With the help of horses, bikes, and canoes, Illahe Vineyards and Winery creates a truly old-world production line
It’s said that necessity is the mother of invention, but in the case of Illahe Vineyards and Winery’s 1899 Project, necessity led to reversion—a wine produced using horses, canoes, and bicycles.
The idea was born in 2011, when the sorting line at Brad and Bethany Ford’s Dallas, Oregon, winery broke down right in the middle of harvest. “We had already carried all the grapes up the hill with horses, and they were going directly into a wooden vat, like in the old days,” Brad recalls. “I had recently been to Burgundy, and to make a bad situation better with the broken sorting line, I thought, Well, this is just how they would have done it last century.”
After delving into historical winemaking practices and techniques, he came up with a system to produce a bottle—Illahe’s 1899 Estate Pinot Noir—without any form of electricity or modern mechanization. The grapes are harvested by hand, and a team of Percheron horses then transports the fruit to the winery. The power for the destemming process comes from a 1960s Schwinn bicycle that the Fords and their team pedal themselves. The grapes are then sorted by hand and loaded into a wooden fermenter, where they undergo a gentle native fermentation. After punch-down (pushing the skins back down into the juice during fermentation), Brad and Bethany personally stomp the grapes, and then the skins are loaded by hand and pressed manually in a wooden basket press. Another ride on the Schwinn powers the pumping of the wine into barrels. Once the wine is properly aged (after 22 months), it is bike-pumped to a hand-bottling station, where 3,600 bottles are corked and labeled.
These bottles have only just begun their journey, however, as they still have to travel 94 miles to Illahe’s distributor, Casa Bruno in Milwaukie, Oregon, just south of Portland. Three cyclists haul the cases from the winery to the Willamette River, where they’re loaded onto five canoes, paddled upriver (which takes three days), and then biked from the shore to the warehouse. At that point, the wine returns to the 21st century, rejoining the rest of the 16,000 cases Illahe puts out each year.
“Being able to not only appreciate modern speed but to work at a slow speed and create slow wine allows us to be a real part of a 10,000-year-old process,” Bethany says of their initiative. Adds Brad: “It keeps the romance in winemaking.”