Fullerton Wines: A Beautiful Wine and Family Journey

A Sip Wines "Winelight"

Eric Fullerton, Founder & Associate Winemaker
Susanne Fullerton, Owner & General Manager
Alex Fullerton, Owner & Winemaker

It’s hard to argue with the idea of destiny when you hear the story behind Fullerton Wines, and even more so when you taste the wine. A first-generation, family-owned winery in the beautiful Willamette Valley of Oregon, Fullerton is crafting wines so good that it’s hard to believe they’re relatively new on the scene (in the grand scheme of wine, anyway). Intrigued? You should be.

Someone give this man an Oscar…

… because Eric Fullerton’s introduction to wine is like something out of an epic movie. In 1969, Eric (then 14 years old) took a trip to Germany with his Danish grandparents. There was a definite air of mystery around the trip, which took them to the hills of Boppard am Rhein, a town west of Frankfurt and a renowned winemaking region. Of course, Eric didn’t know that when he got out of the car at a small house in the hills of grapes and was introduced by his grandparents to an elderly woman named Annie--nor did he understand the depths of this vineyard meeting’s significance, both past and future.

Boppard am Rhein, Germany - where Eric met Annie 

Back, back, WAY back, Eric’s great-grandparents founded a boarding school in Denmark, which stayed in the family for his grandparents to take over. Annie, a woman of German-Jewish background, was a student at the school when it was taken over by the Gestapo in 1940 during the Nazi occupation of Denmark.

Eric’s grandparents transported a group of 15 Jewish refugees--including Annie--to hide in a nearby church; Eric’s mother, Bodie, brought them supplies and organized a community choir so she could hide her visits with rehearsals. Eventually, the community was able to smuggle the entire group out of Denmark into Sweden, where they remained safely until the end of the war.

So… that’s Annie, a World War II survivor who kept in close enough contact with her rescuers to invite their grandson for a visit all those years later. Annie, who owned a vineyard and made wine with her husband August, and who graciously gave a 14 year old boy a pretty pivotal tour.

And that was how Eric found wine. TELL ME THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS FATE.

To be clear, my waxing on about destiny is not to suggest that Eric didn’t work exceptionally hard to get where he is today. I still find it quite poetic, however,  that only a few months after that first meeting, Eric got a job with Annie and August as the youngest member of their crew (in today’s lingo, I think he would have been called a “cellar rat”). At some point around then, not surprisingly, the wine bug bit Eric pretty hard. Enough to leave a lifelong mark.

Something awesome happened in the state of Denmark.

Hamlet? No? Well, in a Will Dubs classic, that quote is a reference to something pretty scary (the ghost of Hamlet’s father, to be precise), but I took the liberty of spinning into a positive for the next stage of Eric’s wine journey--which also smacks of something preordained.

Basically what happened is that his Danish BFF inherited a totally baller wine cellar chock full of fine Bordeaux and Burgundy vintages, and his friend was like, hey come help me drink some of this incredible wine, and Eric was like, yes please. Then, after what I imagine was a wine tasting extravaganza of epic proportions, the two of them wanted more. (Which is how I feel about wine, generally, too.)

They began to seek out younger bottles of those same vintages, traveling around France and gaining momentum for their wine dreams…

Except then Eric found himself in Stockholm, met his wife Susanne, they fell in love (with each other, and over a shared love of wine as well, of course) and… well, you know, life happened for quite a while. Incidentally, his Danish BFF is now the largest wine distributor in Denmark, so I guess awesome things are still happening over there.

Susanne Hart at Fullerton 

Don’t stop believin’...

Fortunately, Eric took Journey’s words of wisdom to heart and nurtured his wine dreams until 2010, when his son Alex graduated from college. Over a (celebratory, I assume) wine tasting, they started totally geeking out over the intricacies of making your own booze--fermentation, home brewing, all that stuff. One thing led to another, who knows how many wines they tasted, and suddenly the idea of Alex becoming a winemaker was on the table.

And then, in a moment so fortuitous that it seems choreographed, the winemaker walked up to their table, Eric asked her how Alex could get into the industry, and she was like, oh hey, one of my interns just bailed, you’re hired. Internship led to cellar hand, and Alex was in.

Alex living his best life

Garages produce more than good rock music.

They also produced the first batch of Fullerton wine. In 2011, Eric and Alex teamed up with a friend to make their first barrels of Pinot Noir. Turns out garage wine ain’t easy--it took them ten hours just to destem the grapes, which sounds kind of miserable, TBH. Still, they persevered and made an outstanding first vintage.

Fullerton Wines 

At the same time, the Fullerton family had also begun planting grapes on their own property, the whole half-acre of it, plus some of their neighbor’s yard as well. (I didn’t ask whether they had permission.) So, a half-acre, some borrowed neighbor yard, and a garage… Folks, the Fullertons started SMALL, which is why it’s truly amazing that only ten years later they’re selling in 16 states and have tasting rooms on site AND in Portland, producing around 5,000 cases per year.

When they went in, they went all in.

By that, I mean that once the Fullertons committed to making serious wine, they also committed to doing it in a way that aligned with their personal values. Respect.

First, the Fullertons were concerned about sustainability and their environmental footprint. While they do grow grapes on their home property, they also partner with several other vineyards in the region; in selecting their partnerships, they seek organic farming practices as well as a minimum of LIVE or Salmon Safe sustainability certification. Their home property is farmed in accordance with organic and biodynamic principles as well, including practices such as cover crops and organic fertilizing.

Second, the Fullertons wanted to make sure that their wines were accessible, from a price perspective. This was tricky, and here’s why.

If you’re not familiar with the boutique wine industry, you should know that this is an incredibly difficult balance to strike; making wine is expensive, particularly when you follow the artisanal practices of so many boutique wineries that result in such exquisite wine.

It’s extremely difficult to price it “competitively” with mass market wines, which is entirely reasonable given that it’s generally also not comparable from a quality perspective (meaning, boutique wines reflect the care and labor put into them). For a boutique winery to turn any kind of profit, they have to price their wines accordingly.

And yet, the Fullertons found a way, represented in their Three Otters line. Not only are these wines priced significantly lower than average for their region (at $20-ish per bottle, which is an absolutely insane value, BTW), they also reflect the Fullerton’s commitment to preserving otter life in their region. Now tell me: who doesn’t love otters??

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I seriously don’t think even Francis Ford Coppola could invent a story as beautiful and meaningful as the Fullerton family’s journey, and that beauty and meaning is truly reflected in their phenomenal wines. Wherever she is now, I have to think that Annie is incredibly proud.

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