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From architect to vintner

Phil Kramer quit his job in urban planning, moved across the country and became a winemaker


by: COURTESY OF HEIDI HOFFMAN - A double rainbow over the Alexeli vineyard and winery. Phil Kramer purchased the land in 2008, and most of the vines were planted in 1981.Phil Kramer built paradise seven miles south of Molalla. Among the ag land, with stretches of hay fields and miniature forests of Christmas trees, sits his vineyard and winery, AlexEli.

Much of the land is wild, butt up against a small lake fed by Marquam Creek. Wine barrels, fermentation tanks and bottling equipment are hidden inside a 1,600 square foot winery, and 18 of the 61 acres are covered in grape vines.

On a patio near the vineyard, Kramer sits next to Heidi Hoffman, who joined AlexEli in 2011. They’re sipping coffee at mid-morning, rows of ripening grapes behind them. AlexEli is part of the East Willamette Valley Winery Association and the Molalla Country Farm Loop. There are thousands of acres of commercial vineyards within a few miles of them, but very few wineries. At 29 and 30, Kramer and Hoffman are among the youngest people running a winery in the Willamette Valley.

The main thing Kramer has learned, he said, is “patience and patience.”by: CORY MIMMS - Heidi Hoffman and Phil Kramer (owner) in the Alexeli vineyard.

Kramer purchased the property in early 2008 after he moved to Oregon from Philadelphia, where he was working in urban design and architecture. He has an undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering and a master’s in urban planning and design. His work load in Philadelphia was too much, though. Kramer was pulling 90 hours a week on projects ranging from train stations to urban plans to map making to streetscapes. “Too many projects for a firm of six, that’s for sure,” he said.

Though the switch from architect to vintner may seem severe, Kramer said farming has always been an interest for him.

He has some experience in agriculture as well, working for Cornell Cooperative Extension and working with organic and biodynamic farmers.

Kramer knew he wanted to get deeper into agriculture, but he wasn’t specifically looking for a vineyard. “I wanted to work with plants,” he said. Every time he visited his brother, Tony, who lived in Portland, they would go to a couple of wineries and vineyards. Kramer also had experience in beer making, but it’s a big leap from wine tastings and beer brewing to owning a vineyard. “It was a very foreign idea at that point,” he said, “because I was at a desk job.”

Kramer researched properties in Oregon and California, as well as along the east coast. One of them was the Dobbes’ farm. “It was a steal of a deal,” Kramer said. Most of the vines were planted in 1981 or ’82, and the house and tasting room were already built. Kramer began making wine right away and had barrels his first year.

Now, AlexEli produces about 1,500 cases a year. Kramer keeps his prices around $20 a bottle (or less for many of the whites) because he wants his wines to be accessible. After saying this, he paused and added, “It would be nice to get paid though.”

This is the first year Kramer expects AlexEli to be profitable. “It usually takes nine years,” he said, adding that one missed step in a process can add hundreds of dollars per acre for the season. For a small vineyard like this, that may mean several thousand dollars, which can quickly cut into profits. Though there’s a lot of risk involved, the reward is equally great.

AlexEli is on its sixth vintage, and they plan to make seven wines this season. Kramer said people are surprised at how heavy and rich his wines are. “I believe the key to it is small berries.”

Red wines contain many tannins, which affect the color and complexity of the wine and impart a bitter taste. The tannins are contained in the grape stems, seeds and skin, but the juice comes from the fruit’s flesh. “We want more skin per volume of juice,” he said.by: COURTESY OF HEIDI HOFFMAN - Grapes dangling from the vine at Alexeli. Kramer and Hoffman will begin harvesting in October.

Also, AlexEli is a low-yield vineyard, producing only about one and a half tons of grapes per acre. Most vineyards produce between two and ten tons per acre, and many winemakers agree high-yield vineyards produce lower quality wine because the grapes ripen slower or incompletely.

Ten different grape growers will give you 10 different bits of advice about the same problem, Kramer said, and while running the winery is a lot of work, “the real challenge is growing grapes.”

Though growers vary in their processes, one consistency is cause and effect. “You do certain things hoping for a certain effect,” Kramer said.

Kramer uses no systemic fungicides. Instead he uses oil and carbonates to control mildew. “It’s all part of the process of transforming it to better quality fruit,” Hoffman said.

They’re still learning about the whole process, from vine to bottle, and they’re getting more efficient as well. Two years ago, Kramer bought a 30-year-old stainless steel bottler from Mt. Hood Winery at a tenth of the price of a new bottler. “They told him it was a machine for a tinkerer,” Hoffman said.

Kramer rebuilt the electrical system in it, and they can now bottle a case a minute. “We’re getting better,” Hoffman said. “Our three month bottling window is now down to a few weeks. Last year’s bottling was the best yet. Very smooth.”

The majority of the work happens in the vineyard though, fixing wires, pruning and taking care of the plants. Their hands show it too: soil and grape juice tint their fingers.

Co-owner Anita Katz comes up from Arizona to help during harvest season, but for the rest of the year it’s Kramer and Hoffman. They do everything from picking to pressing to pouring. “We touch every bottle about a dozen times,” Hoffman said.

When Kramer purchased the land, the vineyard “was in kind of a state of disarray.” Changing it into what he wanted it to be took a lot of effort, and he’s not finished yet. He has many projects planned for the future.

“It’s a lot of work,” Kramer said, adding with a smile, “if you call it work.”

Lots of relaxation is mixed throughout the typical AlexEli work day. Lunch on the patio, a walk among the woods, a paddle on the lake. “It’s a lovely life," Kramer said.




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