Gary Horner, Head Winemaker
A deep curiosity – not only for Pinot, but for the pursuit of a creative dream – led a young pharmacist by the name of Gary Horner to follow his heart… to Dundee. Erath Head Winemaker Gary Horner recalls the college friend, and the wine, that altered the course of his life forever.
It was the 1980s, and Gary began to consider a life without his newly acquired lab coat. In 2003, he arrived at Erath. His resume, smudged with the evidence of a 20-year adventure, spanned early garage winemaking experiments, formal UC-Davis schooling, myriad posts of increasing responsibility at notable Northwest wine establishments, and the creation of his own label, Destiny Vintners.
But it was the encouragement of various mentors along his journey that made the biggest impact on Gary, and his winemaking philosophy.
The making of a winemaker
Driving a white Mazda pickup truck en route back to Seattle from a UC-Davis short course, Gary dropped in on Terry and Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard. The chance visit would seal the deal on Gary’s decision to leave his pharmacy post in Washington, and formally pursue winemaking. Between 1988 and 1992, Bethel Heights provided the big-picture training he craved. “It’s where I learned what a ripe grape tastes like,” he says. “I worked in the vineyard, in the winery, and on the road.
Bethel Heights is also where Gary first met Dick Erath. “I was working in the cellar when he introduced himself on a visit. We stayed in touch for years – always open to opportunities, but the timing was never right.”
In 1992, Gary was hired as winemaker and vineyard manager of Witness Tree Vineyard. He later broadened his production experience at Washington Hills Cellars in Sunnyside, Washington, Avatar Partners in Napa Valley, and Benton-Lane Winery in Monroe, Oregon. During his six-year tenure at Benton-Lane, Gary built a reputation for his unique brand of winemaking, successfully marrying technology and intuition in his quest for making world-class Pinot Noir.
A decade after their first meeting, Gary had found a kindred spirit in Dick, who shared his background in science and a reverence for Oregon’s unique terroir. And the timing was finally right; Dick hired Gary as Winemaker, turning the reins over to a new craftsman. Gary began to add his own distinctive touches to Erath wines, using the latest technology to bring out the very best expression of Pinot Noir.
Gary carefully selects unique clones that thrive in specific vineyard blocks, especially when it comes to making his highly acclaimed single vineyard Pinot Noirs. At the same time, Gary feels this region is appropriate for many varietals. He looks forward to continuing his experiments with different wine grapes, smaller batch production, separating clones and vineyards to observe distinctions, and conducting yeast and cropping experiments.
Gary speaks of his prized friendships, from Andre to Dick, like precious vintages. Stored in a cellar of memories, several individuals represent unique and special times in his formative years that helped shape his winemaking philosophy today.
Past experiences continue to influence Gary today as he looks ahead, and to his role in bridging quality Oregon Pinot into the next generation.
In addition to taking an active role in the Oregon wine community at large, Gary actively contributes to the Oregon Wine Board, providing insights and helping direct research dollars for the continued advancement of winegrowing and winemaking techniques. He also sits on the board of the Erath Family Foundation, an endowment created by Dick Erath and Ste. Michelle Wine Estate in 2006 to honor the transition of Erath Winery to new ownership, and to support continuing research and education in the Oregon wine industry.
“Oregon’s vast amount of cool-climate viticultural research is often overlooked, yet it has been absolutely central to winegrowing and winemaking not only in Oregon, but around the world,” he says. “Our continued investment in science will accelerate the quality and consistency of our Pinot product.”
The small details add up to the extra 10 percent in quality, he notes. And growing wine in Oregon requires every advantage possible. “We all have just one chance each year to make it work.”
Gary adds: “I am committed to making the best Pinot Noir this region has to offer – it’s time-honored, authentic and uniquely Oregon.”
“It was a 1954 Grand Cru Burgundy. The story is that it came out of a doctor’s cellar in France. I was born in 1954, so perhaps it was destiny. My friend Andre, an avid wine collector, said to me, ‘When I pull this cork, this wine is going to live for 60 minutes,’ so we went at it. It looked like oxidized chardonnay. I took it to my nose – it was loaded with violet, flower aromas and tea. The wine was still alive. That was my magical ‘aha’ moment. ”
~ Gary Horner