From Buffalo Blizzards to Oregon Bliss: Rob Stuart’s Winemaking Journey to Success (and Pinot Perfection!) in the Willamette Valley

By Published On: March 11, 2024

Credit: R. Stuart & Co. Winery

The crisp bite of a Buffalo winter couldn’t have been further from the summer sun-drenched vineyards of Oregon’s wine country. Yet, it was amidst those snowy landscapes that a young Rob Stuart first encountered a life-altering glass of wine.

A visit to his uncle in England at 17 introduced him to a 1961 Bollinger Brut, igniting a spark that would transform into a lifelong passion. This is not your typical winemaker’s origin story. There were no family vineyards or childhood memories of harvest season. Instead, Rob’s path was paved with academic rigor and a thirst for knowledge, leading him on a unique journey that culminated in the creation of R. Stuart & Co. Winery. A science background led him to hands-on lessons in Napa and Washington, before finding his home at Erath Vineyards in Oregon. There, he met Maria, and together they envisioned a winery built on collaboration, not hierarchy.

However, the idyllic vision soon met the harsh realities of the business world. The art and science of winemaking, Rob discovered, were intricately blended with the cold calculus of finance. This, he admits, was the most unexpected and daunting challenge. Yet, armed with his characteristic determination and collaborative spirit, he navigated the uncharted waters, transforming his initial “what do I do?” moment into a resounding success story.

While R. Stuart & Co. Winery initially sourced grapes from across the Willamette Valley, a special connection blossomed with Daffodil Hill in 2003. Planted in 1997 by Judy Phipps & Phil Mickelson, this 21-acre Pinot Noir vineyard became a trusted source, yielding our first single-vineyard expression in 2007. When Phil sadly passed away, Rob stepped in to support Judy with management and guidance, solidifying a deep friendship. In 2017, honoring a promise, Judy offered Rob first dibs when she decided to sell. In 2018, Daffodil Hill became their first estate vineyard, marking a pivotal moment in the winery’s story.

Credit: R. Stuart & Co. Winery

Nestled in the Eola-Amity Hills, Daffodil Hill showcases a perfect west-facing aspect, soaking up sunshine for consistent grape maturation. Its elevation, peaking at 500 ft, offers breathtaking views of the Coastal Range. While the full sun exposure demands close monitoring for sunburn and water stress, it rewards them with vibrantly healthy vines. 

Their approach to making Pinot Noir is  a philosophy rooted in respect, authenticity, and a celebration of life’s cyclical beauty. As Rob describes it, each season offers a fresh metaphor– bud break symbolizing renewal, bloom showcasing life’s vibrancy, and veraison marking the finale before harvest.   For single-vineyard expressions, like Daffodil Hill, the focus is laser-sharp. Mature vines with years of accumulated wisdom are given center stage. It’s a patient process, taking 3-5 years to truly decipher each vineyard’s language and style.

Regarding Pinot Gris, they try to balance several elements: not overly sweet, refreshingly vibrant, and showcasing subtle white peach and tropical notes. They walk a tightrope between Sauvignon Blanc’s crispness and tropical exuberance, aiming for sophistication while respecting the fruit’s integrity. Harvest timing presents a delicate challenge. Unlike Pinot Noir, where waiting maximizes flavor and structure, Pinot Gris leans floral if picked too late. So, they target an early harvest with an additional mid-season pick, capturing both brightness and nuanced aromatics.

Credit: R. Stuart & Co. Winery

McMinnville, affectionately known as “Mac” by locals, holds a special place in the Willamette Valley wine scene. With a population under 35,000, it may be quaint, but its cultural spirit runs deep. Rob describes it as a tiny but complex metropolis, boasting a rich history, thriving arts scene, and educational institutions. It’s a magnet for those seeking community and quality of life beyond the big city bustle.

Looking ahead, Rob’s aspirations for McMinnville are grounded in maintaining its authenticity. He envisions a future where the community remains the heart of the town, untouched by aspirations of becoming the next Napa or Disneyland. “It’s a balance of showing and sharing the appreciation we have for where we live while also keeping a focus on how we can benefit the people, families, and businesses who are here day-to-day,” he emphasizes. In essence, it’s about responsible growth that prioritizes the well-being of the community that makes McMinnville unique.

The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative reporting.

Wine Recommendations

2019 Pinot Noir, Daffodil Hill- velvety tannins and bright acidity. The palate is greeted with an array of dark cherry and strawberry flavors, leaving a lingering, sophisticated finish. Its structure is both elegant and robust.

2019 Pinot Noir, Matteri Vineyards- a captivating representation of the variety, hailing from the  Yamhill-Carlton AVA. It presents a delicate yet discernible blend of cherry and raspberry essences,  with a subtle infusion of spicy and earthy undertones. The wine showcases a robust full body, underpinned by a vibrant acidity that contributes to its depth and well-defined structure.

2023 Pinot Gris “Big Fire”- On the nose, this wine exudes a bouquet of ripe pears and crisp apples. The palate is greeted with an elegant fusion of tropical fruit flavors and a delicate texture underpins the wine, providing a sensual mouthfeel that leads to a lingering finish.

About the Author: Joe Campbell

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Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .