Swafford on wine: The search for words of hope: filtered through a mask

Joseph Swafford

The multiple attacks on society from the pandemic, divisive politics, racial inequities and a broken economy make it hard to focus on the world of wine as having much significance right now. But I want to take note of wine activity that will help us find our way back.

In spring of last year, I had the delightful job of reporting on Willamette: The Pinot Noir Auction. It was delightful because members of the wine trade and media were able to taste more than 90 premium wines, paired with excellent foods, over two days leading up to the auction, which raised more than $1 million to fund educational and marketing initiatives for the Willamette Valley Wineries Association.  When this year’s invitation came, excitement gave way a week later to disappointment when the April live event was canceled and went virtual in mid-August.

A $100,000 donation was made by Willamette: The Wine Auction to the James Beard Foundation Food and Beverage Investment Fund for Black and Indigenous Americans (a long title, but a timely and worthy placement of funds). The 2020 auction was able to raise $503,000 overall as bidders sat before their screens and raised their paddles to webcams to take home 80 lots of one-of-a-kind, special bottlings of the very good 2018 Vintage Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Let us hope bidders at the sixth annual edition of the auction, in 2021, will be able to taste from glasses handed to them by the winemakers themselves.

In France, an Alsatian winemaker was dealt a heavy blow when the pandemic-impacted economy left him with tanks full of unbottled wine and no buyers. He needed the tanks empty for the incoming harvest. In a desperate move, he brought in tanker trucks and shipped the wine for extraction of the alcohol to be used for making hand sanitizer.

In Florence, Italy, the revival of an old custom seems painfully fitting. Back in the 17th century, at the time of The Plague, wine merchants would sell wine through small windows facing the street from their shops to potentially infected buyers. The coins in payment were placed on metal trays and passed through, where they were sterilized with vinegar. A map showing 150 of these windows is available. I can remember seeing some of these windows when we visited Florence some 20 years ago and thought it a quaint bit of history, but with no practical modern use. Until now.

Here, in our own Oregon backyard, we are finding ways to gather in safety, in small numbers, primarily outdoors. We received a gracious invitation from Willamette Valley Vineyards to join a group of supporters, trade and media for a picnic at their historic Tualatin Estate Vineyard. Upon arrival at 6 p.m., everyone (we were about 45 people) received a picnic box, blanket and a bottle of wine for every two people. (They even sent us home with another bottle.) Each box contained grilled chicken, Greek salad, olives, hummus, French bread, etc., which we took to tables in an oak grove next to rows of old vines laden with clusters of soon-to-ripen grapes and with a view of the foothills of the Coast Range. There was easily 15 to 20 feet of space between tables and masks on everyone when not eating or drinking. A folk singer and a guitarist completed this picture of a lovely, sunny, summer Saturday evening.  

This was the second time we had visited Tualatin Estate vineyard. Almost 30 years ago, Christina and I led a group of eight or nine to this very same site as a part of a chamber of commerce fundraising package donated by our Champagne Patio Restaurant and Wine Shop.  When our friend Bill Fuller, founder of Tualatin Estate (acquired in 1997 by Willamette Valley Vineyards) learned that Christina served a Champagne Patio lunch in his vineyard when he was unable to be there and included his tasting room manager, he made her promise him lunch at the Patio when he was next in Newport. He collected, but I said she should have made him bring a bottle of his 1980 Pinot noir and his 1981 Chardonnay, each voted Best-in-Show for red and white at the 1984 London International Wine Fair. This was the first time one winery won both categories in the same year. The awards were presented by the Queen to Bill’s Tualatin Estate partner in Bill’s absence. We looked for Bill Fuller last week at the picnic, but he wasn’t there to reminisce with us, which was in keeping with his pattern of missing important life events: Christina’s Patio lunch in his vineyard, Queen Elizabeth’s awarding his winning wines and a chance to visit once more with Christina and Joseph. 


Joseph Swafford
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