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Romancing the Vines

Broadley Vineyards prove Monroe can produce a perfect pinot
Morgan Broadley of Broadley Vineyards. Photo by Rob Sydor | robsydor.com
Morgan Broadley of Broadley Vineyards. Photo by Rob Sydor | robsydor.com

The year was 1981, not really auspicious. The place was Monroe, Ore., population about half a thousand, a village, really, approximately halfway between Eugene and Corvallis. 

Experts said it shouldn’t be done, couldn’t be done. Nope, the viticulture expert/consultant scolded Craig and Claudia Broadley, explaining that they wouldn’t be able to ripen grapes on this particular slope, this particular hillside in, of all places, Monroe, all the way down at the south end of the Willamette Valley.

Sure, some folks — David Lett at Eyrie, the Eraths, the Ponzis and others — were planting such “cool country” varietals as pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris, mostly in the hills at the upper end of the valley, around McMinnville, and getting really good wines.

But not here, not on this northeast-facing slope; it should be facing south, basking in what little sun reaches the soggy, sodden south valley, even though this particular stretch had the reputation of being in the “banana belt.”

But Craig, then 35, and Claudia, 34, had spent ten years searching for just the right hillside, and Craig had carefully studied the slopes of France’s Burgundy region, where the world’s best pinot noir was grown and vinified. Craig also enrolled in enology and viticulture classes at UC-Davis, and he was convinced that this was the place.

Besides, the Broadleys were deep in the throes of several powerful passions: first, for each other, and they still make each other laugh a lot, still take care of each other and their growing family; second, they were firmly gripped by the back-to-the-land movement launched in the late ‘60s and ‘70s; and, lastly, they had become dedicated pinot-heads, for which there’s no known cure, though the treatment — quaffs of good pinot noir — is not so horrible.

Too, they had just about reached the end of another passion — for books. In the early 1980s, Craig and Claudia were the principals in The Subterranean Company, wholesale booksellers. They mainly fronted for City Lights Books, owned and operated the by the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, publishing such luminaries of the era as Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs, the best of the Beats. Craig and Claudia kept their day jobs, kept moving books — from Monroe, a place where the Beats would be distinctly out of place, even now.

The Broadleys were bold, young city-slickers — urbane, sophisticated foodies hailing from Los Angeles, via Sacramento and, later, San Francisco, then, as now, home to some of the best dining on the West Coast: music, art, fashion, a vortex of the counterculture. Monroe was then, as now, a rather sleepy little burg (current pop. 680) surrounded by grass farms, its hillsides growing Christmas trees. The main restaurant was the Chat ‘n Chew.

Of course, there were vineyards not too far south, along Territorial Road: Lee Smith had Forgeron in Elmira (it’s now LaVelle and thriving); Doyle Hinman had started Hinman Vineyards (now Hinman/Silvan Ridge, also thriving) in 1979 just south of Veneta. And slightly north, in tiny Alpine, Dan and Christine Jepsen were trying to make Alpine Vineyards (est. 1980) a success, with cabernet sauvignon as their primary grape and wine. Not many folks were figuring that the south Willamette Valley promised a future of gold in wines.

Despite contrary advice, Craig and Claudia Broadley bought the hilly 15 acres just upslope from “downtown” Monroe. They needed help from Craig’s parents, Leighton and Marcile Broadley, nice folks who owned a large company manufacturing glass electrodes in Santa Ana, Calif. With the ‘rents’ help, C&C began planting their “impossible” vineyard in 1982. Their 12-year-old son, Morgan, labored alongside these slickers-turned-farmers: “That first summer I got to be the water boy,” Morgan says now, recalling the labor of hand-watering each skinny vine. 

In those first years, Craig and Claudia had to live in Eugene — Craig: “We couldn’t get financing for a home on a vineyard” — and Morgan did his schooling in the city, eventually graduating from South Eugene High School. They made their first harvest in ’86, not a great year for Oregon but good for the Broadleys; they sold all their wine and got ready for the 1987 vintage.

Oregon winemakers spent most of 1987 apologizing for over-hyping the vintage, but the Broadleys made good wine, and persisted. In 1996, the widely read and respected Wine Spectator listed the Broadley 1994 Claudia’s Choice Pinot Noir at #24 in their Top 100 Wines of the World, giving that bottling 94 points on their 100-point scale. And one French expert awarded the wine 97 points, a signal of extraordinary excellence. Success has followed success since then.

Now, 30 years later, “water boy” Morgan, 42, has stretched out to six feet, four inches, and has taken a much stronger role in Broadley Vineyards and wines. In 1996, he married the dynamic Jessica Waldren; lately, some of the Broadleys’ best wines carry Jessica’s name or the names of their two daughters, Olivia, 11, and Savanna, 9.

Morgan has learned winemaking mainly “from my pappy,” though he’s taken enology classes at OSU and UC-Davis. But a family trip to Burgundy in 2007 was a “phenomenal experience.” Morgan had the chance to meet and talk wine with some of the region’s best viniculturalists, and changes followed: “After 2007, we toned down the [use of new] oak” to make wines in which the “fruit is more obvious” and the wines ready to drink much sooner. A recent special issue of the Wine Spectator rated two Broadley 2009 bottlings at 91 points, excellent scores.

Recent vintages have not been easy. Morgan remembers “rain at harvest” for 2007, but some experts still rate that vintage as one of Broadley’s best; 2008 “was a really late year,” saved by a cool, dry fall; 2009 was “hot at harvest,” producing “bigger, chunkier” wines, but also wines that tasters — and raters — loved. 

The 2010 harvest, coming at the end of what locals dubbed “the summer that never was,” developed slowly, becoming “very scary” and very late, the “latest year we had.” The grapes hung on the vines, slowly ripening while harvesting crews waited anxiously for good weather.

They had to delay the harvest so long that flocks of migratory robins and starlings, so thick they looked like clouds, descended on the vineyards and feasted on the ripe fruit: “We lost 13 tons of grapes to the birds,” Morgan recalls (see Battling Birds). But the harvest yielded the “best wines we made in the last 10 years,” wines “more promising than the ‘08s.”

Some of the 2010 wines are just coming into the market and are being met with considerable wine buzz. These might be the best ever. Meanwhile, the 2011 wines are resting in their barrels — but tasting very good, very Broadley.

After a brief flirtation with other varietals (e.g., Chardonnay), the Broadleys have specialized in pinot noir, possibly the world’s most challenging grape to grow and wine to make. The Broadley pinot style has become distinctive and recognizable, noted for being firm, complex, with deep, intensely fresh fruit flavors that run the spectrum from ripe cherries to blackberries, wrapped in a warm cloak of oak. They also show a certain spiciness.

Altogether, Broadley pinots trip across the palate in layers of flavors, usually with a long, lingering finish. The wines also show levels of acidity that makes them particularly food-friendly; this is also a characteristic of the great pinot noirs from Burgundy.

In 1980, Craig Broadley went looking for what he then called a “tubular taste,” a flavor profile close to what he’d encountered in great red Burgundies, “kinda like a snake going down your throat.” Broadley’s wines now seem to approach that profile, though Craig — and now Morgan — are their own sharpest critics; they never over-hype and are always looking for the next, better, wine. 

In recent years, the Broadleys have contracted with other growers to exchange grapes. Most notable in those trades have been the grapes from the frequently honored Shea Estate Vineyard (Broadley 2009 Shea Pinot Noir, WS 91 pts.). They’re also experimenting with other grapes, like Grenache and syrah. When the 2011 bottlings are released, the Broadley 2011 Grenache, we predict, will be a tippler’s favorite.

Claudia and Craig now have a nice, modest house overlooking their vineyard. On a clear day, from their deck at about 600-feet elevation, they can see across the valley as far north as Mt. Hood, then the string of snow-capped Cascades, including Adams and Washington, south to the Three Sisters. Craig insists they can see Eugene (Claudia asks: “We can see to Eugene?” Craig replies: “Well, you can’t see the people waving, but yes.”)

It’s a grand view. Just down the hill, they can also see the home of Morgan, Jessica, Olivia and Savanna. The Broadleys have made quite a home for their vines, their wines and their family.

These days, sleepy, bucolic Monroe is quickly gaining a name as prime country for vines and wines (see The Sun Also Rises). Vineyards sometimes replace tree farms on the hillsides. Of that new growth, Craig says, “I think it’s great.”

“The more wineries, the better,” Morgan adds.

Broadley Vineyards is at 25158 Orchard Tract Rd. in Monroe; for more information, visit broadleyvineyards.com or call 541-847-5934.