Oregon’s Willamette Valley is a wine lover’s paradise that is rich in tradition, and Utopia Vineyard is no exception.
Wine country. As you read those two words, you probably instantly picture an image of the hundreds of hillside vineyards found in ICONIC Napa Valley, and we’d venture to say that would be the case for many people when those two words come up. But, while Napa Valley’s 400+ wineries are nothing to scoff at, it turns out there’s a whole other wine country to explore with almost double the amount of wineries! Just about a nine hour drive north you’ll find the Willamette Valley, a premier wine destination nestled among the backroads of Oregon.
Dan Warnshuis, winemaker and connoisseur, actually found his passion for amazing food and wine in the Napa Valley wine country which ultimately led him to opening Utopia Vineyard & Winery in the Willamette Valley in 2002, his personal oasis. ICONIC LIFE Publisher Renee Dee caught up with Warnshuis on the ICONIC HOUR podcast to discuss the secret of making a good wine and how to survive and thrive as an entrepreneur in the wine industry.
As is with many entrepreneurs, Warnshuis’ passion and hobby is what led him to where he is today. He started out as a collector and through friends and colleagues began being exposed to more and more fine wines. During his time at his successful career in Silicon Valley his boss would even host wine tastings in the office after work on Fridays.
“He would bring in these boutique distributors that would have all these international wines and so it was this amazing experience to be exposed to all of that in my mid twenties and I really got enamored with burgundy. I just really loved Pinot noir and burgundy right out of the gate and as I learned more about it… that really inspired me to start making wine,” Warnshuis says.
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His Bachelor of Science degree from Michigan state paired with some bitter culture and winemaking studies helped him begin his journey of winemaking in California, but he quickly realized he wanted to own land for his winemaking ventures. The Willamette Valley was the perfect place for Warnshuis and in 2000 he acquired a horse pasture in the Ribbon Ridge area that he built up from scratch, but the search for the perfect vineyard wasn’t over.
“I found an ideal site after a two year search, meaning that it had the right elevation and orientation and soil types and the perfect microclimate etcetera,” he explains. “And it actually wasn’t for sale but I went up and knocked on the owner’s door and he ended up selling it to me on the spot that day.”
Talk about fate! More than twenty years ago Warnshuis took the chance by knocking on that door and is now one of more than 800 wineries in the Willamette Valley! He has also been able to share this excitement and growth with his family, turning Utopia Vineyard into a family business.
“That’s one of the best parts really; I’ve got three daughters and I’ve got three sons-in-law now,” he says. “My oldest daughter works full time, one of my sons-in-law works for me full time, another son-in-law is my electrician, my nephew works for me full time in the winery, my wife is the office manager and I’m the winemaker and the vineyard manager. So you can truly say that it’s a family affair.”
So what kind of wines would you be able to experience during a visit to Utopia Vineyard? In 2000 and 2002, he did his very first plantings. In 2005, Warnshuis produced his first estate Pinot and that same year planted another five clones, taking it from six to 11. In 2008, he produced his first wines from the original two plantings and it was a Pinot made from a blend of those 11 clones. The very first time he made it it was named the number two wine of all varieties in the state of Oregon!
“Now I have 12 Pinot noir blocks or clones, and 3 Chardonnay clones, or blocks,” Warnshuis starts listing. “I also make a Hardy style of Pinot noir rosé that’s modeled after the Bandol style rosé, so it’s more color, more texture and more flavor.”
He has since also added a Pinot noir blanc to the estate lineup and is making seven estate wines each year. “I also make some wines for some other vineyards at my winery and I get access to those vineyard fruits, so for the last few years I’ve also been making a Pinot gris from one of my client’s vineyards… and occasionally I make some Roan or Bordeaux varieties from those regions.”
If you’re looking to plan a wine weekend, be sure to add the Willamette Valley and Utopia Vineyard to your list! But, if you can’t make it out there right away, you can always order a bottle (or two) online from Utopia Wine and imagine you’re sipping it at the vineyard.