David O'Reilly has made a fine name for himself as a producer of sought-after wines from the Pacific Northwest -- first with Sineann, and now with Owen Roe, both of which he helped to found. But he didn't start there. He started in the rather unlikely SoCal city of Ventura, at the Leeward winery.
(Full disclosure: O'Reilly is a graduate of my alma mater. For one year, I played soccer with him. But now that his wines are regularly pulling down 90+ points in the wine press, I think I can write about him without accusation. I was inspired by the broad selection of Owen Roe and Sineann wines I found at The Wine Loft in Carlsbad -- the subject of last week's column. Fuller disclosure: Not wanting to write without due cause, I bought a bottle of the '03 Owen Roe Walla Walla Seven Hills Vineyard Cabernet. Both my wife and I were struck by its youthful harmony, and by its note of lavender under the more expected blackberry and cherry, a note which later gave way to anise.)
"I had already been accepted into the UC Davis enology program," recalls O'Reilly. "But I decided, first of all, to go work at a winery from crush until the start of the next year's fall semester." Leeward was close by, and he liked the people. "I told them, 'I want to do the worst jobs imaginable -- nothing glamorous.' I wanted to see whether or not I really wanted to do it. They loved that; they said, 'We want a guy with that kind of attitude.'"
It didn't take long for O'Reilly to notice a problem. The winery had been doubling production for two years "and they were backing up on vintages of product. I said, 'What are you guys doing? Do you really expect, given your current distribution, that you're going to sell all this? Why don't you go and introduce yourself to all your key accounts, get them to understand who you are personally?' I didn't realize that they were really pretty shy people. They said, 'Well, we don't want to do that. Do you want to do it for us?'"
He began spending half-time in the winery and half-time on the road visiting accounts. "Before long, we had sold out of product. It was just that personal interaction. Growing up in Ireland, and working in British Columbia in the family's logging business, we always valued direct interaction with the customer." Today, "In Oregon, I act as my own distributor and I sell only to proprietor-owned establishments. That way, you're dealing with a proprietor, and not some 'wine buyer' who might be gone in six weeks. You build up a real relationship."
The people at Leeward were pleased enough to let him start working with the winemaker -- as long as he kept on selling half-time. And it was there that O'Reilly learned his craft -- and decided not to attend Davis. "I usually found the winemakers who had graduated from Davis very textbookish, not willing to get out and see the vineyards and taste the fruit. I found that they lacked the passion for perfection." Meanwhile, "I learned very good technical skills at Leeward. I also learned what not to do. They didn't really have an organic sense of nature. And nature is basically the final arbiter of quality. Unless you're a fanatic about your vineyards, then what you're doing in the winery is just alchemy. The winemaker there sat on his butt; he made all his picking decisions over the phone."
O'Reilly had his heart set on a region that would not allow for such methods -- Oregon. The promise of a cooler climate -- one friendly to Pinot Noir -- was deeply attractive, even if it was still more promise than production. "I had gone up to the Willamette Valley in Oregon during the '80s and was very, very unimpressed. The wines just weren't there. My big break came when I popped into a winery and got to taste their Pinot Noir out of both bottle and barrel. The wine in the barrel was phenomenal, yet the wines that had been bottled were poor. Now, with some experience under my belt, I realize that those guys just didn't know how to make wine. They didn't pay enough attention to the wine in the barrel. I saw this little dazzle of brilliance and thought, 'This area could be great.' Then when I started looking for work up here, I found that there were some really nice wines being made."
He landed a job in marketing at Elk Cove Winery, and helped out with the blends as well. "There, I hooked up with a guy who became a great friend, Peter Rosback. I was over at his house for dinner one night, and he introduced me to a wine he had made in his basement from grapes out of a 100-year-old Zinfandel vineyard on the eastern slopes of Mount Hood. I thought it was great wine. He told me that no commercial winery was making wine from it because it was Oregon Zinfandel" -- hardly a coveted combination. "They had no idea that the vineyard was east of the mountains, where it's very arid and hot," and therefore good Zin country. "I woke up the next morning and said, 'That's it. There's my in to start my own label.' Rosback signed on, and Sineann was born.
Years in marketing helped solved the problem of Oregonal Zin. "I didn't want to market it as Oregon Zinfandel, so I sold it as Columbia Valley Zinfandel. To this day, people still assume it's made from Washington fruit," the same as most wines from the Columbia Valley appellation. Nothing deceptive -- "the valley straddles the state line all the way down to the town of The Dalles, and it was in the appellation." But still, a bit of marketing savvy. "It's worked out really well; it's been a cult wine. I'm just releasing the '04, and I'm just selling out of it."