Illahe – flowers, deep roots, happy cows and birds…oh and wine grapes.

Illahe Vineyards Patio Panorama

We made the drive toward the southern part of the Willamette Valley to visit Illahe.  (ILL-a-he)  We were staying in Newburg and took the opportunity to get up early and drive south through the Eola-Amity Hills and then down to Salem.  In Salem we made a stop along the Willamette River at Minto-Brown Island Park for a little morning hiking and to see the river.  We headed back across the river and along Rt. 22 to Rickreall and then south and west to Illahe Vineyards.  This area is Southwest of the Eola-Amity Hills AVA.  The area has a proposal in to become a new AVA which would be the Mt. Pisgah/Polk County AVA.  Illahe is one of nine vineyards that would be located in this new AVA.

This is part 2 in our series (the folks at Illahe were kind enough to spend the whole morning with us!). Check out part one with an audio recording here.

Illahe Vineyard Tasting room
Illahe Vineyard Tasting room

After a bit of tasting with Vineyard Owner Lowell Ford and tasting room manager Kathy, Lowell took us out front to the patio that overlooks the vineyard.

The view is wide and bucolic.  Lowell first planted back in 2001 with 22 acres of Pinot Noir.  The vineyard is now 60 acres of the 80-acre slope and includes 7 varieties.  They also grow estate fruit on the 120-acre family vineyard at Glenn Creek which is back near Salem.

This vineyard is planted south facing for heat with rows planted north to south.  There is one small exception where the vineyard was very steep, and the rows could not run north south for safety reasons.

Native flowers

Illahe Vineyard-Flora
Illahe Vineyard-Flora

One thing we noticed on our drive in and from our vantage point looking down on the vineyard was the bright pops of color from flowers in the vineyard.  They have planted baby blue eyes, which by the time we visited were a bright pink/purple color.  They worked with the soil and conservation district and have planted every other row to a different cover crop of flowers.  The idea is to return the area to the native savannah that it was before the European settlers arrived with native species. There are poppies, which sadly only a few were in still in bloom when we visited and 5 or 6 other varieties of flowers in a 2.5-acre spot in the vineyard.  As you look out, you see some areas with more color where they planted these cover crop flowers more densely to help combat erosion.  Eventually they would like to use this practice throughout the entire vineyard.

The Pros and cons

The bad news first…many of these flowers grow very tall which creates issues for the vineyard workers and trouble with mowing.

On the plus side, these plants de-vigor the vines, causing them to pull back on their green growth.

Water in the Vineyard and the Deep Roots Coalition

They, like most vineyards began with irrigation, as young vines, especially in the first three years need a little extra help as they establish their root system.  They have since joined the Deep Roots Coalition.   The organization believes that when you don’t irrigate, the roots dig deeper, giving you a truer expression of the terroir. 

Deep Roots Coalition is based out of nearby Salem and includes 26 vineyards in the Willamette Valley.  Their group looks to make terroir driven wines from sustainable agriculture.  Dry farming accomplishes both of these things.

We promote sustainable and terroir-driven viticulture without irrigation.

Wine should reflect the place from which it emanates: its terroir. Irrigation prevents the true expression of terroir. In most cases, irrigation is not a sustainable method of farming. The members of drc, winemakers and vineyard growers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, are committed to producing world-class wines solely from dry-farmed vines.

From the http://www.deeprootscoalition.org/

I asked Lowell if there was a water table that the roots could be heading toward.  There is he told me “about 12-15 feet down”.  With the Willakenzie soil they have a dense black clay from the Missoula floods that is very hard.  As they were putting in the vineyard, they had to tile a section as there was water coming out from a hole in the side of the hill creating a mud hole.

Mostly Pinot Noir

Most of the grapes planted here are Pinot Noir, with the Lion’s share going to the very popular Estate Pinot Noir. They also have 3 other Pinots their Bon Savage from the lower blocks, the Percheron and the 1899.

Illahe Vineyard Tasting room, Bottle Shots
Illahe Vineyard Tasting room, Bottle Shots

Other varieties

As we looked over the vineyard, Lowell pointed out a section of two rows that was shorter and lighter in color than the rest. This is the Schioppettino that was planted down in what he calls “Little Italy”, where they also grow Lagrein, and Teraldego. 

Side note: Schioppettino is the word for “gunshot” in Italian.  This wine is often dry with black cherry and spicy, sharp black pepper.

In addition, they have 15 rows of Grüner Veltliner, plus some Pinot Gris, Viognier and some Tempranillo that they make into a rosé.

Happy Cows

We looked out and could see a tractor moving.  David, their neighbor was out feeding his cattle and while he was over a quarter mile away, you could clearly hear the tractor.  This prompted Lowell to share with us a story about the cattle.  Early on as they started making wine, they were looking for a way to use the pomace (the grape skins and seeds that are left after the wine has been pressed).  As a natural product he and David thought they could feed it to the cows!  Lowell took a truck load over to dump near the shed and noticed the cows got aggressive, jumping up and shoving each other out of the way.

David called later to say the cows were drunk and they were not good drunks.  They now blend the pomace with hay, which keeps the cows happy with less of a buzz, since they obviously can’t hold their liquor!

The Bird issue

We saw raptors, northern harriers and white-tailed kites. Oregon is home to many raptors. Lowell enjoys seeing these birds who often cause starlings to disappear in a big puff.  I might sound cruel, but starlings can wreak havoc on a vineyard. There have been years when starlings appeared as a huge cloud migrating from Alaska.  During harvest propane cannons which cause periodic explosive bursts that will scare the piss out of you and squawkers, which are recordings of birds in distress are used to keep the birds away, so they don’t eat all the fruit.  Lowell says each of these techniques works for about 2 weeks until the birds catch on.  Robins (not me!) can be an issue also. Luckily for him, the last four years the birds have been less of a problem.

From here we headed back into the winery, to fill our glasses again and talk about the wine making techniques.

How to find them!

Illahe Vineyards is located at 3275 Ballard Rd, Dallas, OR 97338.

Give Kathy a call for an appointment at 503-831-1248 or drop her an email at [email protected].

Tastings are $25 per person and are waived with a $100 purchase.

While they don’t serve food, they have a lovely patio with tables overlooking the vineyard, where you can bring your own lunch and enjoy the view.

Want to know more?

We did a quick primer on the winery ” Illahe Vineyards – stepping back to a simpler time” as well as a tasting and pairing with their Gruner Veltliner.

We will also be back with a tour through the winery, the vineyard and cave as well as a discussion with Lowell on their 1899 Pinot Noir project.

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