Kids who grow up on a farm often migrate to the big city as soon as they can. Bill Hooper went in the opposite direction, a bit more slowly.
Reared in what he calls a “St. Paul establishment” household (Exhibit A: a degree from Cretin-Derham Hall), Hooper now spends most of his time toiling in vineyards in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. And loving every minute of it.
Hooper owns and operates a winery, Weinbau Paetra, but he’s a vintner more in the European sense, focusing heavily on the vineyard rather than the cellar. “Hoop,” as he’s known to his many friends here, is an avid believer in the aphorism “Wine is made in the vineyard.”
“That is 100 percent true,” Hooper said. “You can’t create a style in the cellar. If you want to make a certain type of wine, it comes down to vineyard work. So I try to be as thoughtful and innovative in the vineyard as possible and to be very minimalistic in the cellar.”
That helps explain why Paetra’s rieslings, pinot blanc and rosé boast such purity and freshness, energy and expressiveness. The wines are delightful when young, and the rieslings are endowed with sufficient complexity for aging. (They’re available at stores such as Sunfish Cellars, 1010 Washington, Liberty Village, Solo Vino and Tournament and restaurants such as Nightingale, Esker Grove, W.A. Frost and Nighthawks, among others.)
Hooper has been in the wine trade for just short of two decades. He started off in retail, working at Big Top and then transforming Zipp’s from a liquor/malt liquor emporium into one of the Twin Cities’ best wine destinations. He then moved over to the importer/wholesale side, first at Wine Adventures and then the Wine Company, where CEO Larry Colbeck became a big fan.
“Hoop and I went together to taste new vintages in Burgundy and the Rhône a few times,” Colbeck said. “Bill perceives the mystery [of wine]. His headlong rush to understand, to be enlightened, drew winemakers into animated conversation, which often ended only when each was out of breath, happily exhausted by shared enthusiasm.”
While Hooper was becoming an enthusiastic expert, his ardor often gravitated more toward white wines. “I had a girlfriend who really liked chardonnay,” he said, “so we bought a lot of California chardonnay and affordable Burgundy, and we just explored that grape.”
But when German importer Rudi Weist came to town, Hooper tasted through some rieslings from the 1980s and ’90s. “I was like, ‘Wow, this is incredible, this isn’t chardonnay anymore.’ I started reading about Germany, and getting ripeness levels in a marginal climate. It gave me so much to explore.”
Hooper didn’t know it at the time, but his future path was set. In 2010 he, his wife Jenny and their two small children “sold everything we couldn’t carry on our backs and moved to the Pfalz region of Germany to complete a classic European wine apprenticeship.”
His learning took place both in the classroom — he became only the second American to graduate from the Neustadt agricultural research school in its 113-year history — and at three wineries. As he neared graduation in 2013, Hooper began researching U.S. wine regions that would be most suitable for riesling in particular as well as other grapes that worked in Germany’s marginal climate.
As it turned out, Willamette “checked all of my boxes, meaning it had adequate rainfall to employ dry-farming, a cool but not often destructively cold climate and myriad different soil types to play with, especially volcanic.”
So the Hoopers sold everything again. Once they landed in Oregon, Hooper quickly came to love what he calls the “frontier” aspect of the still-young wine industry there.
“The infrastructure is still kind of Wild West,” he said. “You have to be really smart about ways to solve problems because there’s not always equipment or labor available. You have to be a problem-solver.
“I love Oregon, the spirit of it. So many people haven’t been trained and are kind of doing it intuitively.”
Only one problem: a demarcation that didn’t exist in Germany, “kind of a big disconnect between vineyard work and cellar work.” So after a harvest stint at a winery in 2013, Hooper went to work for a vineyard-management company and scouted out sites where he could be in full control of the farming.
So far, so good. Paetra produced 400 cases of riesling in 2014, about 1,000 cases (adding pinot blanc) in 2015 and about 1,500 cases (adding pinot noir) in 2016.
Hooper was able to quit his day job last year and now devotes most of his time to matters such as soil composition, cover crops and canopy management. Jenny designs the labels, and offspring Kaspar and Colette help out in the vineyards.
“I get to write the screenplay, produce and direct the whole program,” he said, “and hopefully that ends with a more authentic wine that speaks to the work that my family and I put in.”
Bill Ward writes at decant-this.com. Twitter: @billward4.