This is the first in a series of posts on some of the founding wineries and individuals in the Oregon wine industry.

Going on 30 years of winemaking – nearly ten at one of Oregon’s founding wineries – it seems hard to believe that Erath winemaker Gary Horner’s entry into the world of wine was far from preordained. Growing up, Horner’s family rarely had wine around the table. In fact, it wasn’t until he was in college that he found a friend – who was, of course, part French – who took it upon himself to introduce Horner to wine. “I knew nothing. I was a blank slate,” Horner recalls.

Unbeknownst to him, his friend, Andre, opened up some of the world’s best examples, including top wines from Burgundy and first growth Bordeaux. Horner was fascinated by the wines and soon began reading books about how to make wine. In 1986, he decided to take the plunge.

“I got a hold of the grape grower directory in Washington and just started calling people,” Horner recalls. Of the numerous numbers he called, Horse Heaven Hills grower Rob Andrews was one of the first to pick up and was more than happy to provide Horner with grapes. Horner picked up 500 pounds of fruit that year, putting the grapes in asparagus picking bins that Andrews loaned him.

As many a winemaker can attest, his first effort was not quite as successful as he might have hoped. “I did everything by the book, and I totally screwed it up!” Horner says with a laugh. “It was disgusting.” Disgusting perhaps, but he was far from discouraged.

At the time, Horner was working at Virginia Mason as a clinical pharmacist and living in Lynwood, Washington. He decided to take some time off and head down to University of California-Davis to talk to their viticulture and enology professors. “I was just seeking some direction,” Horner says. He drove down, camping in the back of his Mazda B2000 pickup truck along the way.

The trip was fateful, but not necessarily in the way that Horner might have envisioned. He quickly decided that Davis wasn’t a good fit for him. “What I wanted to learn was the kind of stuff that you can’t read in a book,” Horner says. “You have to learn by actually doing or being with somebody.”

On his way back home, Horner decided to stop by a few wineries in Oregon. At Tyee Wine Cellars, Barney Watson encouraged him to go up and visit Bethel Heights. Once he arrived at Bethel Heights, Horner talked with owner Terry Casteel about his own interest in making wine. “He told me, ‘You know if you ever get serious and head this way, give us a call,’” Horner recalls.

Horner arrived back in Seattle convinced that he wanted to take the next step. He lined up a clinical pharmacy job in Salem, Oregon with the idea that he was going to move there and subsequently earn enough money to plant his own vineyard. The perfect plan was all in place.

Three days after he arrived in Oregon, it all fell apart. Horner realized that his approach was all wrong. He knew could no longer put off what he really wanted to do with his life. “I was really good at it but it didn’t fill my soul,” Horner says of his job as a clinical pharmacist. He decided to walk away from his profession and pursue his dream of making wine.

Horner reached out to Casteel at Bethel Heights. Casteel – who had thought Horner was just another starry-eyed Seattleite who he’d never see again – gave him a job on the bottling line for $6 an hour. Horner stayed on at Bethel Heights for harvest and then continued on working in the vineyard and doing whatever needed to be done around the winery. “That’s the way it was for four years,” Horner says.

Horner looks back on his time at Bethel Heights fondly. “I learned so much from that family,” he says. “They opened the door to me. It’s one of those experiences that maybe happens to people once in a lifetime.” Indeed, the Casteels even allowed Horner to make wine under his own label and sell it out of their tasting room. “Who does that?” Horner asks.

In 1992 Horner moved on to Witness Tree, where he spent three years making wine and managing the vineyard. Looking for experience at a larger winery, he took a position as associate winemaker and grower liaison at Washington Hills, working alongside winemaker Brian Carter (now of Brian Carter Cellars). Over subsequent years, Horner worked jobs at Avatar Partners in Napa Valley and then Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, Oregon.

Horner first met Erath Winery founder Dick Erath when he was working at Bethel Heights. Erath had planted his first vineyard in Oregon in 1969, starting out with 23 different varieties before honing in on Pinot Noir. The winery had its first commercial release in 1972. Over time, Erath blossomed to become one of the crown jewels of the Oregon industry.

Horner assumed the role of winemaker at Erath in 2003. It was not long after, in 2006, that Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, the parent company of Chateau Ste. Michelle purchased the winery from Dick Erath. Horner says of his experience working for Ste. Michelle in the ensuing years, “It’s like a winemaker’s dream come true. You think it’s going to come with a string attached and that there’s going to be somebody from Woodinville telling you how to make your wines but it doesn’t. I make wines that are true to the style that I like.”

While Horner makes a variety of wines at Erath, Pinot Noir is the focus. A number of these are single vineyard, single clone selections of Pinot, such as the wines from Prince Hill. “There might be 15-plus Pinot lots in the cellar that are all called Prince Hill,” Horner says of each vintage.

Horner takes some of these lots to create a Prince Hill Pinot Noir, blended from different clones. “The backbone is always Pommard,” Horner says, referring to a particular clone of Pinot Noir. “It tends to be a little more spice driven. That was the clone, at least in my mind, that helped established the Oregon style in the older days. The newer styles may ripen a little earlier than Pommard, and they may flower a little earlier. Their clusters tend to be more compact and their berries a little smaller. All those slight differences in bloom days and how the crop sets equates to a difference in the glass.”

Creating larger batch, Oregon-designated wines as well as smaller batch, single vineyard and single clone designated wines gives Horner the best of both worlds. “It’s like we’ve got this larger production facility but there’s a boutique winery inside of it,” Horner says. “For us, it’s how can we grow and how can we do it without compromising quality.”

Having now spent nearly 30 years in the industry, Horner says that the next frontier for Oregon is being able to make a more affordable Pinot Noir. “We know we’ve got to get Pinot to more people,” he says. “That’s the challenge for Oregon today.”

Picture of Gary Horner and bottle shot courtesy of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates. Other images by Richard Duval

Erath Pinot Gris Oregon 2011 $14
 (Good)A lightly aromatic wine with yellow and green apple, pineapple, mineral, and spice. The palate is tart, almost austere in feel with vibrant citrus flavors. 13% alcohol. Sample provided by winery. Recommended Reviewed November 20, 2012

Erath Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2010 $20
 (Good) Pale ruby. A very pretty wine aromatically with strawberry, peppermint, red cherries, and vanilla. The palate is light bodied with tart, delicate cranberry flavors. 100% Pinot Noir. Aged in 25% new French oak. 13.5% alcohol. Sample provided by winery. Recommended. Reviewed August 28, 2012

Erath Leland Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2010 $50
(Excellent)Very pale in color. An intriguing wine with aromas of vanilla, cranberry, pine needles, butterscotch, and earth. Light bodied, the wine coats the palate with soft, delicate, and nuanced fruit flavors and velvety tannins. A very pretty, very delicate wine. 100% Pinot Noir (Pommard & Wadenswil clones). Aged 14 months in French oak (40% new). 13.0% alcohol. 350 cases produced. Sample provided by winery. Reviewed August 28, 2012

Erath La Nuit Magique Reserve Pinot Noir Willamette Valley 2010 $65
 (Excellent) Pale in color. Lightly aromatic with bay leaf, dark cherries, cranberries, a high-toned, light peppery streak, and sweet, toasty notes. The palate is broad with soft tannins and abundant sour cherry flavors and a tart finish.

Erath Pinot Noir Prince Hill Dundee Hills 2010 $50
 (Good) A brightly aromatic wine with dark and red cherries, mint, clove, and cinnamon. The palate is delicate and elegant with puckering cranberry, citrus, and orange peel flavors. 100% Pinot Noir (57% Pommard clone, 38% 115, and 5% 777). Aged 14 months in French oak (40% new). 13.0% alcohol. 997 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Erath Pinot Noir Prince Hill 777 Dundee Hills 2010 $50
 (Good/Excellent) An aromatic wine with tree bark, citrus, clove, cherry, cinnamon, sassafras, and mint. The palate has a broad feel with very delicate citrus-driven fruit flavors and mouthwatering acidity. 100% Pinot Noir. Aged 15 months in French oak (40% new). 13.0% alcohol. 232 cases produced. Sample provided by winery.

Erath Pinot Noir Prince Hill Pommard Dundee Hills 2010 $50
 (Good) Fruit forward with abundant dark cherry along with vanilla, cedar, and other light barrel notes. The palate has considerably more fruit intensity compared to its littermates, finishing a bit short. 13.0% alcohol. Sample provided by winery.