A Chat with Bryan Wilson, Winemaker
Tell us about yourself.
I was born in Inglewood, California. My father developed real estate with European investors, so I grew up all over the place, including a year in Europe during my teens – six months in Luxembourg and six months in the Netherlands. I got a degree in economics at the University of Oregon, but by the time I graduated in 1980, I’d fallen in love with wine. So here I am.
What drove you to fall in love with wine?
My dad collected and drank good wines. That had an influence. I remember in Europe that I soaked labels off my father’s bottles and made collages. I’ve always liked label art. I still have some of the ones I made as a kid. Then, after the University of Oregon, I had no idea of what I wanted to do to make a living. All I knew was that it had to be related to dirt in some way, shape, or form. I’ve loved dirt as long as I can remember.
So your interest in dirt turned you into a winemaker?
It did! Oregon was experiencing hard economic times in 1980. Somehow I ended up down in Sonoma, working in a tasting room. I took extension classes at Santa Rosa Community College and then at UC Davis. You know about Davis, right?
Viticulture and enology. What did you take away from those experiences?
I learned a lot, but more important than anything else, I learned, to my surprise, that nobody knew all there was to know about wine. The instructors were accessible and on top of techniques, but there was so much nobody knew about it at all, at least not as far as I could figure out.
Can you elaborate?
Sure. I went to work for Chateau Souverain, an old Napa property moved to Geyserville. I met Mike Benziger and then worked for him. I traveled all over California and had tremendous exposure to thousands of wines. I started with Benziger in 1984, the first non-family member they ever hired. I became their winemaker in 1987. In 1993, the company sold out to a conglomerate, and the next year I lost my job. That was a humbling experience. I wasn’t happy about it, of course, but those nine years were more valuable than any formal education.
I became a consultant. Everybody knows what that means. It means you’re unemployed, but you have something to put on your business card.
Anybody worth their salt has been there. Did you learn anything from consulting?
You mean being unemployed? It taught me humility and how to think on my feet. I worked for a barrel producer and learned about oak. I started a little winery. It didn’t go anywhere. So, in 1994, I landed a job as associate winemaker for Warren Winiarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. That lasted ten months, but nobody lasted very long with Warren. In 2004, he put on an absolutely stunning dinner for all the winemakers that ever worked for him. There must have been about thirty of us. He invited me, but I wasn’t sure I deserved to go. He insisted, and flew me down to his place. He presented each of us with an envelope containing two seeds of vitis vinifera. He knew he possessed a mercurial personality, and he wanted to thank us for putting up with him. I think it was his way of apologizing. At the foot of the master, I learned how to keep my nose in the glass – not in the air.
After that you returned to Oregon?
Yeah, in 1995. I learned about Oregon wines at several wineries, including Sylvan Ridge-Hinman Vineyards in Eugene and Del Rio Vineyard in Gold Hill, on the Rogue River. I came to work for Foris in 2006.
Any people who have particularly influenced you?
Three. Joe Vercelli, general manager at Chateau Souverain, took me under his wing. He had an immaculate mind and total recall. Reynaldo Herrera, cellar master at Stag’s Leap, taught me a lot. And Mike Benziger. Mike got me in the door. I gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from Mike, and from his Dad, Bruno.
Tell us about what you do when you’re not making wine.
Four things: white-water rafting, fishing for steelhead in the Rogue, cooking, and gardening. I love gardening. There’s that dirt again.
What are a few things you like about the wine industry?
It’s always different. You’ve got cycles, of course – daily and seasonal – but they’re never the same. And within the cycles, there are timelines. You start and finish projects daily. It gives me a sense of completion in an occupation that isn’t ever really complete. I like the full palate of flavors, types, and varieties. I love walking in the vineyard. There isn’t anything more important than walking the vineyard.
Do you have a favorite wine?
No. Any given vintage has certain varieties that perform better. But great wines…. How many succeed in making a stellar wine with an indelible mark? Warren’s 1967 Cab was one of them. He broke out several bottles of it for that dinner back in 2004. My favorite wine? Anything that reaches a stunning level of excitement from vineyard to fermentation to bottle.
What makes Foris wines so special?
They’re an extension of Ted. The whole concept of “terroir” is often misunderstood. Should I say that? Well, why not? It is misunderstood. Soil is important, of course, but it’s the human being managing the resources and making decisions on a daily basis that makes the wine, that leaves the indelible mark. You know what else is misunderstood? Stewardship of the land. Ted is first and foremost a grower – a good grower – and he has exemplary relationships with other good growers. Stewardship of the land is a philosophical concept, something good growers don’t think much about. They just do it. Growers like Ted are what make Foris wines special.
You’re just saying that because Ted is your boss.
Not true. This is a great vineyard. And so are the vineyards that grow the grapes we use. Ted has an exquisite outreach program. The Rogue Valley has the sites, a unique cohesion of soil, exposure, and climate. Truly great grapes are in a discovery mode in Oregon. Time, energy, and money are vital components in the delivery of a spectacular product, but if you don’t attend to the details, it doesn’t matter. The over-riding arc is attention to minutia – detail. Ted does that. He insists on it.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Style. Style is super important. By style, I mean technique. I’m proud of my style, and it’s reflected in the wines we produce. Speaking of style, there’s one other thing I’d like to add. Try our Riesling. It’s aromatic, all about fruit qualities that shine right through in the glass. We’re experiencing a renaissance of Riesling in southern Oregon, and Foris is an integral part of it.