A Sip Wines "Winelight"
Joe Wright, Founder & Winemaker
The story behind J. Wright, Vintner is one that makes my heart sing. Read on to learn how he networked his way into winemaking, found his calling, and started an incredible label.
The stars aligned, and they pointed to Oregon.
It was the mid-90’s and Joe was working in wine retail in Aspen, Colorado. TBH if that had been me, I probably would have decided that this was my pinnacle of life coolness, bought a lifetime lift pass, and settled right into my baller ski and wine life. But, fate presented Joe with bigger opportunities in the initial form of a supportive employer who believed that Joe should gain exposure to the wine world and encouraged him to take every chance presented.
One of those chances was destiny disguised: The Oregon Wine Advisory Board was holding a three-day marketing event in Aspen as part of their national publicity campaign, and in the spirit of exposure, Joe’s employer encouraged him to attend. For three days Joe immersed himself in the Oregon wine world, learning the geography, vineyards, wines, foods, and people of the region.
Six weeks later, he and his future wife packed up their car and hit the road, Oregon-bound.
The stars don’t get ALL the credit.
Joe arrived in Oregon with the promotional book he received at the marketing event, and not much else in the way of career prospects. But BEHOLD, THE POWER OF NETWORKING, combined with a dash of fearlessness.
There are different ways to build and utilize a network, some harder than others (although people seem to find most of them daunting). I would argue that the scariest form of networking (and probably the one with the lowest success rate) is reaching out cold. No prior connections or relationships, no referrals, nothing but determination and a willingness to put yourself out there--and yet, it DOES work, and Joe is a case in point. Rolled up in Oregon, sent out some cold emails, and bam! Two job offers.
He accepted the offer from Willamette Valley Vineyards as a cellar hand and worked there for the next six years before moving onwards and upwards, eventually into winemaking. Over the next two decades he formed many relationships with the local vineyards and winemakers, the closest of which was Left Coast Vineyards and Winery. (Sound familiar? I hope so, because Left Coast is another beloved Sip Wines partner!) Left Coast shared many of the same philosophies as Joe, and as his career aspirations evolved, his vision developed along similar lines.
The evolution of a winemaker.
As Joe learned and grew, so did his desire to control his wine. Once he was established as a winemaker, he was no longer content to source his fruit from other vineyards--he wanted to craft his wine from the ground up to the bottle, developing a relationship with the grapes themselves rather than just the growers. He wanted his wines to truly embody his passion, his love, his values and identity… which made his next step clear.
Having already formed a strong relationship with Left Coast, they were the obvious choice for a proposed partnership. Fortunately they felt the same, and over the course of a year Joe transitioned into the Left Coast family, where he’s been since 2011. Yep, that’s right: Joe is one of the wizards behind the magic of Left Coast wines, otherwise known as the Left Coast Director of Viticulture and Winemaking. Didn’t see that coming, did you?
A wearer of many hats.
What I haven’t told you yet is that while Joe was exploring a partnership with Left Coast, he was ALSO working on his own brand starting in 2009. From the very beginning his vineyard targets were incredibly specific, hyper-focusing on particular soil compositions (and combinations thereof) to achieve his desired notes. As his understanding of Willamette Valley terroir expanded, he developed a fascination with the two primary wine grape-growing soils in the region, one sedimentary and one volcanic--in fact, it is these soil varieties that make Willamette Valley wine so unique.
By 2011, when he was finalizing his partnership with Left Coast, Joe had also put his first label on a bottle: J. Wright, Vintner. As he continued working with Left Coast, he also experimented with the impact that elevation, soil, and vine age can all have one a wine, sourcing from vineyards offering extremes of these elements to create his own blends. (Notably, it’s a testament not only to Left Coast, but also to the culture of the Willamette Valley wine community in general, that Joe was able to build his own brand on the side with nothing but wholehearted support.)
It helped, of course, that Joe was also working wonders at Left Coast, whose own soil is a prime example of what Joe loves to experiment with. As Joe described it, Left Coast’s soil is at the extreme end of sedimentary--apparently it doesn’t take much digging before you start finding sea shells. What this means is that the soil has very little water-holding capacity, resulting in an extremely concentrated wine whose flavors Joe has made sing.
The Two Philosophies of Joe Wright.
Wow, that sounds like either an Academy Award-nominated movie starring, I don’t know, Bradley Cooper, or a really deep, fairly trendy novel by Paulo Cuelho. I’m also sure Joe has more than two philosophies, but for purposes of this Winelight we focused on two. Maybe they each deserve their own sub-heading.
The Grape Whisperer.
The first is a winemaking philosophy that I’ve noticed is shared by several other Sip Wines partners, which makes sense because I think it’s a philosophy only smaller, more hands-on wineries could truly embody. In Joe’s words, he refuses to bend the will of a vineyard or vintage into something it doesn’t want to be. Rather, his role is to learn the land and the grapes so well that he can hear what they’re telling him and make the wine that they want to become.
Grape whispering also goes hand in hand with the sustainable practices embraced by so many of our Sip Wines partners, and Joe is no exception. J. Wright, Vintner is LIVE Certified and Salmon Safe, demonstrating a sincere commitment to preserving the land as well as understanding it.
If you think about it, of course this is the recipe for the best possible wine--and yet, it’s also time-consuming, laborious, and demands incredible attention and focus, along with a true desire to learn and care for your land and your crops. It doesn’t lend itself well to large-scale production, which is of course not to say that mass-produced wines aren’t good… but most of them also lack that certain je ne sais quoi, and that’s why.
The Adventurer (with a marketing strategy).
After so much talk of the intricacies and beauty of small-batch wine production, it feels almost crass to bring up topics such as marketing and money. And yet, of course these are also essential aspects of a wine business, with the operative word here being “business.” Fortunately, Joe was able to tap into another aspect of his personal identity to create a brand that is as authentic as it is effective: the Adventurer.
In addition to wine, Joe also loves mountain biking and racing, and he has attended many cycling events over the years. At a certain point, it occurred to him that these events were filled with people who had enough money to drop upwards of $7k on cycling gear, who also liked to kick back at the end of a long race and have a relaxing beverage…
As I imagine the gears turning in Joe’s mind, I also see him reflect on the many years he spent on the road marketing wines, sometimes as many as four months at a time away from home on promotional gigs. After a decade filled with country clubs and fancy restaurants, courting owners and chasing new accounts, Joe was fairly over it.
See where I’m going with this? Joe took all that time and money he would have spent traveling to the country clubs and restaurants and instead became a fixture at the cycling expos, races, marathons, you name it. He took his marketing straight to an untapped customer base, and it worked.
What goes around comes around.
Sometimes in the best possible way. A few years ago, Left Coast actually took over the J. Wright brand and incorporated it under the Left Coast umbrella. This represented a major investment in Joe’s brand, which has been instrumental in allowing him to expand his brand distribution. Perhaps just as importantly, it’s also a beautiful demonstration of support and community characteristic of the Willamette Valley.
Fast forward to now, and Joe seems to have landed in the intersection of the best of all worlds, a place in which he’s able to pursue his passion with the support and love of family and friends while staying true to himself--and probably having a lot of fun, too. I say that because, without putting my finger on exactly how, I would swear that J. Wright wines taste like happiness. I hope you’ll try this wine and then help me put that flavor into words, but if you can’t, it’s ok. Just enjoy.