Why Every Winery Needs a Goat and Other Wisdom from an Oregon Vintner

Why every winery needs a goat, how to survive a cow trampling and more lessons learned by Clare Carver of Oregon’s Big Table Farm.

Clare Carver
Photo: Courtesy of Clare Carver

You and your winemaker husband, Brian Marcy, left Napa to found Big Table Farm in Oregon. What drove that decision?
We wanted to produce our own wines. Brian had been working in Napa for other people — Bruce Neyers and Helen Turley, among them — and Oregon was a great opportunity because land prices are so much cheaper than in California. We also had this wild little backyard farm in Napa and wanted to expand it.

That was in 2006. How is the winery doing now?
Our first harvest, we had to cash out Brian’s 401(k) just to make 150 cases. Now we produce about 4,000 cases: seven Pinot Noirs, two Chardonnays, a Pinot Gris, a rosé and a number of others. It’s finally getting to the point where we’re not thinking all the time, Oh, my god, oh, my god, are we gonna make it?

You combine some very traditional practices — farming with draft horses, for instance—with some very modern ideas, like the “virtual barn raising” crowd-sourcing campaign you did.
My friend Laura, who’s a farmer and by no means a wealthy person, said, “Hey, Clare, I’d be willing to give you a thousand dollars to help you build your winery.” I just kind of laughed — I was like, “Oh, Laura. Thanks. That’s really sweet. But I need a lot more than a thousand dollars.” You know, like $500,000. But then I remember thinking a day or two later that if Laura is willing to extend herself like that, how many other people would? That led to the crowd-sourcing campaign.

In addition to wine, what else does Big Table Farm produce?
We have cows for beef. We have pasture-raised chickens and pigs, and also chickens for eggs. We’ve got 26 beehives, which keep us happily in lots of honey. Am I missing anybody? Bees, the dogs — they’re useless, but I love them — and the draft horses, Hummer and Huston. Oh, and Goatio, our pet goat. She’s just for entertainment. Not long ago, I posted a video on Instagram of her taking beers up to the winery crew in little saddlebags.

Seventy acres is a whole lot bigger than that backyard farm you had in Napa. Have there been any particular challenges?
I’ve definitely made some silly “freshman farmer” maneuvers. I had some friends over one time, and we were feeding the cows apples out of a bucket. My one mama cow, who’s really important to me, put her head in the bucket, and the handle flipped up somehow and dropped over and looped behind her ears. So now she has a bucket on her head and can’t see and is totally freaked out and running around and won’t let me catch her to get the bucket off her head. So I jumped directly in front of her, legs and arms apart, shouting, “Josephine, stop!” And she ran right over me.

Good Lord. Were you hurt?
It just knocked the wind out of me. I was fine. But, yeah, in case you decide to start farming, don’t jump in front of a running cow with a bucket on its head.

Do you and Brian mostly drink Oregon wine at this point?
I would love to say we drink Burgundy, but we can’t afford it. But people — our neighbors and friends — bring us so much wine that it’s sort of an embarrassment of riches in our cellar. That’s one thing that’s different from Napa: the level of community. A huge percentage of people here are owner-winemakers; they live at their wineries and make and sell their own wine. All of us like to share when we visit each other. I will say that I have taken on a deep and abiding love of anything with bubbles; lately it’s been Deutz Brut Rosé Champagne. I just drank the ’09 on an overnight to the beach with my two best girlfriends and our horses.

Everyone needs bubbles. Even on a farm.
Right. And I work my ass off. I deserve it.

7 Wines to Try Now

“Andrew’s such a humble man, very quiet, and his wines are kind of the opposite. I taste this one and think, Oh, my God, this is so dynamic. He gets the grapes from three Washington state vineyards, even though he’s based in Oregon.”

“Brian and Jill O’Donnell live on their property — they started with the same hippie ideals as my husband and me but have graduated now into being great winemakers. Their 2010 Chardonnay, the current release, is drinking beautifully.”

“I have such reverence for Doug Tunnell. He’s uncompromising in all the best ways, plus he has an incredibly deep understanding of Burgundies that really shows in his wine. I particularly love this flinty white.”

“Josh is able to make balanced wine in both warm and cool vintages — that’s what separates the men from the boys in Oregon. This wine is so expressive; I know that sounds boring, but the wine really is, and it’s so gorgeously poised.”

“The owners both worked in the restaurant industry, Erica as a somm in Oregon and Ken in restaurant wine sales. They both have amazing palates as well as an incredible understanding of both US and European wines, and that really shows in their wines, like this vivid Chardonnay.”

“The owner here (and farmer, for that matter) is Jay McDonald — his brand is E-I-E-I-O, which is hilarious. He’s funny and smart, though sometimes I do call him Old Grumpy McDonald. He tends to get passed over somewhat. I’m not sure why, because his wines are great. I love the acid-driven focus of this one.”

“Stirling Fox, our vineyard manager, and his wife, Kelly, a consulting winemaker, launched this project about three years ago. The wines are really fun, really bold. Quite frankly, that’s not typically my style, but if it’s a cold, rainy evening and I want a big wine, I’ll go for Stirling’s.”

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