A Fond Farewell to Mike and Julie Slater and Tonnelier Vineyard

Everything is transient and fleeting in the wine world.

Grower Mike and Winemaker Dave pull leaf samples for inspection.

Vines unfurl their leaves, bloom, produce grapes, then sleep for the winter until a new season begins.

New vintages are released, and then sell out.

And the sun sets on beautiful, long-standing, and mutually collaborative vineyard partnerships…

It is with a heavy heart that we are finally, officially sharing the news we received last summer: Mike and Julie Slater sold their beautiful Tonnelier Vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA to embrace retirement in Montana (where they will no doubt be enjoying many more whitewater rafting adventures like the one they took with their son Alex a couple of years ago, pictured above).

While we’re very happy for them, this news was particularly bittersweet for us (I’ve put off sharing this news out for months because I still get choked up when I think about it).

Mike and Julie were the FIRST growers to take a chance on selling their personally tended, micro-vineyard pinot noir to a fledgling winery with zero brand recognition and even less professional winemaking experience. When others told us, “No,” Mike and Julie said, “Yes.”

Since our very first vintage in 2013, Mike and Julie have been by our side, walking through their 3.5-acre vineyard, collaborating on what could be done in the farming practices to make the wine even better, sorting their own fruit on the line (NO growers do that, EVER), and pouring at our open house wine tasting events.

A Partnership is Forged

Julie poured wine in the Bells Up estate tasting room occasionally during Open House weekends.

One of my favorite stories about the Slaters — other than their “meet cute” on a park bench in Paris while each was a college student enrolled in different semester abroad programs — was an exchange that happened between us and Mike during “negotiations” for our 2014 grape contract.

Dave, who had just completed a viticulture program at a local community college in the Willamette Valley, wanted to request a couple of changes in Mike’s farming practices for the 2014 growing season. But he was hesitant to do so. Mike had been growing pinot since 2000 at that point, and Dave didn’t want to appear rude. (“Just offer to pay more for the fruit if he balks,” I said.)

The two of them were seated at our kitchen table, and I was hovering close by in my office so I could eavesdrop on the conversation (as any money honey would do).

Dave nervously laid out his two suggestions and asked Mike what he thought. Mike sat back, considered for a moment, and then — in his classic, laid back dude way — shrugged, “Sure. Sounds good to me.”

Just to be absolutely sure we hadn’t ticked off our remaining grower (because we’d already had quite enough drama from our other grower for 2013), I popped in to confirm: “You sure that’s okay, Mike? We don’t want to step on your toes since you’ve got so much more vineyard experience than us.”

Mike’s reply was one I will never forget.

“Listen,” he said. “Dave is the first winemaker who has ever set foot in my vineyard, looked at the fruit, and made a suggestion about making a small change that will make a big difference in the wine. Nobody else has ever done that before. Plus, you’re not asking me to do anything crazy. So sure. Let’s do it.”

In that moment, a true partnership was born. After 2014 I don’t believe Mike and Dave actually bothered with a written contract. A handshake was enough.

So, when Dave decided to take a more intentional approach with our 2014 Villanelle Reserve Pinot Noir than he did with the “best barrel” 2013 vintage, he specifically made it exclusively from the pinot we sourced from Tonnelier Vineyard. It was 100% un-pressed, free-run 777 and 115 Dijon clone Pinot Noir. And it was stunning.

The composition has never changed: Villanelle has been “Mike and Julie’s Wine” ever since. All the way up through the 2019 vintage.

The End of the Villanelle Label

Dave and Mike at our first crush. Mike’s literally handing the grapes over to Dave.

And so, in addition to sharing the news about Mike and Julie’s well-deserved retirement (both having worked full time while raising three fabulous children and tons of spectacular pinot noir over the past 20-plus years) we are also announcing the impending retirement of the Villanelle label. The 2019 release of Villanelle marks the final bottling of “Mike and Julie’s Wine.” We just cannot bear to put the Villanelle label on any wine that wasn’t sourced from Mike and Julie’s Tonnelier Vineyard.

Which brings me to this point where I share this final piece of news: There are ONLY 4 CASES REMAIN AVAILABLE of the 2018 Villanelle Tonnelier Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir. (After which we will release the 2019 Villanelle, all 45 cases of it.) With the exception of a few cases we’re storing in our Library (that we may or may not decide to part with in a few years) once the 2019 is bottled, the Villanelle label will be retired.

By the way, in case you’re wondering, the vineyard formerly known as Tonnelier has been re-named by the new owners who plan to make a lot of changes to the farming practices on the site. Because of that we elected not to purchase fruit from them going forward.

Instead, we have grafted over 1,000 pinot noir vines in our Estate vineyard (some each of the Pommard and the 667) to 115 and 777, now called “Mike and Julie’s Block,” and anticipate our first harvest of that fruit in either 2022 or 2023. For the 2020 vintage, we sourced those two clones from Plum Hill Vineyard, our current Pinot Blanc grower.

Both the 2018 and 2019 Villanelle continue to be Fanfare Club Exclusive releases. We encourage you to consider purchasing this special wine, then join us as we raise a glass to Mike and Julie and their profound impact on our wines during our first seven years of producing pinot noir in the Willamette Valley. We wouldn’t be where we are today without them. They are missed.

Want to add some of the 2018 or 2019 Villanelle Tonnelier Vineyard Reserve Pinot Noir to your collection? Let us know at info@bellsupwinery.com or 503.537.1328.

 

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Bells Up Winery | 27895 NE Bell Road | Newberg, Oregon 97132 | 503.537.1328 | info@bellsupwinery.com

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