bought a bottle of it, the 1992 vintage. I ate ramen for dinner for a week, but in exchange I enjoyed every drop of that wine.

March, 2002: I just started a new job as a sales rep for World Class Wines, a leading local fine wine distributor. We sold Erath Vineyards, and I took a sample bottle of the single vineyard Knudsen to Thomas Liquors. Mike Thomas tasted it with me, paused, looked at the glass, paused some more, and looked up. “Damn! Yes, send it. I’ll take a case!”

January 3rd, 2009: At 10pm on a rainy winter evening, I drive from Portland to Willamette Valley, the first time I visited Oregon. I was trying to find the house I’d be staying in for the night, but had poor directions. It was dark, cold, foggy, and rainy.

Willamette Valley can be a confusing place to visit for the first time because the vineyards and the wineries are in the hills, while the highway and other agriculture is in the valleys. Add to that the darkness of a winter night and rain pounding on my windshield. As expected, and common for me, I took a wrong turn, finding myself on Highway 12. I drove slowly uphill, took a random left turn, and hit a dead end. Turning the car around, my headlights hit old vines, standing proud in the night. It was the Knudsen Vineyard next to Erath winery.

Photo: Dundee hills Pinot Noir vines, morning of January 4, 2009 (at Domaine Serene)

June 1st, 2011: My wife and I were in Willamette Valley on a vacation ahead of a convention in Portland. We had an appointment with one of the legends of the wine industry, Rollin Soles, original founder of Argyle and his own personal brand, ROCO (I love those wines!!). We met Rollin at the Argyle facility and he asked “So what we drinkin’ today?” in his southern drawl.

Rollin grabbed three bottles of Argyle sparkling and some stemware. “Let’s go! Get in the truck you knuckleheads!”

For the next two hours we were Rollin’s only audience. It was one of the best wine experiences of my life, driving the hills with somebody who basically created an entire industry, hearing story after story. We ended up driving up a back road, toward a little cabin on a hill. Grabbing the stemware and the bottles, we proceeded to enjoy two more hours on the porch of the little cabin, overlooking the Knudsen Vineyards, drinking wine made from those vines.

“This is it. This is one of the original vineyards. This is one of the best. Doesn’t get better than that, partner!” is what I remember Rollin saying while sipping on his bubbly. The Argyle Knudsen Pinot Noir, one of their best year in and year out, comes from this vineyard. I had enjoyed that wine for years. I never knew precisely where it came from.

Pinot Noir vine from the original 1972 plantings in the Knudsen Vineyard

Rollin Soles pouring some Argyle Knudsen Vineyard Sparkling Wine

Rollin Soles overlooking the historic Knudsen Vineyard

Yesterday: May 17, 2016, Borough Restaurant, Minneapolis: Contacted by a local distributor (Libation Project), I was invited to lunch with Page Knudsen Cowles, managing owner/partner in the legendary Knudsen vineyard.

The Knudsen family have always been farmers not winemakers, and has long term contracts with Argyle in particular. But a few years ago they got the bug to make their own wine. The first release (2012), all 100 cases, evaporated instantly. They decided to add a Chardonnay. Production levels are up on their two wines, all of 260 cases for the 2014 Chardonnay and 200 cases for the 2013 Pinot Noir.

There isn’t much wine.

Page Knudsen Cowles discussing her family’s history and their new wines

Highlighting lunch was two library wines that Page was able to get her hands on during an estate sale. The 1983 and 1985 Knudsen Erath Pinot Noirs. Both were magical, though the 1985 showed a touch more evolution. The 1983 was a show stopper. Dried red fruits, mellow spice, tobacco, and bright raspberry all in an elegant light to medium bodied 33 year old wine. It was marvelous.

One of the best parts? Finding out Page and I are neighbors! Unbeknownst to me, the managing partner and co-owner (with her siblings) of one of the top vineyards in Willamette Valley lives in Saint Paul.

Connecting with Page was the kind of experience I live for. It ties together a range of experiences that I’ve had over the years, and allows a new chapter to open up. I asked Page if she want to do some events with Twin Cities Wine Education. She said yes. Look forward to meeting her yourself!

It was one of the first Pinot Noirs I purchased, and one of the first I sold on the wholesale side. I got lost on my first drive into the hills of Willamette Valley and ended up at that vineyard. I raised a glass with one of the legends of the business. I enjoyed 30+ year old Pinot Noir while tasting the amazing new releases marking a new chapter in the life of this family. All connected by one vineyard. 

For me, this is what the wine industry is all about.


Note: These are wines to seek out, but not easy to find. Thomas Liquors, France 44, and Sunfish Cellars are the main supporting retailers. At the lunch were buyers from Henry & Sons, The Wine Shop in Minnetonka, as well as North Loop Wine and Spirits … I would imagine the wines will also be available at those stores soon (contact them for details or watch their Facebook feed).

For more on the story of Page and her family check out a fantastic and comprehensive article on the Great Northwest Wine website.

One Comment

  1. Knudsean Erath introduced many of us to Oregon pinot noir years before we ever heard of Bergstom or Archery Summit, love hearing about what they are doing now, thanks for sharing your story.

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