“It’ll come to you, this love of the land. There’s no getting away from it if you’re Irish.” This poignant line, spoken by patriarch Gerald O’Hara in Gone With The Wind, seems to perfectly capture the spirit of David O’Reilly, the Irish-born vintner who founded Yakima Valley’s new Owen Roe winery.
“It was love at first sight,” recalled O’Reilly, 49, as he looked out over this sprawling, 106-acre site, situated about halfway between Wapato and Union Gap. With its rocky hillside “reminiscent of the Chateuauneuf-du-Pape vineyard in the Rhone Valley,” its picturesque rolling countryside and view of Mount Adams, the land drew him in.
In 2013, O’Reilly built the Owen Roe winery on what he calls the Union Gap Estate property. He, his wife, Angelica, and the youngest six of their eight children call this area home. They divide their time between this property’s manor house and a house near the site of the first Owen Roe winery, which O’Reilly founded in Newberg, Ore., in 1998.
“What really drew me to this area was tasting the cabernet sauvignon of David Lake of Columbia Winery. I wanted to know what made this wine — the gorgeous ripe flavors with beautiful acidity,” he said. “These are a couple of the best attributes for making great wine.”
O’Reilly got a good taste of making his own varieties, including pinot noir and pinot gris, at his facility in Oregon. The company name is a tip of the hat to Owen Roe O’Neill, the freedom fighter of the 1600s who helped rally the Irish people against the forces of Oliver Cromwell.
In keeping with that same spirit of independence, O’Reilly values being part of a “different breed of winemakers” in the Pacific Northwest. Here, unlike California, new wineries are often started by individuals — not multimillion-dollar, long-established companies, he noted.
“What really makes the Yakima Valley so great is the passionate grape growers here,“ he said. “Life revolves around the seasons of the vine.”
The new Owen Roe winery processed its first crush of syrah, cabernet franc, malbec and cabernet sauvignon grapes in 2013. The harvest extended all the way to November, when gewurztraminer grapes (grown on property near Outlook), were picked at 14 degrees Fahrenheit and prepared for ice wine. The new, red-barn-style winery awaited the harvest with a 6,000-square-foot cellar and 4,000-square-foot covered crush area.
Growing conditions here include good air movement, favorable temperatures and a combination of volcanic and glacial soils. That’s ideal for growing grapes that are crafted into wine under the Owen Roe label, O’Reilly said. Grapes from other Yakima Valley sites, including Red Willow, DuBrul, Elerding and Olsen vineyards, are also prominently featured in their wine.
Construction is slated to begin in 2015 on a tasting room made of native volcanic rock, and O’Reilly hopes to add a hillside barrel cellar, a hospitality area and commercial kitchen facilities for hosting winemaker dinners. He’d also like to add a few guest cottages where folks can come to experience life in wine country. Although the Owen Roe winery is not yet open to the general public, there are plans to open later this year. (In the meantime, it’s possible to arrange a visit with advance notice.)
O’Reilly, who was born in Belfast and is still an Irish citizen, appreciates the freedom that he and his family enjoy here — acknowledging the winding road that led him to the Yakima Valley.
As a young child he first experienced “this great connection between the land and nutrition,” spending time in Ireland’s rural county of Cavan, near the border with Northern Ireland, where cattle, barley and wheat crops sustained the community.
At age 14, after losing two uncles to “The Troubles” — as the Irish-English conflict is known — O’Reilly’s concerned parents packed up David and his 11 brothers and sisters and eventually settled in Bella Coola, a little coastal town in British Columbia, about halfway between Vancouver and Anchorage.
O’Reilly’s connection to nature was strengthened while working with his father and four brothers in a small family logging business in British Columbia. In this isolated community, he even tried his hand at raising hens and bartering eggs.
“It cemented my love of doing something outdoors and living off the land,” he said.
O’Reilly and Angelica both graduated from the Great Books Program at Thomas Aquinas College near Ojai, Calif., in 1987 and ’88, and were married soon after.
Through his studies, which focused on classic books and methods of thinking, O’Reilly had developed a more analytical mindset and a new appreciation for wine, since he had toured wineries in the area.
“It all piqued my interest into what makes a great wine a great wine,” he explained. “It also didn’t hurt that every vineyard I went to see was absolutely stunning. I knew I didn’t want to get into conventional farming.” With wine, he noted, a grower could experience the entire creative process from vinyard to table.
By 1989, O’Reilly put this new interest to work at Leeward Winery, a two-person establishment in Ventura, Calif., where he had the chance to learn the complete winemaking process “from scrubbing floors to pressing out cabernet sauvignon.”
But friends and a chance to escape the heat of California — so uncharacteristic of his native Ireland — drew O’Reilly to the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, he co-founded the Sineann Winery in Newberg with Peter Rosback, before stepping out on his own to found Owen Roe.
Today, the Owen Roe “clan” has grown to include Ben and Julie Wolff, partners from the Seattle area, and a harvest crew with an international flair, including individuals from Mexico to New Zealand, France, Portugal and Israel — plus a few “foreigners from California.”
“One of the first things I do when I hire someone is to slap my green card down on the table and tell them there’s opportunity here for everyone,” he said.
The bottling of Owen Roe wines, however, retains a distinctly Irish flavor. Most of the labels carry images derived from Irish history. O’Reilly himself designs the labels and works with graphic artists on their completion. An old-fashioned letterpress is used for printing.
“I wanted to have a label that told a story,” O’Reilly explained. And that they do. There is an image of the Rock of Cashel, a landmark reportedly visited by Saint Patrick in County Tipperary, on a cabernet sauvignon label. There is a likeness of a family cemetery in County Cavan, Ireland, on the label for Lady Rosa syrah (named for the wife of Owen O’Neill). And you’ll find an image of Clogh Oughter Castle (the fortress used as a base of operations by Owen O’Neill) on a cabernet sauvignon. Other labels include Sharecropper’s pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon selections with a picture of a horse-drawn cart going to market.
Yet this Irishman has also become an enthusiastic promoter of the Pacific Northwest. “Our goal is always to make better and better wines,” he said. “We deliberately chose this location because we eventually want to bring that message that this is one of the greatest growing areas in the world,” he said. “We want people to come here, to make it a winery destination.”
Thirty-five years after leaving Ireland, and some 4,400 miles from his native Belfast, O’Reilly is clearly home again — on the fertile soil of Yakima wine country.