The Fizz #21: Brianne Day uncovers the wildfire damages we don't talk about, and how she pivoted to make lemons into Lemonade.
In this issue, Brianne and I talk about the little-talked about issues wildfires pose, how she dealt with a difficult year, and how she explored all sides of the alcohol industry.
Brianne Day is an Oregon based winemaker, a single mom, and a dedicated speaker about climate change. In 2020, she was affected by the Oregon wildfires that forced many growers in the area to evacuate, and many winemakers, including Brianne, to make tough choices around their wine production.
In this interview, Brianne and I talk about how she got into winemaking, her approach of seeing the industry in all sides, and how her growers, vineyards, grapes, and production was impacted by the fires. When we talk about wildfire damage, often the conversation sits around smoke taint and how the flavor of the wine has been affected. We rarely touch on the vineyard, and how the vines themselves and their growing cycles were affected by changes in temperature and light. In this interview, we dive deep into those effects and what winemakers can do to help mitigate them. Talking to Brianne means talking to someone who is deeply invested in their community—she freely offers up valuable information for other winemakers, and talks through the reality of the changes we’ll need to see to uphold the Oregon wine industry in subsequent years.
M: How’d you get started in winemaking?
B: I’ve been telling my story a lot recently, and it’s made me think about how much of my life has been involved in wine at this point. I’m 25 years in almost. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and moved to the Portland area when I was sixteen. I’d take drives out toward the wine country. Seeing vineyards in my backyard was super surprising and glamorous to me. My parents weren’t involved in wine at all. I spent six weeks in Italy when I was nineteen and fell in love with wine.
The first time I tasted real wine with character and a sense of place, I was in Italy by Lake Como. I was in this wine cellar and this gentleman showed me all these northern Italian reds and was telling me about the origins of each grape. It really struck me how people had their culture defined through wine, and how they saw a definition of themselves through wine. Growing up in the American suburbs, you don’t really have your culture defined through food or wine—not when you’re eating at Applebee’s. It gave me this insatiable wanderlust.
I got married really young, and my way of escapism—I was working as a mortgage broker—was to research travel constantly. Wine continued to be something I was interested in. I was nutty about saving money for travel, and by the time he graduated, we had saved up quite a lot of money. When we started to travel, we focused on winemaking regions, and went around the world for about 20 months together. We volunteered on vineyards in exchange for room and board, we talked to a lot of sommeliers, documented the wines we tasted on our own blog.
I learned about organic farming and biodynamic farming and minimalist styles of winemaking. Those were the wines that really jumped out and spoke to me. Every time I really had a response to wine, they were always grown organically with native fermentations and low use of sulfur. Over time, I came to think that method created wines with more character to them. I came home in the beginning of 2008, and my ex-husband and I broke up at the end of my trip. I was single for the first time in my adult life, and I felt free to dive into wine. I left and did my first harvest in New Zealand. I started doing dual harvests every year and worked in Oregon, France, Argentina, and other places. I knew I wanted to have my own winery so I started working in other aspects of the industry to get more experience. I interned as an assistant for a retailer for a while, which proved really fortunate because the man I worked for had this encyclopedic knowledge of wine—he’s now the wine columnist for our paper The Oregonian.
I was thinking that I wanted to have my own label, but how do I sell it? How do I market it? I decided to start working in restaurants to learn more about how people buy wine at the table. I ended up working at one of the most celebrated fine dining restaurants in Portland. I worked in distribution for a bit, and selling French cooperage for a bit. I was trying to get a good look into the industry before diving in on my own. In 2012, I was working for a producer called Grochau Cellars and bought my first two tons of fruit, made my wine, had it in barrel. I was working four jobs to pay for my 2013 vintage—two full time restaurant jobs, one day a week for the retailer, and during the day at Grochau Cellars. This gentleman I waited on in the restaurant started asking me about my grapevine tattoo. I ended up pitching my entire business plan and budget to him. By the end of the dinner, he told me he wanted to be a backer. That really helped propel the business fast. That first year I made 125 cases. This year I’m making 15 thousand cases.
M: That’s an amazing story. It’s wild to hear how you really took the time to see the industry as a whole, not just winemaking.
B: I met a lot of people working in cellars that were great winemakers and would start labels and not have any idea how to get it out there and sell it. Knowing how to make wine well is really important, but if you don’t know how to sell it, no-one will ever know.
M: Your Vin de Days Blanc is a fairly popular wine here in Boston. Why’d you choose to make that wine?
B: When I first started the brand, I was only making single vineyard Pinots. Very soon after working in the restaurant, I realized a lot of people were making single vineyard Pinots. It’s a fairly saturated part of the market, and there’s so much more that Oregon is capable of. Seeing all of these different styles of wines while I was traveling, I started to realize that putting all of the emphasis on one grape in a state that has the land mass of half of France—I mean, can you imagine if France grew only Pinot Noir? I started looking for those small farmers who had the curiosity to grow other grapes. Part of why the Vin de Days wines came about is that I started selling out of state and sommeliers in New York and Chicago would say that my wines were too high of a price point for glass pours. I started thinking about making wines at lower price points so they can be enjoyed in restaurants. The wine was made with restaurants and food pairings in mind.
In 2016, I made Vin de Days Blanc—it was based on Alsatian whites that are extremely versatile and can be paired with anything. Those grape varieties are sold for a lot cheaper than Pinot Noir, so it all made sense. I used Pinot Blanc as the anchor of the blend, and blended with Riesling, Muller Thurgau, and Muscat. When I make this wine, I co-ferment all the juice. When I pick the individual varieties, I pick them with the blend in mind. I pick the Muller Thurgau first because I want the acid to be what drives the pH. When Muller gets too ripe, all the acid can drop out. I pick at 18 or 19 brix. In the blend, it keeps the acid bright. I use Muscat like salt—it’s 3-5% Muscat, which is just enough to make everything pop. That way I’m able to make the wine without any additions—it hits the balance that I want it to have because it’s picked with the blend in mind.
M: Do you ever adjust the percentage of grapes that go into those blends, depending on the weather of that year?
B: I do adjust the percentages, for example, in 2020 we had wildfires in Oregon. I don’t feel that the rest of the country realizes how big of a deal those fires were (and are). It shut life down for about two weeks to the point of being dangerous to walk outside and breathe that air. It had a big effect on grapes, and one of them is that it made the vines shut down. I hadn’t picked anything prior to the fires, none of the fruit was ready, some was close. Because of how thick the smoke was and how much it blocked the sun and lowered the temperature—it took us from 85 degree weather to 63 degree weather for a solid two weeks. My weather app would say it’s going to be 85 degrees today and it wouldn’t break 60 because it was underneath that huge cloud of smoke.
The vines stopped bringing on sugar for three or four weeks, even after the smoke cleared, they seemed to be stunted. Vin de Days Blanc, when I did pick it, I was finding that the blend was lean and too acidic. The Riesling was continuing to hang on the vines and started to pick up sugar, so I increased the percentage of Riesling in the blend in 2020—29% of Riesling was a higher amount I’ve ever done in this wine, but to compensate for what happened, it was what I had to do.
M: When we talk about the wildfires, we mostly focus on smoke taint. We don’t talk about the ripeness or the stunting of the vines.
B: Yes, and there’s so much more to talk about. If you have employees, are you going to ask them to come to the winery when they can’t breathe? I couldn’t ask them to do that. Do you ask pickers to go out there and pick your fruit? I couldn’t! Laborers were people who were not taken care of well at that time. It wasn’t something I was willing to do—I can’t ask people to put their health at risk for my business.
M: I saw all of these photos last year of pickers working right next to a wall of fire. It was terrifying to watch.
B: Absolutely. The first couple of days after the fires started, the sky was so black. When the appearance of the black smoke turned into fog, I went out to sample one of my vineyards—the smoke was really high up then. We went to this site in McMinville AVA, and my assistant and my son and I were together. I left my son in the truck with the windows rolled up, and my assistant and I went out with N95 masks on. After about half an hour, I started to get a really bad headache and my assistant started feeling sick. We left, and later that day we found out that the air quality had been at 550. 50 is the maximum level where they say it’s safe to breathe. That’s when I decided we’re not going out to the vines, even if the grapes do get ripe, and I won’t ask anyone else go either. It’s not worth it to sacrifice your health.
M: How did the wildfire season impact the Lemonade wine that you made?
B: This wine came about because I was committed to a couple of Shehalem Mountain AVA vineyards for Pinot Noir, to make a still red Pinot for a private label for a distributor. A big source of the fires was the Cascade Mountain Range—the closest the fires were was 50 miles away. In the Chehalem Mountains AVA itself, though, they did have fires there, and I had several growers who had to evacuate. When we had those 2-3 weeks when the fruit wasn’t getting ripe, it had bought us a lot of time to research the impact of the smoke and do micro-ferments to assess whether or not smoke was going to be present in the wines. I had a feeling that these vineyards were impacted by the smoke, and I was contracted for 25 tons of fruit—that’s about 60-70 thousand dollars worth of fruit. I didn’t want to back out on my grower, who did not have insurance. It’s a shockingly small percent of growers who did have smoke insurance, under 10%. The owner is a single mom like myself, and I said you know what, I can do something with this.
I said to myself okay 25 tons of Pinot Noir rosé is not what I expected to be doing, but let’s do it. We brought all the fruit in and I treated it differently—I pressed extra gently, stood by the press and tasted constantly through the press cycle. I’d get to a place in the press cycle where I started to get a sort of acridness, and then I’d just cut it. I found that consistently that place was at about 0.8 bar [bars of pressure is the measuring unit here]. Normally I press up to 2 bar. I separated all that juice and fermented it in smaller batches, I used neutral wood so we had all these small barrels of wine instead of a big stainless steel tank. We could taste each barrel easily to see if any problems were developing.
Guaiacol is the compound that happens from smoke taint, and it’s bound to the sugar molecule. When the sugar gets broken down into alcohol, that’s when your senses start to be able to taste and smell smoke. You don’t necessarily know you’ll have smoke taint until you actually start making wine. We tasted and tasted and tasted, and were able to make 1200 cases of Pinot Noir rosé as Lemonade. We released in the middle of November, which is nuts, but it was a real hit and we sold all of it by January. To have that kind of cash flow at the end of a hard year, it was really helpful.
M: It’s an incredible story of turning lemons into Lemonade—its no wonder that the wine was successful. I’m curious if you washed any of your fruit as you brought it in?
B: None of my fruit was ripe when it was out there in the smoke, and what was really helpful to us is that we had three really big rain events after the smoke, in fact that’s what put out the fires. We don’t usually want rain during harvest, but in this case, it really helped to clean everything up. I know some folks who did pick during the fires and did have to hose things down.
M: Nature kind of did it for you. It’s great to see how delicious this wine turned out, and how the character of Pinot Noir is very much present.
B: Yes, but I did end up with a lot of juice that couldn’t be usable as wine. I went ahead and got my distillation license and sent it out to get distilled into brandy. My assistant winemaker has a diverse background, including working in distillation. We’ve been putting our heads together around some ideas, and I think there will be several things we can make out of that distillate. I want to try making an Alpine Oregon amaro using berries and spruce tips, really Oregon focused. I also really love Macvan? from the Jura, which is just juice and brandy. We’re going to try a bunch of different things.
M: Do you find that other winemakers are pivoting in similar ways to minimize wildfire impact? As we move forward in climate change, these wildfires won’t be uncommon.
B: I think they’ll have to. It was our first time having a giant wildfire season that impacted everyone, I was disappointed to see people choose to sit it out. People felt that if they couldn’t make perfect high end Pinot Noir out of their fruit, they won’t make anything. I have a responsibility to uphold my grower contracts—they can’t sit it out, they don’t have that option. If you can make something out of it, I feel that you should. I know that the distilleries I’ve been talking to have been very busy, and maybe that means an amaro spritzer cocktail that goes in cans, maybe it means just selling it to distill. It appears that other people have been trying to do something with that fruit, which is great. If people don’t pivot, they’ll have to close. We’re going to have this problem again. The area that had the fires last year has not been cleaned up, there’s a lot of fuel for fire. We’re having another drought season right now—California is already dealing with fires. If we don’t pivot, the industry here won’t survive.
Anybody that’s a naysayer on climate change, I’m hoping that it changes opinions and actions, and that people become more aware of how their choices impact the planet. Actions have to change.
You can support Brianne Day by following Day Wines on Instagram. Join her wine club to be the first to know and access new releases, including her upcoming distillation project. I can’t wait to see what she does next.
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