Brick House is Doug Tunnell. Winemaker, vineyard manager and wine visionary, he pioneered biodynamic farming in Oregon's Willamette Valley and makes Pinot noir, Gamay noir, and Chardonnay with a loyal national following.
Doug's love of wine began when he was living in "a little wine town in the Rhone Valley" and working as a correspondent for CBS News. When he moved to France "that really kind of sealed the deal," he recalls.
"In 1987 and 1988, I was knocking around French vineyards and came to find out that this French family in Beaune had just bought 120 acres in the Dundee Hills of Oregon - I was just stunned," remembers the Oregon native.
Referring rather ironically to the Drouhin family's endorsement of Oregon's wine future by beginning Domaine Drouhin in the 1980s, Doug was amazed that his home state was so well endowed viticulturally. "There I was, enthralled with wine, living in France, and these really well-known French people were buying land for a vineyard in my home town!"
Doug gladly left the glamor of reporting from the world's capitols as a foreign correspondent with CBS News, for the far different life of a farmer in his native Oregon.
Restless in his then career, Doug started looking for land to farm near his home town. He settled on 40 acres on top of Ribbon Ridge, a uniform geological formation that rises up from the floor of the Chehalem Valley.
"The U.S. Department of Agriculture Soil Conservation Service listed WillaKenzie soils as a recommended type for growing grapes in the Willamette Valley," recalls Doug, "and there were already a few vineyards planted on the ridge that were producing great wines." The site he chose had good elevation and a generally southeastern exposure. "It felt good; it felt right," says Doug.
So he purchased what would become Brick House - a tree shrouded older home and barn converted to winery, complete with running dogs and fantastic views.
Doug is a leading proponent of organic winegrowing, both for its value to the environment and as the best way of getting site expression into his wines. "In terms of getting out of the way to let the site express itself," he says, "that is the whole notion behind organics."
"I can't accept," he goes on, displaying some of the quiet passion that has become a hallmark of Brick House, "that we can discuss terroir and all that entails, and then go out with our tractors and take an herbicide and turn a field into a baseball diamond, and then grow grapes on it, and say they were expressing terroir . . . you've changed everything!"
So, Brick House Vineyards is managed to a concept of minimal off-farm input, minimal intervention, minimal handling - what Doug calls "just trying to let things be."
"Any kind of farming activity, of course, is manipulating the environment to some degree, he admits. "But organic practices change things minimally, and in closer sympathy with nature. We're not changing the subsoil, we're not changing the microflora in the soil." And, this style of winegrowing, believes Doug, ends up delivering the best crops, which for him are Pinot noir, Chardonnay, and Gamay noir grapes.
Doug's adherence to a non-interventionist philosophy extends into the cellar as well. Brick House's lack of herbicide usage has meant the flowering of natural yeasts that Doug allows to freely act on his fermentations. "Native yeasts help the wine fully express the site," he explains, "I don't want the wines to express me!
Biodynamics and Brick House
Doug began adopting his farming to biodynamics in the 1990's. He wanted to understand the natural rhythms of the farm. He wanted to go beyond organic.
Biodynamic farming is a holistic farming approach developed in the 1920s that not only encompasses many principles of organic farming, such as the elimination of all chemicals. Biodynamic farming requires close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine.
"If you look at the lunar rhythms of the moon and its influence on water - why wouldn't that affect the growth of plants?" asked Tunnell, who said a number of fish hatchery releases are timed with the new moon due to positive changes in fish metabolism. "If there are influences of the moon on massive bodies of water, like the earth's oceans, wouldn't it be logical for plants to experience some affect?"
The San Francisco Chronicle described biodynamics as the yoga of winegrowing. "It's a way to focus energy and awareness for peak performance and exceptional health. Sick vineyards need homeopathy; biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt."
Of the three varietals grown at Brick House, Pinot noir - as might be expected from a Willamette Valley producer - accounts for the lion's share of production, with a total of 19 acres.
The first Pommard Clone Pinot noir (one of the two earliest Pinot noir clones used in Oregon, and sometimes considered as a foundation grape for the Oregon wine industry) was planted in the spring of 1990 to a then unusually dense 1600 vines per acre. The first Brick House wines were released in 1993.
Today, Brick House's Cuvee du Tonnelier release (named in honor of Doug's father, and the original spelling of the Tunnell name) is composed primarily of Pommard Pinot noir from Brick House's 10.5 acres of the clone.
In 1995, Doug planted Dijon Clone 113, 114, and 115 Pinot noir in order to add a different dimension to his offering. The Les Dijonnais label is Doug's wine produced from this 8.5 acre set of vines - and is often composed with the addition of Dijon 114 grapes.
"I find spicy sweet notes in the Pommard," says Doug, "and a kind of deep forest, brushy character with a little bit of pine - almost wintergreen - and balsam notes along with dark fruit."
The Les Dijonnais bottling, he says, possesses more brightness with red fruit and "a lot of really lovely" floral notes and aromas. "I like to think of the two wines together as coming out of a forest and into a meadow."
Brick House also has a loyal following for its Chardonnay. Doug's three acres of Chardonnay contain some of the first Dijon Clone vines in Oregon. With careful attention to small yields and primarily neutral barrel influence, Brick House's production of Chardonnay has been favorably compared to great white Burgundy.
Doug is also one of the few Oregon vintners to make a serious wine from Gamay noir. It is, he admits, a labor of love. It costs Doug at least as much to produce the Gamay as it does his Pinot noir, yet the market for Gamay yields bottle prices significantly below those of Pinot noir.
Still, Brick House's commitment to the grape is serious - and widely popular. "I love Gamay," says Doug, "it's a great and fun wine and wonderful to make!""
Doug's home and business - an antique brick house and vineyard atop a uniform geologic 440-ft. rise of WillaKenzie soil in Yamhill County called Ribbon Ridge - is a classic example of passion meeting craft to produce distinctive wines.
"It's getting to where I want it to be," he says gazing across the sloping vine rows, "and that is small - 1500, maybe 1600 cases a year; that's about right."
Doug is the classic example of Oregon winegrowing and winemaking, with a heartfelt commitment to terroir expression through organic viticulture.