Irvine & Roberts and Cowhorn vintners took winding routes to current posts
By MJ Daspit
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times …” No, scratch that.
This is a story about journeys that start in one direction and end up going in another, where both choice and accident play a part and deviations along the path turn out to be positive.
It involves winemakers Brian Gruber and Vince Vidrine. No names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Brian Gruber is one of the triumvirate who produced wines at Barrel 42 from its founding in 2014 until January 2022 when he became the winemaker at Irvine & Roberts Vineyards. Gruber grew up in Minnesota in a town he describes as very much like the fictional Lake Wobegon of Garrison Keiller’s radio show, A Prairie Home Companion.
He started his career by attending the US Air Force Academy. No, there’s no enology program at the Air Force Academy. But then he went on to do post-graduate work at the Kennedy School at Harvard. Did he work harvests in Spain during summer break? No. Gruber actually became a specialist in operations research. When he left academia, he spent the next five years in Washington, D.C., developing computer models to predict personnel attrition, losses the Air Force would need to replace through targeted recruiting. Five years later, he left the service to take a job at — a winery in Charlottesville? No, at Capitol One Bank in human resources.
Married by now, Gruber and his wife bought a 60-acre farm in Virginia where they lived for the next nine years. And on that farm he had some grapes — an acre and a half where he experimented with varieties ranging from chardonnay to viognier to see what would work.
Aha — so this leads Gruber to Oregon as a place to break into the wine industry. Well, yes, in part. Now with a school-age daughter, Gruber and his wife decided to relocate with several things in mind: they were looking for a great small town with a highly rated public school system and four seasons in wine country. The Grubers came to Ashland in the summer of 2007. With Capitol One in the rear view, Gruber took a job pruning vines at Weisinger’s and then moved on to Troon where he met Herb Quady and worked his way up to associate winemaker and general manager by the time he left in 2104.
Gruber and Quady hammered out a business plan for a custom crush winery and co-founded Barrel 42 in August 2014. In seven years of operation, Barrel 42 expanded annual production from 1,700 cases to over 40,000. By 2021 the time was ripe to relocate Barrel 42 from its original location on Stewart Avenue in Medford to its current Applegate Valley location amid the Quady vineyards.
Meanwhile, at the other end of the valley, change was also in the air at Irvine & Roberts. Since establishment of the estate winery in 2017, Irvine & Roberts wines had been made by Vince Vidrine, a Tacoma native who got into homebrewing beer while attending Oregon State University. Vidrine went on to get his winemaking chops on the job at wineries around the world. In a single year, he worked harvests in New Zealand, Napa and France. In five years working with Willamette pinot producer Robert Brittan, Vidrine honed his expertise and eventually became the winemaker at Domaine Serene. He opted to move to Ashland when offered the winemaking job at Irvine & Roberts. But in the fall of 2021, he moved back to the Willamette Valley and a new job at Benton-Lane, a well-established pinot noir house about 30 minutes from his parents’ home.
With Vidrine’s relocation, Irvine & Roberts looked to Barrel 42, where their 2014-2016 vintages had been made. Brian Gruber stepped in to consult on the 2021 vintage, but then accepted the position of winemaker and vineyard manager at I&R. In January 2022, he bid an affectionate farewell to the Quady team.
But the story doesn’t end with Gruber at I&R and Vidrine at Benton-Lane. Vidrine explains, “I met a woman.” When things got serious, Vidrine decided to leave his job up north and return to Ashland to be near her. As for employment, Vidrine’s situation roughly mirror-imaged Gruber’s. When Gruber’s winery moved to the Applegate, he found a niche in Ashland. Vidrine moved out of a winemaking position in Ashland only to settle eventually into one in the Applegate — at Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden.
Cowhorn dates from 2002 when Bill and Barbara Steele acquired 117 acres hard by the Applegate River and planted 25 acres to syrah, viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache. The name “Cowhorn” is an allusion to the property’s history as a dairy farm. The first Demeter-certified biodynamic wine estate in Southern Oregon, the brand with its iconic spiral logo garnered top-drawer accolades and took off nationally. Bill Steele produced the wines, leaving the winemaking position vacant when the couple sold the winery and vineyard last year to a group of out-of-state investors.
Vidrine says he’s excited to be working with Rhone varietals, quite a departure from his career thus far centered on pinot noir. And to make a happy ending even happier, he married his Ashland sweetheart.
If this tale has a moral, I guess it’s that love conquers all, or that ops research has applications in enology or maybe that a good winemaker will never be idle for long, at least not in the Rogue Valley. All of the above work for me.