Interview: Jeff Vejr Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster

While scrolling through my Instagram recently I came across a mention of

an Oregon-made Saperavi. It piqued my interest because I wasn’t aware of any Saperavi being made, let alone grown further west than a few newly planted vineyards in Southwestern Pennsylvania. After a quick internet search, I located Golden Cluster and its owner/winemaker Jeff Vejr in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. I contacted Jeff to find out if he and Golden Cluster were as unique and cutting edge as they appeared at first glance. The short answer is “YES” plus so much more than meets the eye when you realize what he is accomplishing.

Jeff Vejr, Owner/Winemaker Golden Cluster Photo Credit: Laura Domela

The Golden Cluster website goldencluster.com is packed with fascinating information ranging from the uncommon grapes they use in their wine, the wine they make, the history of the area, and Jeff’s story and winemaking philosophy. There is so much information that it can be confusing so I asked Jeff to clarify the structure of his operation. He told me all of his wines are made under the Golden Cluster umbrella but there are some individual wineries that have different themes or points of view. He is the winemaker of all the wine and he makes all of his wine at the David Hill Winery which was originally the Charles Coury Vineyard & Winery. His Saperavi is not grown at the David Hill Vineyards but is grown in the Columbia Gorge AVA of Oregon. The uncommon grapes he sources from David Hill Vineyards were planted between 1966-1972 by Charles Coury. Those grape varieties are Semillon, Savagnin Rose, Flora, Melon de Bourgogne, Sylvaner, Perle of Csaba, and Gouges Blanc (aka Pinot Gouges).

If you find this prelude to my interview with Jeff Vejr owner/winemaker Golden Cluster interesting please read on for my conversation with Jeff. I didn’t believe I could convey Jeff’s passion and vision for his winery better than he did so I am publishing our interview “In his own words”.   Enjoy!

1) Why did you choose to make wine from uncommon grapes?

The Semillon grape holds a special place in my heart, as it was the first white wine that brought me out of my “I only drink red wine” ignorance.

In early Spring of 2013, I was visiting the historic David Hill Vineyard with fellow winemaker Barnaby Tuttle of Teutonic Wine Company.  We walked around the vineyard looking at some of the rows of Sylvaner and Riesling grapes that he contracted for. At the end of our walk, we came across these vines that were much larger than anything else we were looking at, so we asked the vineyard manager what they were. We couldn’t believe our ears when he told us that they were Semillon planted in the mid-1960’s.Upon further questioning, we came to find out that the Semillon was picked with the “other” mixed white grapes on the property and blended away. This news brought Barnaby and I considerable pain. On the drive back to Portland, we decided that Barnaby would call up to the winery the next day and ask about the availability of the Semillon for the upcoming harvest. Barnaby made the call to inquire and they agreed to sell him the Semillon.Their only question was why he wanted to even bother with it.

The original Charles Coury Vineyard (now called David Hill Vineyard) is one of the first vineyards planted in the Willamette Valley after Prohibition. For Barnaby and myself, it was a travesty that these historic grapes were not made into a single varietal bottling. To know that these grapes had been here for nearly 50 years without anyone making a stand-alone wine from them was unbelievable to us. Once I received this news, I was keenly aware of the rare opportunity and the responsibility involved.  What I did not realize was that this chance encounter of Semillon grapes planted in 1966 would expand into a wider untold story about the famous pre-prohibition Reuter Vineyard and the man who planted these original Semillon vines, both originating on the exact same piece of land.

It was as if Dionysus was sending a message and a mission. It was at this time when opportunity and duty converged and Golden Cluster was born.  

In proceeding vintages, I was able to source and make wine from other uncommon grapes from the original Charles Coury Vineyard. Grapes such as Flora and Savagnin Rose. Flora was one of the first American wine grapes to be developed after Prohibition, by the famous grape breeder, Dr. Harold Olmo at UC-Davis. The Savagnin Rose was a grape that had been misidentified for 50 years as Gewurztraminer in the David Hill Vineyard. After trips to Alsace, extensive research, DNA analysis, and most importantly visual identification, I was comfortable in correcting the record in 2016. To my knowledge, it is the oldest known Savagnin Rose in the U.S.A.

In the past 3 years, I have been afforded the opportunity to source other grapes that are not common in Oregon. Grapes such as Saperavi, Bon Noir, Sagrantino, Fiano, Alvarinho, Vignoles, Garanoir, Regent, and Agria, just to name a few. Some of these grapes are the first plantings of these grapes in our state. Oregon is a far more dynamic wine region than what our industry touts and than what the general public is led to believe. From a grape-growing perspective, Oregon is just as diverse as France, Italy, or Spain. Many of our vineyards can be grown non-irrigated, which is the standard in Europe. While most of the attention that Oregon receives is directed towards one grape and one of our wine regions, the most exciting work and resulting wines are coming from grapes that are not “typical” for Oregon. It is within this framework, where Oregon can be appreciated in a wider sense. We are operating with the same commitment, sacrifice, spirit, and hard work that it took the Somer, Lett, Coury, Erath, Ponzi, Sokol Blosser, Adelshiem, Vuylsteke, and Campbell families to reestablish Oregon wine after prohibition. We have a strong foundation to launch from, thanks in part to their work. The story of Oregon wine continues. 

2) Tell me about your wine journey and how it has brought you to where you are today?

I am the stereotypical wine lover who left their previous profession to throw themselves into the wine business I started at the bottom, working in every facet of the wine industry from vineyard work, cellar work, harvest intern, wine buyer, importer, wine educator, and wine delivery driver.

At every step in this journey, I have stayed hungry to learn more. For those that are intellectually curious, the wine world is an incredible place to reside. It encompasses so many other professions; geology, chemistry, language, history, botany, meteorology, biology, music, anthropology, business, art, economics, religion, politics, etc….This is part of the beauty and curse of wine, as it is a galaxy of knowledge that never ceases.The minute you think you know something, you quickly realize that you know nothing. Wine is far more than just an alcoholic beverage.

For me, I have been guided by my own taste. As my palate has changed and as I have learned more, I have come to appreciate diving deeper and deeper into the proverbial rabbit hole. 

I am not classically trained as a winemaker or sommelier. I have not taken any classes, nor earned any certificates or credentials in any area of the wine business. This has provided me with an uncluttered headspace to discover my own palate organically. I did not enter the wine world framed by institutional biases.  

3) What are your plans for the future both near term and long-range? 

My plan has been consistent since I humbly entered the wine industry. The plan is to never quit, never stop learning, never stop exploring, and accept opportunities as they arise. The commitment remains the same because this is more than a profession to me, it is a lifestyle.  What is also important to me is to continue to research, unravel, and learn from the twin stories of the Reuter Vineyard and the Charles Coury Vineyard. To unify the histories of the Oregon wines that were grown and made on this hill behind Forest Grove, in the northern reaches of the Willamette Valley.

Photo of Reuter daughter in the original Reuter Vineyard circa 1904 Photo Credit: David Hill Vineyard

The story Jeff is writing with his forward-thinking view of winemaking is absolutely just the beginning and where it takes him and Golden Cluster will be thought-provoking to watch as it unfolds vintage after vintage.