In August 2021, I met Sara and Dave Specter of Bells Up Winery for the first time during a media visit that was a bit more formal – a sit-down tasting and interview with them both.
I learned and shared what I thought was their story as part of an article about three Oregon wineries. When I returned in October 2022, they were receiving and processing the last of their grapes – their Chehalem Mountain AVA estate Seyval Blanc and Walla Walla AVA Summit View Syrah. Dave was in full-on harvest mode, but Sara snuck away to let me taste some wines and catch up. She even showed me that they’d framed my newspaper article. This second visit felt like a reunion, not an interview.
From the day’s “harvest chaos” came these questions and answers – and another level of kinship – both Sara and I are French majors (who knew?!) turned wine writers and marketers.
After 10 years as vintners and winemakers, Sara and Dave REALLY share their story and lessons learned.
1. Did one or both of you have a wine moment (or moments) that made you fall in love with wine? Was there an Oregon wine moment? Sara was a French major in college and had spent a semester in Strasbourg where she fell in love with all the different Alsatian Rieslings. Loving wine is kind of a prerequisite for majoring in French.
When Dave was in graduate school and law school, he had friends who were a little bit older. They weren’t wine snobs by any means, but they knew how to get a good bottle of wine at a good price. He also realized that wine had a special ability to bring people together. After he took the bar exam in 1999, he visited a friend who was living in Germany at the time. She and her husband took Dave to visit the Burgundy region in France, and the three of them did a lot of wine tasting there. For Dave, the best wines were the unlabeled bottles from local co-ops served in carafes for a few euros and shared with the locals. He started to get more into wine at that point, with his interest eventually focused more on Pinot Noirs. When looking for domestic Pinots, he found those made in Oregon were more like those he’d enjoyed in Burgundy. That interest in Oregon Pinot was part of what prompted our second visit to Oregon in 2008.
2. What drew you to Oregon over other wine regions you considered? We visited Oregon briefly in 2004 and loved it but hadn’t spent any time in the Willamette Valley. In 2008 we spent two weeks roaming the state, with the last few days in Newberg at a bed and breakfast just 400 feet up the mountain from the property that is now ours. We fell in love with Oregon: the scenery, the climate, the wines, and the intimate experiences tasting wines at the tiniest wineries with the winemaker. We decided then that this was the place for us and the model we wanted to replicate.
3. What has been most challenging about being ‘start-up’ owners/vintners/winemakers, planting a vineyard, building a winery, and creating your business ‘from scratch’? Building brand awareness and recognition is the most challenging business aspect. We’re fortunate that we both have business backgrounds – Dave in law and accounting, Sara in marketing and public relations – but keeping the Bells Up brand top of mind and out there is a daily battle. As the number of wineries in the Willamette Valley has exploded in the past decade, it’s only become harder. We’re grateful for all the generous and positive coverage from wine writers like you, Elizabeth! Thank you so much for your interest and support!
4. What has been the most rewarding? For us, Bells Up is all about relationships. We’ve been blessed to have made so many incredible connections with our guests, many of whom have become close friends. It’s incredibly rewarding to get to share the wines and our story with guests, and utterly humbling to become a part of some of their most memorable occasions. Bells Up wines have been served at several weddings, baby showers, holiday gatherings, birthday parties, even an engagement. One Fanfare Club member’s ashes have been spread in our vineyard. Those relationships are truly the reward.
5. Are even your most challenging days in the wine industry better than your previous lives? How and why? For Dave, whose professional responsibilities fall completely under the winery umbrella, this is true because he no longer is a tax attorney! In addition to the winery, Sara still works full-time as a freelance marketing consultant, and has worked for herself for almost 22 years. The point is, when you’re your own boss, you get to decide what success looks like; you don’t have to meet the expectations of someone higher up the ladder. Yes, there are challenging days, and often those challenges revolve around the fact that we each hold ourselves personally to very high standards. Or something happens beyond our control. At a certain point, you learn to roll with it because there’s nothing else you can do.
6. On the estate, you have Pinot Noir, Seyval Blanc, Pinot Blanc, and Schioppettino. Anything else on the horizon? We have a short list of contenders, but until we get a better idea of how the Schioppettino vines develop and make our first wines from them, we won’t be making any decisions. There are still about 1.5 acres unplanted on our property so there’s room for something else. It won’t be more Pinot Noir! We want to continue our focus on more unusual varieties.
7. Will you still source the Walla Walla Cabernet and Syrah, or will you phase it out and eventually be a 100% estate? We have no plans to source from any other site than Summit View Vineyard in Milton-Freewater. They’ve been selling to us since our first vintage, and we love the wines coming from their fruit. Our customers – especially the locals – would be very unhappy with us if we switched to a different site. Also, despite global warming, we just don’t think it will be warm enough here in our lifetime for those two varieties to achieve optimal ripeness consistently.
8. You have been in Oregon for 10 years now. What do the next 10 years look like? We moved here in June 2012 from Cincinnati, bought our property at the end of that year, and made our first vintage in 2013. This harvest in 2022 marked both our 10th harvest, as well as what we’ve been calling “the end of the beginning.” This was the first year we were 100% Pinot independent; that is, we didn’t source Pinot Noir from any other grower for the first time. We loved working with other micro-site growers who were very much like us. But ultimately being as close to 100% estate was the goal, and now we are… at least for the Pinot Noir. So, the Pinots we’re making this year represent the next chapter in our evolution and we’re excited to see how the fruit develops in terms of complexity and flavors as the vines continue to mature. Otherwise, we don’t really plan to change. We love the one-group-at-a-time winemaker hosted tastings, and plan to continue being 100% direct to consumer. Maybe we’ll finally get a chance to take a vacation sometime in the next 10 years.
9. What experiences and knowledge from your previous lives and careers helped you forge your new path and achieve success these past 10 years? How much time do you have? On Dave’s side, he played French Horn for 20 years, has an MBA and law degree and was a corporate tax attorney doing mergers and acquisitions for a decade at a Big 4 accounting firm. He’s a whiz with spreadsheets and bureaucratic minutiae.
Sara translated a bachelor’s degree in French and history into a career in marketing including writing, graphic design, public relations, social media, and project management. After working at a couple of different ad agencies, she has freelanced for more than 20 years now.
Dave’s prone to analysis paralysis. Sara’s more likely to ask forgiveness than permission. The point is, we bring complementary skill sets and approaches to the table with the winery.
We’ve both managed people in our past careers and we learned we don’t ever want employees – all of Bells Up’s customers know exactly who they’re going to talk to when they call, email, or visit us. Having employees creates layers between yourself and your customers. There’s also all the administrative work that goes along with employing someone. We knew we would have to stay small to adhere to this model. And that’s okay with us.
We also treat the winery as a business. So many other wineries, particularly small ones, lack the business acumen that helps in making the decisions that keep them in the black. When we first moved here, we visited a lot of small winery owners and asked them to share the biggest mistake they ever made. Repeatedly, we heard, “Nobody’s ever asked us that before.”
Most people who fantasize about owning a winery don’t want to hear about the amount of work, effort, energy, and money it takes to be in this business. We came into it with a significant amount of research and time in the trenches; as a self-funded operation (and two people who aren’t trust fund babies and didn’t sell tech stock), we didn’t have the luxury of making a huge financial mistake.
And after the four years Dave spent working at an urban winery in Cincinnati, and a wine shop, and in Washington State University’s distance enology program, we never had any romantic notions of what it would be like to own a winery. That gave us a lot of credibility in the region with other like-minded small wineries right off the bat, even though we were new.
Ultimately, we loved the experience we enjoyed in 2008 at the smaller, more intimate wineries. We enjoyed sitting down and talking with the owners and winemakers. We knew that wine brings people together. Our goal is to sell wine by building relationships. Obviously, you need to make great wine, but there’s a lot of great wine made in the Willamette Valley.
Great wine is a starting point. But the best wine in the world will always be overshadowed by a terrible customer experience. To find true success in business is how you treat your customers and how you take care of people. We treat every customer like an old friend we just hadn’t yet met.
10. Is there anything you are willing to share that I won’t find anywhere else? With the 2022 vintage we will be crafting our first bubbles! Instead of making a still Helios Seyval Blanc, we’ve decided to make a limited edition run of sparkling wine with the fruit. Interestingly, in England – where a lot of Seyval Blanc is grown – it is frequently produced as a sparkling wine. We’re expecting about 45 cases of it, and we’re excited to be working with Kim Kramer at Kramer Vineyards to produce this wine.
Must-try estate wines: 2021 Helios Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Seyval Blanc – named for Carl Nielsen’s “Helios Overture, Opus 18.” This is a homage to their former Midwest life and Dave’s amateur winemaking when he won a 2011 competition with his 2010 Seyval Blanc. It’s a zesty and minerally take on this hybrid grape variety that reminded me of Bourgogne’s lesser-known white, Aligoté.
2021 Prelude Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Rosé of Pinot Noir – named for Franz Liszt’s “Symphonic Poem No. 3: Les Preludes.” After a 40-hour soak on the skins and malolactic fermentation, this deeply colored rosé shines with juicy red berry flavors cradled in creaminess and savory spice. (This vintage still stands up to the mac and cheese and bacon cheeseburger mentioned in my previous story.)
2020 Jupiter Estate Vineyard Chehalem Mountains AVA Pinot Noir – named for Gustav Holst’s “The Planets” orchestral suite and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter.” Mouthwatering meets silky in this Pinot replete with dark berry, herbal, and spicy flavors.
Republished with permission. Originally published by Elizabeth Smith at this link.
Elizabeth Smith is an award-winning writer by way of a detour through the Napa Valley and Sonoma County wine industries. Her day job is product and winemaker copywriter at Naked Wines USA. Elizabeth is the Communications Chair for Les Dames d’Escoffier International Sacramento Chapter. She is also a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and the Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association. Connect with Elizabeth at easmith.net/contact.
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