Seventh-generation Minnesotans aren’t necessarily known for having a sarcastic bent, but sometimes it can come in handy.
Exhibit A: Pattie and Mark Björnson.
In 1984, as a pledge in the University of Minnesota’s coed business fraternity Delta Sigma Pi, Pattie was required to interview active members. Her final question to Mark was about his long-term goals.
“He told me he wanted to live out in the country and have chickens and build his own home with a big stone fireplace — he had put himself through college building them — and he wanted to have a large family. This was in 1984, when everybody was very corporate.
“So I sarcastically responded, ‘Wow, look me up when you want to get married.’ ”
Well he did, and they did, and now they live out in the country and have … well, not chickens but vines, thousands of them, plus four offspring and a big stone fireplace (in their tasting room). They sell most of the grapes but also make stellar wines at Björnson Vineyard in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Still, it was quite the circuitous route. They dated for four years and got married in 1989, but couldn’t take a honeymoon because Mark was buried in a training program for work. Four years later, they bought a tandem bicycle and plane tickets to Europe and pedaled through Germany with a 2-year-old daughter in tow. The countryside wowed, dazzled and beckoned them.
“It was glorious,” Mark recounted, “and I said if we don’t do it [go the rural route] now, we’ll never do it. We stayed in a couple of little wineries on the Mosel River, and we decided then we wanted to have a vineyard and winery. The whole thing was a thick measure of raw foolishness.”
The dream never abated, and Mark’s work got them to Oregon in 2005. In short order they owned 107 acres near Salem, one of the nation’s smallest state capitals. They cleared and planted 28 acres of vines, mostly pinot noir. The location proved fortuitous — if one allows that luck is the residue of design.
“We’re in a great spot in Eola,” Mark said. “I call it the blast zone of the Van Duzer winds [which shoot through a corridor from the Pacific Ocean]. The real thing that makes wine great is the cool winds from the ocean every night, which cause the berries to put on a little thicker skin. And that’s where the flavors comes from, the skins. The winds also reduce disease pressure.”
That’s why such esteemed wineries as Failla, Fullerton, Bethel Heights, Elevee and Helioterra have been buying the Bjornsons’ grapes. It also might help explain why their Willamette Valley chardonnay is uncommonly crisp and smooth and the Reserve pinot noir is surpassingly expressive and focused. (Björnson wines can be found at Wayzata Wine & Spirits, Cedar Lake Wine Co., France 44 and select Top Ten locations.)
Of course, those attributes might have a little to do with Pattie’s winemaking chops. She interned at Bethel Heights under Ben Casteel and apprenticed under John Grochau, who was buying fruit for his Grochau Cellars and served as Björnson’s original winemaker. She took the reins with the 2014 vintage, with Grochau remaining in an advisory capacity.
“It’s a long learning curve because you only get one shot every year,” Pattie said. “I think it takes a year to learn how to make wine and a lifetime to be a winemaker. I still really don’t feel super-confident.”
Mark quickly added, “Pattie’s probably the least confident, most competent winemaker I know.”
And his vineyard management skills play a prominent part; after all, no one has ever made great wine without great grapes. “We take the softest approach possible,” he said, and the vineyard has been certified Salmon-Safe and sustainable by L.I.V.E. (Low Input Viticulture and Enology).
“Our priorities are simple,” she said. “Care for the land, make exceptional wine and enjoy life’s journey.”
Mission accomplished. And to think it all began with a bit of sardonic banter at the Carlson School of Management.
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.