For Union Wine Company owner Ryan Harms, it’s all about focusing on the elements of winemaking that are sure to create consistently good wine, and leaving the pomp out of it. The Underwood cans are the next evolution in taking the fussiness out of equation, reminding you to drink, enjoy, and keep your pinkies down.
When an old Oregonian winery, King’s Ridge, was liquidating its brand in 2005, Harms saw an opportunity to purchase a little bit of inventory, but much more importantly, a name with some recognition and established distribution channels. Shortly after in 2006, he introduced the Underwood brand, dedicated to accessible, drinkable wines from a variety of vineyards across Oregon. Union Wine Company began producing Alchemist, their reserve series, in 2010 with a focus on making the highest quality of wine possible in much smaller batches of a few hundred cases at a time.
In 2009, they purchased an old excavation company’s building in Tualatin, just 20 minutes outside of downtown Portland. The city is an important part of the employees’ lives and interaction with wine culture because Harms had “fallen in love with the idea of living here, how dynamic the city is and its proximity to wine country.” In addition, Union Wine Company refurbished a 1972 Citroen H Van in the fall of 2013 to be used as a mobile bar and tasting room. Direct retail is an interesting way to introduce more people to their wine, but it certainly achieves the goal of making it more accessible. The van is also used to bring the wines to weddings and other public events, open on the weekends and operating similarly to a food cart.
In 2013, Harms decided he wanted to really explore the brand, and felt that wine was being taken too seriously. The cans encourage you to drink and enjoy the wine. “You can’t put your nose in it, you can swirl it I guess,” Harms laughed, “but it takes away some of the ceremony. ‘How do I hold the glass?’ How do I talk about it without sounding like I don’t know what I’m doing?’ It’s about bringing new people into the wine space, making it more accessible.”
The cans also fit what the employees wanted out of their wine because they’re easy to take camping or hiking, and each can is about half a bottle of wine. They’re also influenced by local craft brew culture, and Harms was even able to use a local company that provides canning services for a number of Portland breweries. The worlds of wine and beer aren’t too far apart in Oregon. “We drink a lot of beer around here,” Harms admits. “It’s hard to not to participate and be excited about what’s going on in Portland right now.”
Pinot Noir, a trademark style of the Willamette Valley, still makes up the large majority of the fruit they grow and the wine they produce. In addition, Union Wine Company produces Pinot Gris for the Underwood and King’s Ridge brand, a Riesling for King’s Ridge, and a Chardonnay at the Alchemist level. This great variety of Oregonian and Appellation wines are all available across the country.
He spent two years working for a health insurance company. When his job was relocated, he took the opportunity to pursue winemaking as a career. He gained important knowledge and experience working in the vines, so now he gets his hands dirty in all parts of the process, from working the fields to testing in the lab to marketing and distribution. He says it’s a good fit for him though, he enjoys the good and the bad that comes along with working as a small winemaker.
While bottles are still a significant portion of their business, the cans are an exciting development for their company. There are plans in the next year to release some new products and try to create a real presence for their unique packaging in the market. But for now, Union Wine Company is just happy to get more people drinking and enjoying their wine.
The Union Wine Company van is open for tasting on the weekends on Division street in Southeast Portland. Their wine can be found across the country, or ordered from their website.
[Images courtesy of David Reamer]