Winemaker Interview: Brad Ford, Illahe Vineyards

After receiving a degree in classics, Brad Ford was first a carpenter, grant writer and English instructor. In 2004, Brad Ford followed his dad into the vineyards at Illahe and worked his first harvest, and now, he’s taken over the reins of head winemaker at the prestigious Oregon winery. His job? To make delicious wines that have a unique character.

He reaches back into the history of wine for hints and ideas on how to improve. So far, this has included working with horses, trying ferments in oak, acacia, and clay, and spending hours on the pedal-powered pump moving the 1899 wine from the fermenter to barrels. Recently, he even built a kiln so he can make his own amphorae – earthenware pots used for fermenting and ageing.

What does the name “Illahe” mean to you?

Illahe means to me what I believe it meant to the original people of the Northwest United States: Land, place, earth, or soil. It represents both the fact that we care for the terroir of our grapes and wine and that we believe the character of the wine comes from where it is grown, on the south slope of a small mountain in Oregon.

What was it like when you first took over the business from your father?

It was a slow process and hard to say exactly when it happened. He’s coming over today with some samples of Viognier. It wasn’t even the same business when I started the day to day business operations. I was more of a worker then, cleaning and moving wine, and now I’m more of a business person and I think more about the wine. My dad was a grape grower, and when he slowed down he left us with a beautiful vineyard.

Illahe Vineyards Viognier 2019 ($60)

Can you tell us more about the terroir at Illahe?

Most of Illahe’s grapes are planted on shallow marine sedimentary soils. They are yellow and orange layers of clay that contain little organic matter but a lot of nutrients and minerals that allow the grapes to survive but struggle as well. The clay holds a good amount of water throughout the year, so we are able to farm them without using irrigation. We’re above the Willamette Valley floor from 700 down to 250 feet. We get little wind and have a warm site.

Are horses a thing in Oregon and what do you use them for?

Horses are not yet an important factor in Oregon’s viticulture. A handful of wineries and vineyards have used them here. We’ve had horses in the vineyard for over 10 years, mostly at harvest to carry grapes to the winery. They are beautiful helpers and very photogenic, but we don’t see them as much as we’d like.

Is Pinot Noir your favourite varietal to work with?

Yes, and while I love the other varietals, too, Pinot Noir is the king of grapes. It’s a lifelong love with so much challenge and potential. I feel very lucky that Oregon is the right place to pursue the dream of making delicious pinot.

Illahe Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir 2018 ($70)

Tell us about the unique tools and systems you use at the winery.

We try to innovate constantly. We work on the idea of making wine with the simplest methods possible without sacrificing quality. While we don’t want to manipulate the grape, we do want the best wine we can make. So because I don’t think great wines are made with modern chemistry or machinery, we try to use historical methods to improve quality. We make a wine called the ‘1899’ in which we avoid the use of any electricity or machinery. We bring the grapes to the winery by horse, we ferment in wooden vats, and we move the wine using a bicycle-powered pump. It goes into the bottle without inert gas, and we bottle using gravity. Then for fun, we deliver our cases to Portland, the biggest city in Oregon, using bikes and canoes. It’s a three-day trip.

What’s your favourite food pairing for your wines?

I’ve been lucky to have great chefs prepare dinners with our wines in different places throughout the US, and have had so many great pairings that I don’t think I can pick a particular single one any more. Our Viognier goes well with fruit, fish, and even a little spice; our Gris matches well with ham; and the classic combination of Gruner and asparagus works well, too. Rosé matches with just about everything, and my favourite meat with pinot is either rabbit or pigeon. I do have another list of things I hate with pinot, but that isn’t as nice.

What are your upcoming plans for Illahe?

Our big project right now is building the world’s biggest press. That’s what we call it, anyway. It will have a 60-foot-long beam to push down on the fermented pinot noir. It will go inside of a new tasting room tucked into our hill. We will also have a new vineyard with Chardonnay grapes ready in 2021.

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