During harvest, award-winning wine writer and journalist Elizabeth Smith paid us a return visit. She previously covered us for an assignment in the Napa Valley Register, and asked if she could pop in again during another trip to the Willamette Valley. A former college professor who also happened to have a musical background, we had a great visit with Smith the first time around. She was super understanding about the craziness of a crush day, and agreed to hang out with Sara alone as Dave was overseeing a massive processing run.
In addition to hanging out, we did a little Q&A about our wine inspirations, day-to-day challenges and rewards, and latest vineyard and winemaking developments. The conversation was featured in Wine Bulletin, “Bells Up Winery – The End of the Beginning.” It’s also published on her own site, under the Living the Tasty Life section. Smith wrote:
When I returned in October 2022, they were receiving and processing the last of their grapes – their Chehalem Mountain AVA estate Seyval Blanc and Walla Walla AVA Summit View Syrah. Dave was in full-on harvest mode, but Sara snuck away to let me taste some wines and catch up. She even showed me that they’d framed my newspaper article. This second visit felt like a reunion, not an interview.
Excerpts from the Q&A:
What has been the most rewarding [part of owning a start-up winery]?
For us, Bells Up is all about relationships. We’ve been blessed to have made so many incredible connections with our guests, many of whom have become close friends. It’s incredibly rewarding to get to share the wines and our story with guests, and utterly humbling to become a part of some of their most memorable occasions. Bells Up wines have been served at several weddings, baby showers, holiday gatherings, birthday parties, even an engagement. One Fanfare Club member’s ashes have been spread in our vineyard. Those relationships are truly the reward.
On the estate, you have Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Schioppettino. Anything else on the horizon?
We have a short list of contenders, but until we get a better idea of how the Schioppettino vines develop and make our first wines from them, we won’t be making any decisions. There are still about 1.5 acres unplanted on our property so there’s room for something else. It won’t be more Pinot Noir! We want to continue our focus on more unusual varieties.
You have been in Oregon for 10 years now. What do the next 10 years look like?
We moved here in June 2012 from Cincinnati, bought our property at the end of that year, and made our first vintage in 2013. This harvest in 2022 marked both our 10th harvest, as well as what we’ve been calling “the end of the beginning.” This was the first year we were 100% Pinot independent; that is, we didn’t source Pinot Noir from any other grower for the first time. We loved working with other micro-site growers who were very much like us. But ultimately being as close to 100% estate was the goal, and now we are… at least for the Pinot Noir. So, the Pinots we’re making this year represent the next chapter in our evolution and we’re excited to see how the fruit develops in terms of complexity and flavors as the vines continue to mature. Otherwise, we don’t really plan to change. We love the one-group-at-a-time winemaker hosted tastings, and plan to continue being 100% direct to consumer.
What experiences and knowledge from your previous lives and careers helped you forge your new path and achieve success these past 10 years?
We’ve both managed people in our past careers and we learned we don’t ever want employees – all of Bells Up’s customers know exactly who they’re going to talk to when they call, email, or visit us. Having employees creates layers between yourself and your customers. There’s also all the administrative work that goes along with employing someone. We knew we would have to stay small to adhere to this model. And that’s okay with us.
Ultimately, we loved the experience we enjoyed in 2008 at the smaller, more intimate wineries. We enjoyed sitting down and talking with the owners and winemakers. We knew that wine brings people together. Our goal is to sell wine by building relationships. Obviously, you need to make great wine, but there’s a lot of great wine made in the Willamette Valley.
Great wine is a starting point. But the best wine in the world will always be overshadowed by a terrible customer experience. To find true success in business is how you treat your customers and how you take care of people. We treat every customer like an old friend we just hadn’t yet met.
Elizabeth Smith’s Reviews of Three “Must Try” Bells Up Estate Wines
2021 Helios Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Seyval Blanc – named for Carl Nielsen’s “Helios Overture, Opus 18.” This is a homage to their former Midwest life and Dave’s amateur winemaking when he won a 2011 competition with his 2010 Seyval Blanc. It’s a zesty and minerally take on this hybrid grape variety that reminded me of Bourgogne’s lesser-known white, Aligoté.
2021 Prelude Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Rosé of Pinot Noir – named for Franz Liszt’s “Symphonic Poem No. 3: Les Preludes.” After a 40-hour soak on the skins and malolactic fermentation, this deeply colored rosé shines with juicy red berry flavors cradled in creaminess and savory spice. (This vintage still stands up to the mac and cheese and bacon cheeseburger mentioned in my previous story.)
2020 Jupiter Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Pinot Noir – named for Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” orchestral suite and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter.” Mouthwatering meets silky in this Pinot replete with dark berry, herbal, and spicy flavors.