Overcoming Adversity: A Conversation with Susan Teppola

Recently, I had the opportunity to sit down with our owner, Susan Teppola, to discuss the history of our winery and her role in shaping the past and future of our farm over the last 4 decades. In 2006, Laurel Ridge lost both its original estate vineyard, and its founder, David. Either one of these tragedies on their own would have been enough to cause irreparable damage. No one – including David, before his passing – expected Laurel Ridge to continue on.

Susan’s decision to keep the farm that she and David had invested their lives in flew in the face of conventional wisdom. This decision tells the story of incredible love, sacrifice, and overcoming adversity despite all the odds…and that is where my interview with her begins.

Q:

2006 was the year that we lost both the original vineyard, and David, correct? 

In 2006, we lost both our original estate vineyard, as well as my husband. Well, the phylloxera and David’s passing were two totally separate tragedies. They culminated in the same year, but they were totally separate. 

Q:

Can we start with the phylloxera? When did that begin?

We were diagnosed with phylloxera in the mid-1990’s. We were the 7th vineyard in Oregon to be recognized by the Department of Agriculture in Oregon State University as being stricken with phylloxera. 

I remember when David told me – he called me at work, and I think I almost fell out of my chair. I was just stunned, and heartbroken, really, because we had nurtured those vines from infancy – some of them were replanted twice, in 1980 and 1981. We hand watered those vines through the very, very hot summer of 1981 – I literally had a watering can. In case you were wondering, 40 acres of grapes was a lot to water by hand. 

It was just terrible. The vineyard was really only 13 or 14 years old when it was diagnosed, so only a third of the way through its lifetime. It’s like having a kid in your 30’s get cancer – they’re only a third of the way through, and there they are. 

Q:

What was David’s approach to the phylloxera? 

Well, David really had two approaches – at first he thought, if it dies, that’s okay, because it’s one or two degrees off a true south axis. But he transitioned out of that pretty quickly. David began researching, and there are things that you can do to the vineyard to help it limp along. The path he chose was initially tried in Australia. Essentially, phylloxera strangles the plant and interferes with its ability to bring water up from the root. By fertilizing and supporting the plant in certain ways, you can lengthen its lifetime despite the phylloxera. Essentially, you’re delaying it’s death That worked for a while – you could still see concentric circles of phylloxera killing the vines, but some of the others looked incredibly healthy. The last harvest was 2006, which was far longer than most people would have thought our vineyard would have survived. 

Q:

What was that final harvest like, in 2006?

It was tiny – it was a little bit of Pinot Noir which was only one of four different varietals we were growing. There was so little of it that we bought a clear shower curtain, put the de-stemmer over the barrel, and used the shower curtain to contain the grapes. We only ended up with one barrel of 2006 Estate Pinot Noir and it was fermented in the same barrel that it was aged in. I honestly can’t remember when we released it. So ultimately, the vineyard died the same year David died. But David managed the vineyard for more than 10 years after it was originally diagnosed, so they were really two separate struggles. 

Q:

Shifting our attention to the other tragedy…can you tell me about when David got sick?

David got sick just after we moved to the farm in 2000. He was initially diagnosed with colon cancer in 2001, but that was inaccurate. He had adenocarcinoma that settled in his colon. He did chemotherapy and surgeries for some time, from 2001 to 2003, then he was healthy from 2003 to 2005. His cancer returned with a vengeance in March of 2005. There was more chemotherapy, and more surgery, but he passed on January 7, 2006.

Q:

Was David making wine during this time period? 

Yes, David had made wine in the fall of 2005. Although our estate yield had dropped dramatically, he still had chosen to purchase grapes from his usual growers.

Q:

What did David want you to do with the farm? Had you two discussed what you were going to do with the vineyard in the event that he passed? 

I knew that he was very concerned about the viability of both the vineyard and winery when he got his terminal diagnosis. I remember he said to me in the hospital, “Now this may be too hard for you…but I need you to bulk off all of the 2005 vintage – sell it all. I’ve already got one sale organized for you (David had sold some barreled Pinot Noir to Willamette Valley Vineyards). Then, sell the rest of the inventory – labeled bottles and all. And then, sell the equipment. And then when that has been sold off, you’ll sell the farm. 

And, I said, “Okay, David, then that’s what we’ll do.”

Q:

Well, we both know that isn’t what you did – here we are 15 years later. Did you ever have any intention of selling the farm?

No. Never. From the moment he said, ‘it’s going to be too hard for you,’ and told me to sell the farm, I resolved that I was not going to be doing that. I would not do that. 

The night before he passed away, David gave me the keys to the winery, and he said it’s just too late for me to show you how to do exactly everything, but here they are.

Q:

What did you do immediately after he passed? 

I honestly can’t remember the first thing I did. I had the keys, but I just sat at his desk for a long time. I finally thought, well, you probably have to answer the phone. And I’m pretty sure that you have to pick up the mail. And I just went from there. 

Q:

Did you have wines in barrel and fermenting? 

Oh yes, but we had no winemaker. So there were a few custom clients that were in the building, and they helped me – but those early days are such a blur. I can just hardly remember. I worked primarily with consulting winemakers who were utilizing our facility until I got my feet under me. 

Q:

What did that period of time from 2006 to 2015 look like? How did your relationship with the vineyard change over those 9 years?

Well, in the very beginning I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t think more than 15 minutes ahead. I literally started with, “Maybe I could make it through the next 15 minutes.” And then I’d think, ‘Well maybe we could make it through the next day, and then maybe we could make it through the weekend. All that really changed was that the window of time in which I was hopeful we could make it lengthened, and just kept lengthening.”

The good thing was, I had always worked in the tasting room on the weekends, so I knew how to do that. After David’s death, the out pouring of love was unbelievable. We had people who were friends of David’s who filled in and came every weekend for 2 years, to either help us with the facility or help us with sales. These friends didn’t accept any money – maybe a bottle of wine, but really they wouldn’t take anything. 

Then we moved on to having part timers. We had a huge sign up sheet, and people would sign up to work this Saturday, or this weekend, etc. Pretty soon our roster was full of people who would like to work once a month or twice a month. It was mostly people who had full time jobs and wanted to do something extra on the sides. We never had help during the day, except during the summer. Sometimes if it got really busy, I used to add help during the weekdays. There was a bell that would ring, and one of the guys in the back would come out to help customers.

Q:

So you really didn’t have a consistent staff? Were you working in the tasting room everyday? 

Yes. I always tried to get home from my other job (with the State of Oregon) as soon as possible so that I could relieve the production guys, because they had to work the tasting room as well as the cellar until I got there. As soon as I got home, I’d work the tasting room. 

Q:

It sounds like during the beginning of this time period, you were just trying to survive. 

Absolutely. But as time went on, while we were trying to survive, we decided we should really help others do the same thing. I just figured, they’re struggling, I’m struggling, we’re all just struggling. I figured we may as well just struggle together. I took on a social service agency function – this is something that we still do to this day. We’ve been the first job for a lot of teenagers, and for a lot of kids who needed it. I’m very proud of that.

Their parents have probably told them the same rules, but who listens to their parents? It’s important for kids to go to a job where their employer re-enforces what their parents have told them – that it’s important to have an employer who tells them the same things. Get up on time, get dressed, go to work and be there on time and ready to work. 

This all started with a kid named Kyle, who was a Yamhill-Carlton High School student. I think he was a Junior. I came home one day from my other job in a little bit of a rush. It must have been 3:30 or 4:00, after school.

I walked in and there was this – well, know how teenagers – especially boys – tend to walk hunched over? They just don’t stand up straight. And he had all the blemishes that showed his adolescence, he was shy as could be. So there was this teenager, and he starts telling me his story his mother had been taken to jail, he had a little sister who was much younger, and they were being cared for by an aunt. Dad wasn’t in the picture. 

He told me this whole story and then said, “Is there something you can do for me?” And so I said, “Yeah, if you come back on Saturday, I’ll give you a job.” And sure enough, there he was on Saturday. 

One of the guests in the tasting room overheard the conversation  said, the way you handled that was just incredible.  And I said, “Well, we can’t do hand-outs, but we can do hand-up’s.” But I don’t think Kyle was looking for a hand out, the way he said it. He shared his story, and just asked what I could do for him. So I did what I could.

Q:

How did Kyle hear about the winery?

No idea. I don’t know. I still don’t. I also didn’t have a job for him, to tell you the truth. I thought he might just mow my lawn. But it ended up, I walked out to the boys out back and I said, “We have a new crew member!” And they said, “Well what are we supposed to do with him?” And I said, “I don’t know, but here he is!” And it was great. It ended up being one of the best, most productive business decisions, for both of us.

Q:

So there were quite a few years you were on your own, mostly – working full time as a Judge, and then working the tasting room in the evenings and weekends. What changed that made you decide to double down and complete such a large replanting in 2015? 

Well in 2015 – by that time – Kira (Susan’s eldest daughter) had expressed an interest in coming back to the business. We just decided to double down. David and I never expected our kids to come back to the business. But obviously it would be there from them if they did that. And really, the only way to do that is to be an estate winery once more. The winery was bankable at that point. We had a really great relationship with the agricultural development of Bank of the West. They gave us a loan to plant 16 acres of vineyard – and I managed to squeeze 24 acres out of the loan, I made every penny squeal as our banker pointed out.

Q:

What are your plans for the future of the vineyard? Will you be doing more replanting?

Oh yes. We have a patch of Pinot Noir that we need to fill out. But after that, the next thing I’d like to do is plant Sauvignon Blanc, along with some other small blocks of white wines – Pinot Blanc for sure. From there, we need to add some more reds to our estate, but I’m not sure what that would look like. 

The interesting part about being in the wine industry right now is that we do have climate change – so you really have to look at the science of it. It’s more than a question of what you want to plan, but what will succeed with global warming. There’s no sense in planting things that aren’t likely to succeed. So when we think about the future and what we may plant next, we have to think about varietals will be best for our soil, aspect, and elevation over the next 30 years. It’s not just a matter anymore of what you like – it’s a matter of what will work. But it’s very exciting, nonetheless.

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