Capiche Conversations: Interview with Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery

Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC

Following is the inaugural edition of a new series of interviews featuring Capiche clients. We are delighted to introduce Terry Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, based in Elkton, Oregon. Below, Terry shares his winemaking philosophy, the unusual background that gave him surprising insights into running a winery, and the unique viticultural advantages of the Umpqua Valley. He also delves into the love story that began with meeting his now–wife and business partner, Sue, at a wine tasting in Wyoming, and the journey they embarked on as they sought the perfect site for planting a vineyard. Terry is past president of the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association (UVWA) and former member of the Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) Board.

Q: You and your wife/business partner, Sue, spent years seeking the perfect site for Brandborg Vineyard & Winery. What drew you to Elkton, Oregon, when you first discovered it in 2001?

Brandborg Vineyard and Winery LogoA: I’d had a long familiarity with the Umpqua Valley, first stumbling across the North Umpqua River in 1972. Hitchhiking with a backpack and fly rod, I just saw a ribbon of blue on a map and took off for it. Then I had friends from San Francisco move to the area in the early eighties who used to help with home winemaking. So when I came up to visit them, we would tour the local Umpqua Valley wineries, and I got to know some of the early pioneers—Philippe Girardet, Richard Somers, and Scott Henry (of Girardet Vineyards & Winery, HillCrest Vineyard, and Henry Estate Winery respectively).

In 1994, I got my first invite to International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC) and also attended the Steamboat Pinot Noir Conference that year, both of which I had attended several more times while still making wine in California. My wife, Sue, and I were both juggling day jobs in addition to our wine business, living in San Francisco. I had worked with Pinot noir and cool climate aromatic whites since my first commercial vintage in 1986, at first sourcing those from Anderson Valley (AV).

Then, in 1988, I started getting Central Coast Pinot noir from Bien Nacido. We spent many weekends searching for our property along the California coastal river areas between those two points and were coming to the realization that we didn’t have enough dough to get very far in California.

We learned of Elkton from Earl Jones in 2000, when we first met him and shared his wines and ours on our way to look at a property in the South Willamette. We made a point to carve out some extra time in 2001 when we were again attending Steamboat to get to Elkton to check it out. Pretty much love at first sight, it is so reminiscent of the terroir of Anderson Valley.

Q: Thinking back to your childhood, were there any signs of a budding winemaker? What aspects of your personality are particularly suited to this industry?

A: My dad was chief of gastroenterology at the VA in San Francisco and professor of medicine at UCSF. I always had an interest in science but had never really applied myself until by somewhat of an accident I made my first wine in 1975. Then I really wanted to start learning as much as I could about all aspects of viticulture and oenology.

Q: Tell us about your experience working longshore/warehouse on the San Francisco waterfront and how that prepared you for running your own winery.

A: I worked on the waterfront for an export packing and containerization company for 25 years. I grew into all of the logistics involved in planning and shipping stuff around the globe. People say that’s really different than the wine industry, and I tell them not as much as you may think—it taught me about planning, purchasing, and meeting deadlines, and I still spend 40 hours a week on the forklift during harvest. Sue says I’m a graduate of “Fork U.”

Terry and Sue Brandborg

Q: Speaking of Sue, you guys have quite a special love story, which ties into the founding of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery.

A: That’s true. Even though I grew up in the middle of San Francisco in the 1960s, my dad was from Wyoming, so when I was a kid, all of our summer vacations were spent camping, fishing, and hiking. I have a buddy in Fairfax who asked, “Would you like to go on a fishing and pack trip?” I said, “Sure, sounds great.” It was a very interesting group of people from around the country. One of them was a total wine geek from Jackson, Wyoming. I asked him, “Why don’t you get a broker’s license and sell my wines in this market?” Well, he did! I thought it would be a good excuse to do some fishing and do wine marketing while I was out there. I got to know everyone in the wine community there. One of the people I met in Jackson was an internist there—that was the doctor who first introduced Sue to my Pinot noir.

Q: So Sue fell in love with your Pinot noir before you?

A: Yeah, we joke about that! I eventually met her at a wine tasting in 1998 during Memorial Day weekend. I was there for an annual wine marketing, flyfishing, and mushroom hunting trip. We chatted at the tasting. We hit it off, we exchanged addresses, and we began writing letters (real ones!) sharing life experiences and dreams for the future. A year later, Sue moved to San Francisco. She was totally willing, ready, and able to fall into everything involved in winemaking.

Q: Can you talk a little about how you and Sue decided to start your own winery and what role she plays?

A: It started in my garage in Fairfax in Marin County for the first three years. I was able to get my garage bonded as a home occupation in 1986, which was my first commercial vintage: 300 cases of Anderson Valley Pinot noir, Riesling, and that first year a Zin from Mt. Veeder in Napa. I outgrew that after three years and wound up making wine in a rented warehouse in Richmond. Sue moved west in 1999, a year after we had met in Jackson. We started thinking it would be really great to actually get some property and plant our own grapes. When we got to Elkton after a two-year search, I told Sue, “It really is a bullseye.”

For the first three to four years, it was literally just Sue and me in the winery doing everything. We were doing the tasting room, the business admin, the marketing—everything in addition to the winemaking and taking care of the vineyard.

Q: Your winery focuses on producing harmonious, distinct wines, with emphasis on Pinot noir and Alsace-inspired white wines. How would you describe your winemaking philosophy?

A: Old World is our goal. I have never embraced where some of winemaking (especially in California) has traveled, to bigger, higher alcohol, hints of sweetness with higher extraction. To us, wine needs to complement dining. By hanging with some of the early winemakers in California in Anderson Valley, Central Coast, and then Oregon, those stylistic interpretations were what I was drawn to and to whom I most listened to and learned from.

Umpqua Valley Vineyard

Q: What unique viticultural advantages does the Umpqua Valley offer?

A: Incredible geologic and climate variety within a region 40 miles wide and 60 miles long. 1,000 GDDs (growing degree-days) between Elkton and Abacela, which translates to Alsace to Rioja in less than an hour!

Q: You are past president of the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association (UVWA). Tell us about this nonprofit organization and how it serves participating wineries.

Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association LogoA: I have always believed a rising tide floats all boats. Sue and I went to a UV board meeting while on our exploratory trip to check out Elkton before moving here. We got involved early, seeking out growers to sell us fruit and attending meetings, and then I got roped into running for the board. It’s a region that can produce great wines and that has to be known. I served on the UVWA from 2004 until 2009, on the OWB/OWA from 2010 to 2014, and then back to UVWA from 2015 through 2020.

Q: What did you learn from serving on the Oregon Winegrowers Association (OWA) Board, and how does OWA support Oregon wineries?

A: OWA is the oldest advocacy organization for wineries in Oregon, and it started here in Umpqua. The goals are to best represent the legislative and policy issues that affect all Oregon growers and wineries. Recently, OWA had partnered with Wine America to successfully lobby to make permanent the taxation reductions for wineries under the Craft Beverage Modernization federal legislation.

Chris Cook

Q: UVWA has been working with Capiche for a couple of years now. Why did you choose Capiche, and what strengths do Chris Cook and her team bring to their role as consultants?

A: We have known Chris and her work for a long time. We had admired her work with SOWA, the Oregon Wine Board (e.g., her tasting room survey), and on behalf of her winery clients. She shares a newsletter with PR and marketing tips for our Oregon wine industry. Most of us here in the Umpqua had met Chris as she has made in a point to visit most all of our UV wineries over the years. She likes wine! And she likes food, so we have invited her to participate in our Greatest of the Grape (GOG) event as a food judge. So when we started looking for some consultation help in how better to market our region, the list was not long.

Q: In 2020, Greatest of the Grape—UVWA’s primary fundraiser—would have celebrated its 50th year. How did Capiche help you assess the efficacy of this event and identify recommendations for improvement?

A: For background, this event is the oldest food and wine celebration in the Northwest. Since we have been here, it had been held at Seven Feathers. Sue and I have participated since we had our first UV wines available in 2003. Then as a member of our board, it had always seemed to me that it was a mutually beneficial relationship for our organization and Seven Feathers. Then out of the blue in 2018, they decided they were going to raise our fees by manyfold, to the point that there would no longer be any profit in the event for UVWA. When we sent our committee down to negotiate with them and explain that we are a nonprofit marketing organization, they were told, “Go have a car wash or bake sale for your nonprofit.” So we felt it necessary to move it back to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where it had started. Then the attendance was down so much in 2019 that we had to take a reality check. I’m stubborn and did not want us to go back to Seven Feathers, but we enlisted Chris to help sort it out, and she recommended a survey. The survey was conclusive that folks really missed having the event at Seven Feathers, so I came around. And Seven Feathers agreed to some of her proposals to have a multiday event and was willing to sign off on a five-year contract with only modest cost increases. So with her guidance, it turned into a win-win solution.

Q: The Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association just voted in a new board this month. How has Capiche aided you guys with strategic planning and the transition to new leadership?

A: Where to begin? The UVWA recognized the need to update our strategic plan and how to address and emerge from our current challenges better and stronger. We retained Chris to be our marketing consultant in this effort, which did begin before COVID hit. Chris believed we could continue the work with virtual meetings, so that is what we did, and we are all happy with the results. We still have our work cut out for us as with the postponement of our fundraising events, there is a big budget hole. But we have our template with which to work and will continue to work toward our goals of ever promoting and increasing awareness of our great region to the benefit of all.

Travel Oregon Logo

Q: I understand Capiche helped UVWA secure a Travel Oregon Wine Country License Plate Grant to fund an elegant new fundraising event (currently postponed due to COVID-19). Can you share details and let us know what to anticipate once the vision can be realized?

A: One of the goals of the strategic plan was to take our region on a road trip. After much discussion, we looked at what best we could hope to accomplish and decided that Eugene would be our target. It is only 1–2 hours away from all of our wineries and is the biggest population center within a timeframe to attract visitors to our region. Chris was able to help in getting grant monies from Travel Oregon (TO) to help fund this event. TO has agreed to keep these monies in the pot for the event rescheduled for 2021. The UV secured a very nice event facility, and the goal is to sell at least 400 tickets and have all UV wineries that want to participate be on hand to pour their wines.

  • Strategic planning & leadership transition
  • Surveys & research
  • Marketing & PR consulting
  • Grant-writing & fundraising
  • Community relations
  • Resilience-building
  • COVID pivoting
  • Zoom meeting facilitation

Q: How have Brandborg and fellow Umpqua Valley wineries innovated in response to the COVID landscape?

A: With our experiences with Chris and Zoom meetings, many of us started doing that for our own business to sell wine. Advertising and utilizing social media to help boost DTC sales is something that Chris has encouraged.

Q: In what ways has Capiche helped Umpqua Valley wineries and UVWA build resiliency?

A: We look forward to the full implementation of our strategic plan and our shared experiences in the development of that has increased our awareness of our work being “for the whole and stronger together.”

Q: What are your dreams for the future—of Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, Umpqua Valley wines, and Oregon’s place in the larger world of wine?

A: Continued growth of the recognition of our own wines and of the region for the economic benefit of all involved.

I have always believed a rising tide floats all boats. —Terry Brandborg Click To Tweet

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