At This Oregon Winery, the Harvest Is About Sharing Joy

Oregon’s Big Table Farm is a winery and a working farm, but most of all a home.
By Hannah Wallace
September 21, 2020

With the wildfires still raging in Oregon right now, we here at Food & Wine debated whether it was really the right time to run a story (which appears in our October print issue) about a happy communal dinner in the middle of Oregon wine country. So we reached out to Clare Carver, who owns and runs Big Table Farm together with her husband Brian, for her take on the matter. She told us, “You know, in my community right now, I think people are really tired, but we’re all looking for joy, and this is a joyful story. Thankfully the fires close to us have gotten under control quickly, so the resources and amazing people who were fighting them have headed over to the other side of the state. It’s still a terribly sad situation there, and things still feel off the rails here—even a few days ago I still had 10 evacuated animals at my farm—but we’re back to bringing in our crops.

“For me, this story is a great reminder of who we are in Oregon, and what we’ll look forward to when the smoke clears, literally. I feel that when you share a story or a picture or a bottle of wine, you inspire and create connection. This story was captured before this current moment in Oregon. Personally, I’m glad F&W is choosing to share it now, to help bring people hope and to spark joy.

“Taking care of our crew and sharing the food we raise and grow all year to nourish us through harvest is one of my greatest joys. So I hope these recipes and photos help bring you joy and hope, too. Although the table looks different this year, caring for people and giving them love and joy through food and wine is still as strong as ever. And together we are all stronger. So cheers from me to everyone reading this.”

Credit: Erin Kunkel

It’s an October evening at Big Table Farm in Gaston, Oregon, and the conversation is raucous around the long dinner table.

As Clare Carver, farmer, artist, and currently host of this party, passes a bowl of sage-flecked potatoes to her husband, winemaker Brian Marcy, she recounts how the couple first met sea salt entrepreneur Ben Jacobsen, who sits at the far end of the table. It was nearly a decade ago, she says, while filming an episode of a show called Man Fire Food. The title alone makes everyone snort with laughter. Cellar hands Ben Luker, who is Australian and very tall, and Mark Kulpins, a Midwesterner who used to work in finance, cheerfully debate who will get to drink more of the exceptional Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that Carver and Marcy have laid out—and who will be tonight’s designated driver. (The two live in the same nearby town.) And Lily Gray, a North Carolina native who formerly worked for Marcy as a part-time cellar assistant, tells how she first discovered Big Table Farm: by selling Marcy’s wine at a shop in Raleigh. “I sent out 50 cover letters to wineries, and Brian was the first one to write me back,” she says. She came to Oregon with a backpack and $300 in her pocket.

This chopped liver–style mousse retains a bit of texture, making it a rustic and flavorful rendition of the classic.

Get the Recipe: Chicken Liver Mousse

Choose a mild extra-virgin olive oil for a richness that complements the walnuts and balances the garlic in this simple kale-basil pesto.

Get the Recipe: Kale-Basil Pesto

Credit: Erin Kunkel

The gathered guests, mostly staff and old friends, are what Carver refers to as “the Big Table family.” Every fall, Marcy and Carver thank everyone for their hard work by cooking an enormous feast at the end of harvest season. It’s not just for the folks who work the harvest—those who put in long days in the winery and are often soaking wet, cold, and exhausted—though they certainly deserve it. It’s also for the ones who pack the wine into boxes and fulfill web orders. The farm chores, though—gathering eggs, feeding the pigs, and whatever else needs to be done—Carver does herself.

Roasting the butternut squash with honey and a touch of salt intensifies the natural sweetness of the squash and caramelizes the honey. Take your time browning the onions; cooking them low and slow deep- ens the flavor of this hearty soup.

Credit: Erin Kunkel

Carver and Marcy feed the crew every day at lunch anyway, since Big Table Farm is five miles down a long gravel driveway and another five miles to the closest town; that’s not uncommon at wineries during harvest season. But this meal is much more elaborate than midday sandwiches. Earlier, they snacked on crostini: some smothered with chicken liver mousse and dabs of Pinot Noir jam, others topped with kale-and-basil pesto. Now, Carver serves a rich crookneck squash soup; those steamed potatoes, generously studded with butter-fried sage; cannellini beans with caramelized onions; her husband’s homemade baguettes; and a brined coppa roast with fennel stalks and sliced onions (the recipe is from their longtime friend, chef Timothy Wastell, who often prepares it for this dinner). For dessert, another guest, Sarah Ann Hahn—affectionately known around these parts as “the Gluten-Free Cowgirl”—made a pear galette with such a light, buttery crust that no one misses the gluten at all. Everything on the table, including the pears and the pork, was grown or raised (and, yes, slaughtered, except for the chickens) right here on this picturesque 70-acre property.

Curing the pork shoulder overnight under a blanket of salt, sugar, and spices makes for juicy, flavorful meat. The fennel cooks down into a rich and jammy condiment that complements every bite.

Credit: Erin Kunkel

Then there are the wines. For this harvest dinner, Marcy and Carver have broken out some special bottles they’ve been cellaring. A magnum of 2011 Pinot Noir from the Pelos Sandberg Vineyard in the nearby Eola–Amity Hills is luscious with layers of dark fruit and tobacco; they’ve been working with owners Don and Johanna Sandberg’s fruit for 10 years now. There’s also a bottle of Big Table’s top Chardonnay, The Elusive Queen, from 2017, its letterpressed label depicting a winged beekeeper holding out an ornate crown designed by Carver, who is also an accomplished artist. As the dinner progresses, more wine is opened: a 2016 Yamhill-Carlton Pinot Noir, a 2016 The Rocks Syrah, and a 2018 Pinot Gris, made in the skin-contact ramato style, ruddy in hue and full of flavor. In Big Table’s first vintage, 2006, Marcy bottled only 150 cases.

Smashing steamed potatoes creates craggy edges that soak up plenty of the aromatic, sage-infused browned butter.

Credit: Erin Kunkel

Today, he and Carver make more like 4,500 (their wines are in stores and restaurants, but they’re easiest to find by ordering directly from their website). The growth has been organic—appropriately, since that’s how they farm—with production climbing year by year, as has Big Table’s cadre of followers. In 2014, Carver and Marcy held an old-fashioned barn raising; a hundred of their best customers pitched in financially through a crowd-sourcing campaign to help fund the project. This year, the couple finally opened a separate tasting room in nearby Carlton. Carver says, “After hosting tastings in our kitchen for 14 years, we were finally able to afford a space other than our home. Brian had actually gotten to the point where he put a ladder out his office window just so he could get out of the house and get his wine work done without getting wrapped up into hours of socializing. It was definitely getting a little nuts.”

A mix of brown and white rice flours and arrowroot flour delivers a gluten-free crust that is flaky, buttery, and crisp. The floral sweetness from the honey and pears is nicely balanced by tangy cream cheese.

Credit: Erin Kunkel

It’s dark now, and dinner is winding down. Clementine and Levi, Big Table Farm’s two loyal Catahoulas, are curled up by the wood stove, barely conscious of the party breaking up just a few feet away. Dishes are carried to the house. Last conversations linger. Then, one by one, the guests get up and hug Carver and Marcy goodbye, and nothing is left except the good quiet of a farm at night.