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March 14, 2021
The Family Recipe - Buona Notte Wines

Graham Markel creates Italian varietals with a distinctly American style

There’s this trope of “The Family Business”, which gets handed from generation to generation.

The general premise is that the parents run a company and at some point they insist that the kids take it over. “Jamie Stiffworth Ellison III,” they say. “It is well past time that you take the mantle as CEO of United Manure LLC. Forget about making art. It is your destiny to take this manure company to new heights.”

One wonders if today’s generations will also insist on handing down their vocation. Will TikTok stars insist that their own kids record their dance challenges and carry on the family legacy? Will their kids resist? Will they run away from home to start industrial companies and become accountants?

One day they will all disinherit their children for becoming lawyers

There’s another version of the family business that’s worth discussing. We’ll call it the “inverted family business”. This is when the younger generation starts a venture, and then brings the parents into the fold.

It’s uncommon. Part of the reason is probably that it represents a disruption of the parent-child relationship. Your parents saw you in diapers, which makes it strange to step into a professional work dynamic. Imagine Elon Musk recruiting his mother to come run Head of Investor Relations for Tesla.

Elon: Mom, do you like this tweet? It says “Thinking of taking Tesla private at $420.” It’s great because it’s a flagrant SEC violation, but it’s also a weed joke.

Mom: I insist that our legal team do a thorough...

Elon: Too late.

Mom: [Fondly remembering her ability to enforce time-outs]. This is untenable. I just want to work for a normal, boring company.

Elon: Boring Company? That’s a great name for a company that drills giant holes under major American cities. I am going to start that company as well and make it my third CEO position. Thanks Mom!

Graham Markel’s family makes the “inverted family business” thing work, and the wine they make together is phenomenal.

As Graham grew up, food and wine were an integral part of life. Yeah, everybody says that, but Graham’s father ran a fruit and vegetable distribution business, and his mom ran an international cooking school. So in their case it’s no exaggeration.

A young Graham thinking through tasting notes for his Ritz Crackers

After years working in bars and restaurants, Graham worked a harvest in Oregon and caught the bug. When the time came for him to cast out on his own, he wanted to stay in Oregon. But he was excited to make something other than pinot noir and chardonnay (the region’s mainstays).

And so he started Buona Notte, his small production winery in the Columbia River Valley, where he focuses on the Italian-style wines. But, he recognized he needed help. It turns out his parents were the perfect partners. Dad brought business acumen, Mom brought gastronomic passion and joie de vivre. A family business was born.

One Minute Wine Nerd

We’ve said this before, but when people hear ‘Oregon Wine’ they typically think pinot noir and chardonnay. But, the Columbia River, which defines the border between Washington and Oregon, has incredible diversity of climate and soil type, which means that numerous varietals can flourish.

If you drive east from Portland, you quickly head into a rainforest. In Cascade Locks there are 40+ inches of rainfall per year (equivalent to 400+ inches of snow). But, for each mile you drive east, you lose an inch of rainfall per year. In just over the distance of a marathon you are in an arid desert.

There are also two big volcanos. Mount Hood is just to the south, and Mount Adams to the north. And, of course, the yearly weather patterns are fickle.

What all this means is that there is an extreme variety of climate and soil composition in a compressed area. The tagline for Columbia River Valley is “a world of wine in 40 miles”.

As a startup winemaker, Graham doesn’t own a vineyard. But that’s it’s own advantage. It gives him the latitude to sniff out a few tons of grapes here and there that are particularly exciting, expressive and delicious. The results speak for themselves. His wines really do sing, and will convince you that you don’t need to leave the States for the best of Italian-style winemaking.

Meet Your Maker

Describe for us how this family dynamic actually plays out?

The best example is the wine club. Obviously I’m making the wines. But we also include recipes, and those come from my mom. She really lends the food sensibility to it. My dad doesn’t get enough credit, but he actually figured out the operations of how to run a wine club, which is a ton of work.

Why did you decide to make wine out of Italian varietals wine in Oregon?

Well number one, I just really freaking love Italian wine. And specifically I love the role it plays in Italian food. The wines are just so food friendly, and they create this culture of inclusivity. They’re really meant to be consumed in a family dinner. Sometimes I get the feeling with these fancy French wines that they are meant to be enjoyed on their own. These are wines for the table.

Point two is just differentiation. There are so many people making amazing Burgundy-style wines in Oregon, and for my own project I was excited to do something different and additive.

You’re a really avid cook. How does that factor into your winemaking?

There’s a big difference between cooking and baking. In baking,you follow a recipe, put the result in the oven, and then you’re like “Welp, let’s see how this comes out.” In cooking of course, it’s totally different. You’re tasting, adjusting, editing as you go.

In my winemaking, I do think of it much more on the spectrum of cooking. I’m tasting all the time to try and understand where it’s going. I’m trying to base everything off of flavors, rather than working on a predetermined recipe. That’s exactly how I cook too. I take everything that’s available and try to make a really beautiful aromatic dish that works on all the senses.

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