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Let’s All Do What Bree Said

Bree Stock in the vineyards. Photo: Anna Sweet of Anna Sweet Gallery.

A World-Class Winemaker Talks Education, Stewardship and Equality

Let me introduce you to Bree Stock. Bree fell for wine while studying performance art in British Columbia. From here, she continued her technical academic learning of the craft through programs at Melbourne Tech, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, OSU and The Institute of Masters of Wine. She became one of 120 women out of 400 MWs globally to earn the certification in 2016. She is still the only female MW in the Pacific Northwest. She is a regular wine judge for the largest and most prestigious wine competitions globally, including the Decanter World Wine Awards and TEXSOM Awards. Her consultancy company, Constant Crush Advisors, consults on brand development, production quality and sustainable expansion with her enologist partner, Chad Stock. She produces wine for Artist Block wines, Concinnitas Fermentations, Grace + Vine, and their own project to diversify the Willamette Valley for a sustainable future, Limited Addition Wines. Bree earned a degree at UBC Arts and a Master of Wine degree in enology from Melbourne Tech. She holds a diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and is an Educator with WSET and has been for 15 years. She is an active industry member holding the position of Director of Education for the Oregon Wine Board, creating Oregon and Pacific Northwest Wine Specialist certifications for Oregon and Washington and presenting this curriculum from North America to Asia and the United Kingdom. She created and developed the Oregon Wine Expert course distributed through the Online Wine Academy and Napa Valley Wine Academy, as well as the Pacific Northwest Wine Specialist Certification. She presents masterclasses for wine regions globally, including Napa Valley, Sonoma, Willamette Valley, Washington, Argentina, Spain, South Australia, Canada, Austria and New Zealand. She presents regularly at wine industry and trade conferences in Canada, the US, the UK, Europe and Southeast Asia. She is a subject matter expert on Oregon, Australian, Spanish and Portuguese wines and regions. She has contributed articles to wine publications globally (Decanter, Gourmet Traveller, Alchemy and Wine Business Monthly) and consults with wine region associations globally.

I would have been super intimidated if I had known all her accomplishments when I first met her; however, Bree is very down to earth. She loves being a winemaker and is interested in education and helping people learn about wine and how to appreciate it best. On the day we talk, the news is about how artificial intelligence will take over so many jobs, and we joke that in wine and agriculture, there is no AI; it all takes a human touch. Bree comments, “Changes impact our livelihood from year to year. Last year’s was the first vintage in a while where people could stop and consider what they wanted to do with the grapes. We all still have PTSD from 2020. In truth, there is no normal anymore. Everything is changing; it is the name of the game. People are scrambling because of the deviations caused by climate change that is fundamentally changing the earth. In addition, of course, we do not seem to want to take any action, which is infuriating. But we won’t go down that rabbit hole.”

As Bree is an international wine figure, I ask about that experience and how she uses that platform to educate. “I like traveling because we’re given a lot more purview and perspective into the histories of wine regions and grapes that we’re using now but had yet to be planted here in the past. These varietals have been grown and made into wine in other regions for centuries. There is much to learn from how different regions have evolved with particular grapes.” She continues, “Education in the university system, revered in places like the US, Australia and New Zealand, has influenced many of our wine styles, some for good and some for worse. We miss things when we apply a one-size-fits-all approach to everything. Universities do this because it is convenient and academically measurable. Nevertheless, they are establishing a ‘this is how we see it, so this is how it will be taught approach.’ As an educator, I know that approach discourages critical thinking, questioning and curiosity. It is particularly troubling in agriculture, fermentation, wine and food sciences. It makes us very slow to respond to nature’s gifts. We need to develop an appreciation for other regions with a particular variety and style. For example, when I worked in Austria, it became apparent that the great varietal Grüner Veltliner benefits from being fermented on its skins. This is not done with white grapes in the New World university system. In fact, phenolics in white wine are completely discouraged.” (Editor note: For those for whom this is a new word, wine contains many phenolic substances, most of which originate in the grape berry. The phenolics have several important functions in wine, affecting the tastes of bitterness and astringency, especially in red wine. Second, the color of red wine is caused by phenolics. Third, phenolics are the key wine preservative and the basis of long aging.) “Instead, our university systems instruct us to use fining agents and enzymes to remove the perceived bitterness and phenolics from white wines because everything should be fruity. In that process, we homogenized the entire white grape expression.”

She continues, “It was in 2014 and 15 when I worked my first harvest in the Willamette Valley; before, I’d been working in the Ribeira Sacra and Portuguese and Galician regions of Iberia, and I remember not only the experience but also the awareness of the location, the physicality of being there. Then, when I was standing on the crush pad at Bethel Heights in late September, waiting for Pinot Noir to arrive from the vineyard, I had that kind of wet coastal wind blowing in my face. I smelled the iodine and pine forest, and how much it felt like Ribeira Sacra was palpable. I had an intense feeling of déjà vu. That was when I started asking people what Galician varieties are grown here. I spoke with John House of Ovum, who works in Oregon and Spain with Spanish imports. We started talking about this similarity between the growing regions of Oregon and Galician Spain from a climate perspective. We started drilling down into the terroir cohorts of both regions. Galicia has around 50 inches of rainfall, falling only in winter and spring, just like the Willamette Valley. Other similarities are the cold wind as the River Miño funnels wind down from the Atlantic Ocean merging with the River Sil. Both have volcanic soils and bone-dry summers with lots of UV light and sunshine. These things align with the Willamette Valley, especially Eola-Amity Hills and McMinnville. Moreover, it is not similar to Burgundy, the region that Willamette is most compared with, which has cloud cover and consistent rain falling all summer, a continental climate with no ocean influence. So, after traveling, working harvests worldwide in 10 different countries, and working on my Master of Wine certification, I learned to ask questions. Why does a certain wine behave the way it does? Why does this wine taste the way it does? What is it about the vineyard, environment or climate that gives this grape these flavors, structures and components? So, that’s how I approached winemaking when I started in the valley. There are many convenient and simplistic stories that we construct for marketing and ease of communication. Still, it does a disservice to this exceptional place. It insults consumers who enjoy wine and have the capacity and curiosity to approach it from a broader perspective. Yes, winemakers have had success with Pinot Noir, and definitely great Pinot Noir is made here; there is no debate. However, it is not the only grape that can grow and be great here. That is what interests me. What else is possible?”

“The love of wine will not disappear, but the industry may change. It’s concerning from a cultural perspective. Wine has been a part of our history and culture for so long because it does bring people to the table, right now especially, when we’re so isolated. With the ability to work remotely, people often have more of a relationship with their screens than their friends. Our distance from one another is very concerning, and we need to reconnect humans, being humans together, people sharing wine and ideas. We will continue in this downward spiral but get to a pit, a bottom, a floor. Then people will say, ‘Wait a minute, I miss being with my friends. I don’t want to just see them on the screen.’”

She adds, “I read today in HubSpot that the new thing for AI will be that you will not carry a phone. You will have a little unit that you clip to your chest. You tap it, and you talk into it. Communication and access are essential. Social media has been good because it gives many small producers access to a broader audience since they work without a PR or marketing firm. That has been very good and leveling. It has also been good to bring more diversity into the wine industry. That’s something that is severely needed in our industry. We are so traditional, even in how we think about wine, how it has to be, and how you have to speak about wine and how it has to taste. We need to connect with the new generation and encourage them to think differently, to question the established regions and to consider the effects of climate change or any change on the industry’s health. We cannot continue to live in the vacuum that colonialism created; it doesn’t serve us anymore. It’s incumbent upon us to search for different ways of being and to explore new norms.”

Continuing to speak for diversity, Bree says, “I am hoping many people will appreciate the new wine movement. It’s a delicious product, and a glass of wine is good for bringing us to the community around us. It has a big farming community, and it is essential to keep our communities healthy and diverse. When I came home from my global wine travels, I was frightened at everyone’s reliance on a single grape variety. In addition, we struggle when harvest happens because wine grapes are generally harvested within the same two to three-week period. We need the infrastructure to support all the equipment and trucks. The roads in the valley cannot support the number of vineyards and wineries we now have.”

Continuing on the subject of difficulties, she adds, “We also need help with maintaining labor crews. When push comes to shove, vineyards offer $0.50 or $0.70 more a bucket to move crews onto their property because we lack full-time salaried workers in our vineyards. We also have problems because there are not enough trucks or enough fruit bins available at that busy time. We do not even have enough fermenters in most of our wineries to ferment the amount of fruit that comes in simultaneously, so we are utilizing cool rooms in our facilities that can store fruit. Overproduction increases the danger for our workers. Then, the wildfires in 2020 definitely brought concerns about the effects of global warming and how to keep this industry healthy and thriving. All of these are troubling.”

She shares that “all these issues affect the Willamette Valley, how we’re focused and what we’re focused on, what we do and where our efforts go. For so long, the story has been that Oregon is Pinot Noir country. That varietal was planted and commercialized here 60 years ago and is still closely identified with Oregon winemaking. Many international and US markets believe that is still the case. We must make them more aware of the excellent Chardonnay we are making or the great Blancs or Cabernet Francs from Oregon. There is a rush to produce in the industry, but we need to consider how to change these misconceptions. How do we make these wines successful in the marketplace? It is a big job. I like to work with a grape that challenges me. I love each vintage because it is like a shapeshifter; it changes and engages during fermentation. It’s also teaching me a lot about ripeness, alcohol levels, sugar levels and how flavor develops in grapes. Currently, the varietals Mencia and Cabernet Franc are teaching me the most. I don’t think they have discovered these aspects of winemaking in the university system yet. For me, what is exciting and engaging is an 11% alcohol level in 2022 and the way a grape develops full flavor and physiological ripeness at early sugar levels. We could combat some health concerns around drinking wine if we could return to lower-alcohol wines, which are the wines that were made centuries ago before we got obsessed with trying to engineer them. It was exciting to me this year to have Cabernet Franc hanging through rain, ripening in late October. Vineyard managers were showing each other this block and these grapes. They called each other and said, ‘This is a great varietal that we should be growing in the valley. It’s October, and it doesn’t have any splitting or rot, and it hangs through so many rainstorms.’ We’re learning, and that is good.”

I ask Bree about her brands and her goals at the Constant Crush Winery. “The Limited Addition brand is about diversifying the Willamette Valley for a sustainable future, sustainability meaning the environment and resource sustainability. Resource sustainability includes human sustainability and community sustainability. That is the conversation that I want to have with Limited Addition. I would also like a conversation about needing to be with like-minded thinkers and like-minded producers who are quality focused but also need to learn first. Chad and I love education. We try to give a lot back because we’ve had a lot of great mentors who have shared time and knowledge with us. Education is important for the future of this industry. Unfortunately, the Willamette Valley does not have a lot of mentorship happening at this moment. In the past, when there were fewer producers, collaboration and mentorship were a lot more common. I am confident mentoring will return, as this is still a collaborative community-driven region. I want to foster that more and become more of an incubator for future thinkers in the industry—new thinkers in the winery, the vineyard, the tasting room and the marketing with new styles and new packaging. I would love to create a school where we can give to others what we have learned over the years and help them establish their brands and create a different environment. I find that very exciting. The idea of giving back and bringing on the people coming in and helping them realize these differences that they can take advantage of, farming and harvest processes, to know the grapes that work here besides Pinot, and a community built around that.”

Bree and I share a bit about our love of teaching. “Teaching is my thing,” Bree says. “I taught for years and know the value of passing on knowledge. Teaching is not just taking the curriculum and saying, ‘OK, we’re going to read about Rome,’ but inviting students to play with concepts and ideas.” She continues, “I’d love to have classes where we can explore wine, taste wines from around the world and taste what we make here. I would also like to have regenerative agriculture classes. What can grow in this vineyard? How do we do it better for the environment and for future generations? I want our students to learn how to preserve salmon habitat streams. The issues are overwhelming if we need to conquer them immediately, but we can start with little pieces. We need to be able to feel good about that and to be able to share small wins and optimism about how we can change things with a community that is on board. My work around the world provides insight and inspiration to those in our Oregon wine industry and allows me to serve, to mentor those who are interested in making a life in the wine industry.”