When going gets tough, friends make wine

By Jon Bonné

The 2004 harvest was a trying one for Bryce Bagnall. 

Most Oregon winemakers struggled with an uneven year. But for Bagnall, who makes wine for Witness Tree Vineyards and his own Bryce Vineyards label, 2004 was about difficult firsts. “This is my 21st harvest,” he says. “It’s the first time I didn't shovel out a tank of red wine.”

In February 2003, Bagnall was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS. Lou Gehrig’s disease, as it is also known, is an essentially uncurable and degenerative nerve disorder that causes patients to progressively lose muscle control and strength. Paralysis often ensues. Life expectancy is usually three to five years.

The disease would be devastating to anyone, but especially so to a winemaker, whose job blends the sensory with hard physical labor.  Bagnall struggled through the 2003 harvest, climbing ladders and checking tanks.  By this year, he was in a powered wheelchair and fighting to retain the use of his arms.


Bagnall couldn’t hide his condition, so he quietly began to tell his fellow vintners.

“He was telling me something so personal and so awkward. You’re telling a friend you’re going to die, and I think he handled it with such grace,” recalls Eric Hamacher of Hamacher Wines, Bagnall's friend for 15 years and founder of the Carlton Winemakers Studio, where the two men craft wine side by side. “After the initial shock, I just wanted to help.”

Bagnall and his wife Marcia began to realize the financial toll. ALS requires significant home care — hours of caretaking, special beds — and costs expand as the disease progresses.  It is expensive even for the fully insured. Without insurance, there are few ways to afford care short of exhausting savings and claiming poverty. That was all in addition to normal living expenses. And their 17-year-old daughter Jordan was thinking about college.

Glassful of helpSo just before Memorial Day, Hamacher and a half-dozen other vintners sat over a pitcher of beer and concocted the Supporters of Bryce. (SOBs, for short.)

Bryce Bagnall (center, seated) tastes samples from nearly 40 wineries to devise the blend for St. Bartholomew's pinot noir. He is assisted by, left to right: winemaker Eric Hamacher; Jim Bagnall, Bryce's father; winemakers Adam Campbell and Dave Paige.Www.avalonwine.com

They agreed to donate a dollar or two from every bottle sold at their wineries that holiday weekend — one of the year's busiest — to help pay for Bagnall's care.  Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyards bottled a barrel of gamay noir to sell for charity.  The proceeds allowed Bagnall's friends to buy him a specially fitted van.

Dozens of other winemakers were soon on the phone, irate they hadn't been asked to help. So for Thanksgiving weekend, the SOBs are uncorking their next fundraising project — literally. 

Thirty-eight wineries donated pinot noir juice from the 2003 vintage to produce 572 cases of a special vintage: St. Bartholomew’s pinot noir, named for the patron saint of neurological diseases and, amazingly, grape growers. (Also for Bart, Bagnall's beloved white Miata.) 

Bagnall, Tunnell Hamacher and two other winemakers tasted through and blended them all together into a completely unique offering.

Tart and full of red berries, the still-fresh wine is a lovely food match. It rounds out nicely on the tongue, and will deepen with a bit of time.

Sold at Oregon wineries and online, proceeds from St. Bartholomew’s will go to Bagnall. At $25 a bottle, it should raise over $170,000.

“All this love and the help they provided is literally keeping me alive,” Bagnall says. (He is on the phone from Seligman, Ariz., headed to Texas to pick up a special bed.)

A tough yearThe harvest aside, it has been a tough year for Oregon's vintners.  Winemaker Jimi Brooks died in September at age 38. Within a day, his fellow winemakers volunteered to produce wine from all Brooks’ grapes. The SOBs are busy planning future events for Bagnall and hope to expand their charity efforts to others.

“It’s not curing him, but it's going to help make the time he has less stressful,” Hamacher says. “That's all everybody cares about.”

By their nature, most winemakers are small businesspeople; they and their neighbors ultimately compete for the same palates and the same dollars. Which makes their determination to help all the more impressive.

“The wineries here are very small and people do not make a lot of money,” says Jean Yates of Avalon Wine, a Corvallis, Ore., retailer that specializes in Northwest vintages. “Wine people ... just seem to be a really nice bunch of people.”

Bagnall remains resilient, intending to bottle 650 cases of his own Bryce label this year. He and his wife won't plan beyond next year's harvest.

But is he still enjoying wine?

“You bet your sweet ass I am,” he replies. “I have this great passion and curiosity about wine, and at some point I won’t be able to taste them any longer, but I can still smell them. That never goes away.”

Nor does the goodwill of good friends brought together by grapes.

Briefly ...
The plan to split Robert Mondavi in two and sell off the winery’s higher-end divisions is off after a $1 billion offer from Constellation Brands was accepted. Those who felt Mondavi couldn’t survive without its pricier flagship wines now won't have to see that experiment played out.

What’s unclear is whether big boy Constellation can embrace Mondavi’s luxury brands. Stay tuned.