Oregon feels a lot like home to Olson

  • Article by: BILL WARD , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 29, 2012 - 3:59 PM

Mary Olson did quite well in the telecommunications business. But when she purchased the Airlie winery in 1997, she was hardly your typical dot-com gazillionaire. Turns out that being loaded with Upper Midwest values was more than sufficient.

"I did a lot of the tractor work myself," said Olson, a native of Osceola, Wis., and, from her time at her uncle's dairy farm, "I knew that farming is up and down. That really comes in handy in Oregon [which has much more year-to-year climate variation than does California]."

And then there's that work ethic and the whole frugality thing. "During recessions, the Midwestern value of saving comes in handy," Olson said during a recent Twin Cities visit. "I've never been overextended, and I've always been willing to work hard.

"The Farm Credit Bureau said they weren't sure how I could do this with our prices, and I told them, 'Well, that's probably OK because we do a lot of the work ourselves.'"

The prices are indeed swell, with Airlie's signature whites all coming in at $15 and under and the pinot noirs at $22 to $32. The three whites currently available in this market -- pinot gris, Riesling and the "7" blend -- are flat-out delicious, refreshing and layered.

A little help from friends

The blend has a bittersweet back story. In 2005, Airlie winemaker Suzy Gagné died from a brain aneurysm. "She had been growing a little pinot blanc and muscat ottonel," Olson said, "and when she died, her husband asked what we should do with it. I said we'll buy it, and we blended it with our five other white grapes."

That heartache produced another positive result that speaks to the tight-knit nature of the Oregon wine community.

"When Suzy died," Olson recounted, "other wineries said, 'When do you need me and for how long?' One of the people who came to help was Elizabeth [Cook], and she became our winemaker."

Olson had taken a more circuitous route from heartland to Wine Country. After graduating from Augsburg College with a double major -- "The English hasn't helped me that much," she said, "but the political science has come in handy in the wine business" -- she got an MBA from the University of Minnesota and landed a job with Northwestern Bell.

She worked all over the state, with two gigs in Duluth, before being assigned to Arizona and then Oregon. "After living in Arizona I came here and said 'I have died and gone to heaven.' I knew I had to find a reason to live here forever."

So she bought a winery.

And felt at home right away. She describes the region as "Minnesota friendly without the bad weather. There's a Minnesota feel, but with an ocean. The sensibilities are similar."

A good bit has changed since 1997, of course. Once fairly isolated in the western Willamette Valley, Airlie now has 18 wineries nearby. But the camaraderie remains, Olson said.

Something else that hasn't changed: Olson herself.

"I'm in the tasting room a lot," she said, "and when people ask about starting a winery out here, I say, 'Jeans don't cost that much. You don't need a wardrobe. You just need the passion.'"

Bill Ward • bill.ward@startribune.com

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