On this “Next Round” episode, our host Zach Geballe chats with Maggie Harrison, winemaker at Antica Terra in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Listeners will learn about the unique techniques Harrison brings to the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir-focused winery.
First, Harrison shares the unique backstory that led to her move from beachy Santa Barbara to rainy Oregon. Then, Geballe and Harrison dive into a discussion about Harrison’s distinctive winemaking process, which is centered around blind blending.
Each year, Antica Terra Winery takes samples from hundreds of barrels of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay and randomizes each bottle for individual tasting. Her team then creates countless blends until they find the perfect balance of flavors from each barrel. That, as Harrison explains, is how Antica Terra unearths the beauty within the wines it produces without any preconceived notions.
Tune in to learn more about Antica Terra Winery.
Or Check Out the Conversation Here
Zach Geballe: From Seattle, Washington, I’m Zach Geballe, and this is a “VinePair Podcast Next Round” conversation. We’re bringing you these episodes in between our regular podcasts so that we can explore a broader range of issues and stories in the drinks world. Today, I have the pleasure of speaking with Maggie Harrison, who’s the winemaker at Antica Terra in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. Maggie, thanks so much for your time.
Maggie Harrison: Hello, Zach. Thank you so much for having me.
Z: Yeah, it’s a pleasure. I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because I think you’re one of the winemakers in the Willamette who makes both some of my favorite wines but also has a really interesting perspective on winemaking and the wine industry, which is always exciting to get a chance to learn more about. Let’s start here without taking up the entire podcast, which we easily could do. Can you give our listeners a little bit of your own backstory on how you came into the wine industry and then from there maybe make your way to the Willamette Valley?
M: Yeah, sure. The reality is that I never set out to make wine in the first place. In fact, part of the process of how we make wine now is reflective of the way that I’ve always gotten from point A to whatever comes next and that is, I’ve never really called out anything in advance. I didn’t know where I wanted to go to university. I didn’t know what I wanted to study. I never was very good at charting the course. I’m not a strategist, but I’m a pretty good tactician. If you put something in front of me, I can work really hard. Ultimately, I didn’t set out to learn how to make wine, to make my own wine, or to live in the Willamette Valley. I did what was the most useful thing to me and the most meaningful thing in every moment. There was a moment where what was exciting to me was going to study conflict resolution under this incredibly talented conflict resolution specialist in D.C. That led to me wanting to travel more, and that led to me working in a restaurant because that was the easiest way for me to stuff my pockets with cash so that I could get on a plane more quickly. When I worked in restaurants, the easiest way for me to make bigger tips is if I learned a lot about wine. I originally started learning about wine so that I could upsell, honestly. If somebody wanted to order something for $18 and I could sell them something for $180, I got a bigger tip and I got on a plane faster. The better I got at it, the better wines I got to taste, and the more I learned. As we all know, it’s similar to learning about literature or art. It is an actively expanding galaxy. As I started to learn little things, I got more and more interested. Eventually, that interest became fairly dominant. I had an inflection point of, “OK, what do you really want to be doing?” I had to look at where my interests lied. I was really into wine. I think the thing that took the greatest interest, aside from making teapots out of ceramics, was wine. I have a curious nature, and so I didn’t just want to drink more of it, which I also want to do, and I didn’t just want to sell more of it, which I also want to do, but I wanted to get to the bottom of it. I wanted to get to the back of the house. I set about just trying to find anyone who would hire me and then — to truncate the story — through a fairly shameless show of tenacity and a really giant lightning bolt of luck, I ended up getting a job at what I consider the greatest winery in this country. They taught me everything, and I would have never left. I truly would have never, ever left. I think that there are certain places in the world where you can work for the rest of your life and continue to learn every single day. Certainly, I was placed in a position where there was no end to the amount that I could learn and no end to the amount of my growth, even if I was never going to become the winemaker. I had no intention of making my own wine, and they pushed me out of the nest baby-bird-style and said, “Look, I know you don’t want to leave and we don’t need you to leave, but wait until you feel flying. I swear you’re going to love it.” So they made me make my own wine, and I made the first two vintages of Lillian in their cellar, 2004 and 2005. Then, I certainly had no intention of ever leaving Santa Barbara, Calif. I mean, what dummy decides to leave Santa Barbara? It’s pretty lovely there, especially someplace where it’s 72 degrees and the sun is shining. There are rainbows and unicorns. Nobody hatches an escape plan from Santa Barbara. Anyways, a friend of mine, my former bosses, and mentors found this property in the Willamette Valley and asked my old boss if he would make the wine. He said, “No, I really can’t complicate my life. I’m trying to simplify things.” Then, they asked if they could have me instead. I wasn’t in the room, and he said, “Sure.” It was horse-trading because I wasn’t in the room altogether.
M: When I was offered the opportunity to come to be a part of Antica Terra and farm the vineyard, I said “no.” I had no intention of that. I had already started making my own wine and have my own winery in Santa Barbara. Then, they tricked me, and they flew me up to come to take a look at the vineyard. It was very clear. It wasn’t that I wanted to make Pinot Noir more than I love making Syrah. It wasn’t that I wanted to get out of the sunshine and go to a place where it’s harder to make wine and there’s more rain. It wasn’t that I was so sick of living by the sea. It could’ve been Assyrtiko in Santorini. It could’ve been Zinfandel in Napa. I just saw a place where it was so clear that all of the raw materials were there and nothing had been done wrong. It just needed more love and it needed more time and it needed someone to really lean in. While I really didn’t learn anything technical about winemaking in my assistant winemakingship — that’s not a word. I don’t know what ship I’m talking about. However, I definitely learned how to work really, really hard. I ended up here simply because there is an opportunity for me to exercise all the skills I learned about loving things more and leaning in and making decisions about what’s in front of you in a place that I could call my own. I’ve been here since 2006, caring for this little tiny piece of land up here.
Z: That’s fantastic. For those who are unfamiliar, where in the Willamette Valley is the Antica Terra Vineyard?
Z: Absolutely. Again, I want to talk a little bit about your winemaking approach in just a moment. For those who are unfamiliar, can you talk a little bit about the wines you do make and the spectrum of wines you make?
M: Yeah, of course. Antica Terra is Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley. I will say that I’m not from here. I’m originally from Chicago, and I moved to California so I could learn how to make wine and ended up here by accident. When I got here, I came here for a particular piece of land, but I was also very interested in casting a wide net and understanding this place as a whole. I think it is very important that I continue to gain intimacy with this piece of land that is in my care for this lifetime. But also, if I’m going to make wine in this place, I think it is my responsibility to understand the intrinsic aesthetic merit of this place as a whole. I think it is typical and understandable that somebody would land somewhere, plant a flag, and say this vineyard is mine. Therefore, this is the most important thing. But I think it is an act of putting blinders on. Just because I own this piece and I get to control it wholly, the vineyard itself would be lacking context unless I understood more of the greater story of this place. We very quickly started working with additional vineyards all across the Willamette Valley. I wanted to work with some that were most iconic and that had storied histories and that were in these places. I didn’t know much about Oregon Pinot Noir when I moved up here. I knew about the Dundee Hills, and I knew about Shea Vineyard. I knew certain things. I wanted to see what those things felt like, but then I also wanted to push out towards the edges and see what happens when you go as far west as you can get in the Willamette Valley, outside of any of the sub-AVAs. What does it feel like out there? And what happens if you drive another two and a half hours south from the southernmost sub-AVA? What does it feel like down there? We started signing contracts and creating partnerships with a bunch of vineyards. Today, we work with 10 different vineyards, just creating Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We don’t bottle those wines as an intellectual exercise just to show the difference or just so that we can deliver to our customers, sommeliers, or people drinking wine wherever they are, that here is the difference between each vineyard. What we tried to deliver is exactly what I said. A better understanding and a clear representation of the intrinsic aesthetic merit of this place as a whole. We try to find in those places the synthesis of what is most beautiful from that season in our building, in our hands.
Z: Very interesting. As far as I’m aware, one of the main ways that you arrive at that final product is through a very rigorous and specific blending approach. I want to talk about this because I think that oftentimes, when people think about blending in wine, they think about blends of different varieties. They think about a Rhône blend or Bordeaux blend. They don’t necessarily think about the importance of blending a monovarietal wine. As you mentioned, oftentimes — whether it’s really true or not — there is an implication in certain wines. I think this is most true with Pinot Noir where it’s almost as if no blending happens because you’re often presented with the wine that looks like a single vineyard, maybe a single barrel. Probably not, but whatever. The notion is that blending is not a crucial skill for a winemaker working in a monovarietal wine. Can you talk a little bit about your approach to blending and what it looks like?
M: Yeah, absolutely. It is a huge part of the way the wines come to find their form. Again, the way that I learned how to make wine, you don’t call out anything in advance. You keep your head down all the time. All you’re ever doing is looking at exactly what’s in front of you and asking yourself what’s the most beautiful thing I can do at this moment? Then, you do it with fairly maniacal rigor because we all know that is actually the hard part. You can say out loud, “What’s the nicest thing I could do?” But it’s typically the most tiring, the least convenient, the most expensive, and then everything else. You trust that if you do that work where you’re standing and let that lead to the next decision point, and again, you ask yourself the same question in the same way. You won’t know where you’re headed. You can just trust it will be the most beautiful version of what was possible in that year from those fields. By the same token, we don’t go out and advance the wines and say, “I make low-alcohol wines, I make higher-alcohol wines, I use sulfur, I don’t use sulfur. We’re 33 percent whole cluster. I make five wines, I make two wines, or I make 17 wines.” None of that is called out in advance. Instead, what we do is we keep things at this very human scale. We don’t have larger tanks, and we don’t have larger fermenters. Everything is kept to a fairly small scale so that I have actual real intimacy with each fermentation. As it gets larger, it creates a level of remove between the human being and the fermenting must. We have all these little fermenters, and what happens is — because we are making tiny little decisions 72 different times a day with all of these different fermentations as they behave differently — I treat them differently. And as I treat them differently, they become more disparate from each other. What would typically happen right at the end of all of this, even after you’ve picked all of these little picks where you go out and pick a few here, the top of the hill there, and the morning side of the vines over here, you have this individualized relationship with all of the different fermentations. Typically, what would happen at the end of that is that those ferments, when they’re ready to go to press, would move into a holding tank together. Then, the must would go onto the press together. Then if you’re using the press, the press would go into the holding tank or into a different tank. From there, you would go into barrel. No matter what had happened before, by the time you move into that holding tank, you’ve then homogenized everything, all of those little relationships that came before. Again, I can say that because it’s not qualitative. Homogenization sounds bad, except if what you’ve just homogenized is the greatest wine that’s ever been made, you’re winning. As long as what you’ve made is superlative, right? Diversity in nature is complexity and strength. In a cellar, it doesn’t really matter. It just so happens that we don’t settle any of our wines and we don’t have holding tanks because I rely on a high level of solids in our wines.
M: We’re really maniacal about how we get the wines to that stage and maniacal in our sorting. And so, what that gives rise to is, because we’re going into press fermenter by fermenter and then not moving into a homogenizing tank but going from the press directly into a barrel with 10-liter buckets moving in a little circle, we get this tessellation pattern across the cellar where we’re working with the same ingredients. Yet, they take a different form, barrel to barrel to barrel. If you were in the cellar, I could show you the difference between Antica Terra, Shea, Temperance Hill, and Hopewell. But what I could also show you is just the eight barrels that came from Antica Terra Block 6 last year. The range of expression just from that block picked in a single day is unknowably vast. I’ve said before, it makes the cellars seem like a whole cellar full of fraternal twins. Everything is related by DNA, but everything is unrecognizable as siblings. Then, I have a choice: How am I going to get all of these different siblings into bottles? I’m not going to bottle every single barrel. There are maybe 150 different barrels of Pinot Noir but I’m not going to make 150 wines, although I would if I thought that was the nicest thing that could happen.
M: I think that typically, there are two ways that this can happen. Either you say, OK, here are my very favorite barrels and I’m going to put them into this bottle. I’m going to call it my reserve, and I’m going to charge a lot of money. Then, here are my next favorite barrels and I’m going to put them into this bottle. I’m going to call them my flagship wine and I’ll charge a little less money and I’ll make more of it. Then, everything else I’ll put down here and that’s my entry-level wine. I’ll try to get that in some programs by the glass. That’s one way. I take everything a little bit too seriously. I have fun, but I also take everything seriously. The idea that I am capable of doing reserve-level work, but then that I would offer you something entry-level or something less than, feels absurd. I have too serious a nature for something that is market-based verticality. The other way is that you say, “OK, I work with nine different vineyards of Pinot Noir, and therefore we’re going to have nine different bottlings.”
M: While I understand that that ape’s an archetypal ideal, and if we look at Burgundy or any of the places where we grew up learning about drinking wine, while it ape’s that archetypal ideal, it is more of an intellectual exercise. It is an exercise in exhibiting differentiation. It takes us if not one step at least, if not six or seven or 17 steps away from what was actually the most beautiful thing possible. Instead, we blend everything blind.
M: What that means is that we take a sample from every single barrel of, in this case, Pinot Noir in the cellar. It’s about 150 barrels, and we put them into numbered sample bottles, so 1 through 150. We put those bottles all across a table or, more typically, there is one on the table at a time, and there’s a big stack of sample bottles next to Mimi at the blending table. Then, we just move through them. On the first day, we taste through each bottle. We don’t know what they are. We obviously know that we made them and they are Pinot Noir, but they’re all randomized, and we just take notes on each bottle. For the next 10 days, we do it in three-day blocks for about eight to 10 hours a day. We just move through and start putting things together and taking them apart in every different way we can think of just looking for those harmonies that exist in the cellar and trying to find the synergies that exist. Also, we are looking for those places where we can find the ignition of beauty. What will happen first is we taste each of these things, and we might find a pattern emerging : ”Look, there is a certain selection of barrels that are hyper-floral,” and so we might take our favorite of those and put them together. All you’re doing is moving from disparate pieces to putting something together and saying, “Did I just make that better than it was before or worse?” If the answer is better, then what you just added in and then you add something else and ask yourself again, “Did I make it better or worse?” You’re just going from better to better. There are a million worses along the way. You have to take that out and try something else, and we’re not working with whole barrel units either, and so oftentimes, it will be trying to add barrel No. 101. Then, you say let’s try half of 101, or let’s try a quarter of 101. Actually, let’s lay out a range for ourselves going from 0 to 10 percent addition of barrel No. 101 in half-percentage intervals. The thing that you find, Zach, is it is not linear. It’s not like you taste the first one and say, “Oh, no, I don’t taste at all. I still can’t taste it. Oh, wait there it is. It’s barely there. Oh, now I really do. That might be getting close to enough. That might definitely be enough. That’s too much. That’s way too much. That’s overboard.” What you’ll see is that all of a sudden, a half percent of the aromatics crack open, but that at one percent it closes up again and it gets really medicinal and bitter. There will often be three sweet spots, one and a half, seven, and nine the best, but those three expressions are wildly different from one another. You hate the ones that are right next to them that are a half percentage away. The reason it takes us 10 days is that there’s no way to brain it out. It’s not like being a deaf composer and you can just say, “Oh, I know what the timpani is going to sound like with the violin.” One plus one never equals two, so if you take something that lacks acid and you find the barrel on the table that has really pronounced acid and you put them together, you make something hollow, clipped, or roasted or something else that you don’t want to have. You just have to keep trying things not only in different combinations but in different tiny percentage changes of combinations until you can find the place where the wines rise.
Z: I have to ask a question really quickly.
M: Yes, sir.
Z: Is there ever an occasion where you taste a barrel and you’re saying, “I don’t want to add anything to this?” Does it ever get there?
M: Yeah, part of not calling things out in advance is we also don’t tell ourselves how many wines we have to make. Typically, when you get to a blending table, the sales team has said, “I need three of these for the wine club.”
Z: Right, an X number of SKUs.
M: Yeah, or they say, “I need 2,000 of these for the trade placements in Europe.” I don’t let anyone tell us anything. For example, with the Lilian 2016 vintage. I make Syrah, I get to the table and I think I’m going to make a single Syrah. We made six wines, and so if the highest possible answer for any given barrel, or a barrel and a half, was that it stood alone, we would bottle that alone, and in fact, we have. We don’t require ourselves to make any number of wines or to make a certain volume. There’s no volume that’s too small for us to be able to do something with it. We just free ourselves from restrictions, the sales, or the relationship with our customers, distributors, and importers to just look for the nicest possible answer and trust that if we stick really close to beauty, that all the rest of the puzzles will solve themselves. They may not next year, but so far it’s been working.
Z: That’s cool.
M: If you were able to have Botanica on your wine list last year, you’re definitely going to be able to get it again because I might make 1,000 cases of something one year and 102 cases of it next year. The through thread is one of intention and integrity. If we put it in a bottle with our name on it, it was, to our mind and through our angle on the prism, the loveliest thing that was possible. Sorry, I know I talk way too much.
Z: No, it’s fascinating. They don’t need to hear my voice. They hear it enough.
M: It’s very generous of you. At the end of this whole process, at the planning table, the three of us have our little laptop screen. Mimi has a pad of paper. I have laptop screens, and all we have is the name of the wine. Then, a long list of numbers of what we have decided is going into that bottle. Next to that list of numbers is another column of numbers which is what percentage from that barrel or how many liters from that barrel have made it into this cuvée that we’ve chosen. It’s only when we’re done that we have the reveal, where we then can match up what was in those barrels and then what’s going into the bottle. That’s the moment that I find out what the alcohol percentages are, what the oak contribution was and what the whole cluster inclusion was, so there is always the possibility that we look and we say, “Oh, my gosh, look at that. Ceras this year is 100 percent from Hopewell Vineyard. Amazing.” Yet, no matter how great my devotion, I wouldn’t make a Hopewell wine just as an intellectual exercise to show you the difference unless it revealed itself through blind tasting and blind blending to be the most beautiful thing that was possible.
Z: It makes sense. This is just my own perspective on things, but even in a place like the Willamette Valley, where there is now a 50-year history of Pinot Noir, it’s a relatively short amount of time to reveal whether the best expression of Pinot Noir in the Willamette is, as it seems to have become centered around individual vineyards as the ultimate expression. I think there are other producers who may be a little bit more formulaic, but who do perhaps produce a lot of single-vineyard wines and see the value of blending across vineyard sites. It’s very cool that is generally the takeaway from your wines, that as you said, the loveliest wines are not often single-vineyard.
M: I mean, they might be or they might not, but I think you’re exactly right. One of the things that we can take from the older wine regions of the world that I think are really honorable is that we have so much to learn. When you look at those delineations that have been made in Burgundy or Bordeaux or Barolo, those took place over the course of hundreds of years. It’s a long life, and here, we’re only barely on our second generation. It may be that Hopewell Vineyard should always stand alone, that it is by itself full and complete and that the architecture and structure of the wine are whole and complete and beautiful on its own. However, to call that out without giving ourselves the opportunity to allow those places, aspects, orientation, and plant material to call themselves out simply through their quality, through what they are able to represent, I think is squandering an opportunity to draw those lines in a way more meaningful than rushing to do it now before we understand the whole story.
Z: Absolutely. Especially in many of these cases, the vineyards that we’re talking about or could talk about are themselves not even generational. They’ve been planted in the last decade or so. I have one last question for you. A thing that we’ve been talking about a lot here at VinePair and in the industry is the many ways in which climate change and the heat, fire, rain at unusual times, all the ways in which this is impacting human life, but also the beverage alcohol industry and wine perhaps most acutely because of its precarious nature. I’m wondering, do you see this blending approach, your winemaking approach, and this idea of entering the process with no preconceived notions and expectations, do you feel like it gives you some insulation? Maybe not against wildfires or extreme heat, but just the vagaries and variances of a vintage?
M: That is the best question.
Z: Thank you!
M: I think that is exactly right. One of the places where we see things get so fraught in winemaking is when you plant a flag and you say, this is what my wines are. I think that can be really treacherous when we are reliant upon Mother Nature to give us the tools that we need to construct that every year. If you say, “I paint pears and the pears in my painting are always yellow,” then Mother Nature gives you blue paint. We see this all the time. You see it in California in 2011, where it was preternaturally cold. There was a wine to be made in 2011 that was so exciting and it was so different from what had been made in the past or in recent vintages. Yet, what we saw oftentimes is people forcing their wines from this cooler vintage to try to look like the wines they usually make. By not calling things out in advance, we give ourselves the opportunity to just pare away what’s imperfect and find the one true expression of beauty, wherever that is. Ultimately, it’s deeply cultural as a business, and people who run a business say, “Look, if we really run it forward and if the answer is grapevines aren’t viable” — somebody is going to kill me for saying this but it’s right there. If we’re talking about a place where things are getting warmer or fires have become so pervasive that we’re no longer able to have a vintage, I think it requires of us, what are the true core values of the business and what does beauty look like if somebody took away grapes?
M: To be building not just the resilience, but the dimensionality in the work that you do as a whole. I don’t want this to sound fatalistic. I trust that I’m going to make wine for the rest of my lifetime. Now, I’m pretty old, and so my lifetime is shorter than others, but still, I trust that I get to be elbow-deep and knee-deep in grapes until my last breath. If somebody took grapes away from me, then I would make something beautiful out of carrots. If somebody took carrots away from me, I would make dinner. I think when we attach ourselves to a single plot of ground or a crop in that place or a way that the product is always going to manifest ourselves, that rigidity is setting ourselves up for a certain amount of heartbreak.
M: Look, in some years, this field might be good for polenta corn, and in some years for table corn and in some years, popcorn. If we could just remain open to what is actually the highest possible use of our time and our energy in that field, that’s where I think we stand a chance of getting to higher answers as a community altogether.
Z: Well, that’s a fascinating and wonderful thought. Also, it is maybe a good place to leave things. I really appreciate your time. As I said at the beginning, I’m a big fan of the wines. That’s a personal feeling. Folks out there may agree with me or not, but we really appreciate having you and your perspective on the podcast. We look forward to seeing what the blending table brings forward in the years to come.
M: I could not be more grateful that you just put up with me for that long, and I am really so thankful that we got to talk today. Thank you so much, Zach.
Thanks so much for listening to the “VinePair Podcast.” If you love this show as much as we love making it, then please give us a rating or review on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever it is you get your podcasts. It really helps everyone else discover the show.
Now for the credits. VinePair is produced and recorded in New York City and in Seattle, Wash., by myself and Zach Geballe, who does all the editing and loves to get the credit. Also, I would love to give a special shoutout to my VinePair co-founder, Josh Malin, for helping make all this possible and also to Keith Beavers, VinePair’s tastings director who is additionally a producer on the show. I also want to, of course, thank every other member of the VinePair team who is instrumental in all of the ideas that go into making the show every week. Thanks so much for listening, and we’ll see you again.
Editor’s note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.