Lowell Ford was a cherry grower in the 60s in Oregon. In the 1970s he took a trip to Germany and fell in love with the grape farming he saw there. When he retired in 2000 he bought the Illahe site in Dallas, Oregon. His son Brad joined the project in 2004. He had previously worked with local producers Evesham Wood, Lundeen, Scenic Valley Farms.
ILLAHE, pronounced Ill-Uh-Hee, is a local Chinook word meaning “earth” or “place” or “soil”.
The symbol on their label, which partially looks like an “S” on its side, is the word “Illahe” in Duployan, a script for the Chinook language.
Illahe’s vineyard is on an 80-acre, south-facing slope first planted in 2001 with 22 acres of Pinot Noir. The vineyard now has a total of almost 60 acres, planted with seven varieties; Pinot Noir dominates, accounting for 50 of those acres. It is one of nine vineyards situated in the Mount Pisgah area. In this prime grape-growing region, the majority of the vineyard lies on marine sediments atop ancient siletz rock.
Illahe is a warm site that experiences slightly earlier budbreak and flowering than many vineyards in the Willamette Valley. The southerly aspect of the vineyard and the moderate elevation mean that grapes will achieve maturity even in cooler vintages. Moreover, the vineyard has excellent drainage and because it catches the Van Duzer winds, the vineyard cools in the evening, pacing the maturation of the grapes.
The winery is solar powered, built on three levels taking advantage of the natural slope of the site to use gravity flow, and they harvest their own rain water.
Illahe is a LIVE-certified, Salmon Safe vineyard. They use cover crops throughout the vineyard to benefit the soil and for biodiversity. As part of Oregon’s Deep Roots Coalition, which promotes responsible water management, they do not irrigate mature plants. They do extensive green pruning and conduct plant topping. All pruning, as well as the harvesting, is done by hand. Sulfur spray is only used to control for powdery mildew and botrytis.
They see the vineyard as a whole system that creates and maintains quality fruit production. They implement practices to reduce reliance on synthetic chemicals and fertilizers with the goal of protecting the farmer, the environment, and communities at large. They encourage responsible stewardship of the land while maintaining natural fertility and ecosystem stability. They promote sustainable farming methods that maintain biological diversity on the whole farm. Through LIVE’s partner, Salmon-Safe, they work to protect watersheds from negative impacts of farming so that fish can thrive.
Minimal intervention and historical winemaking techniques characterize the winemaking at Illahe.
Harvest is done by hand and the grapes are delivered to the winery by horse in very short totes or five-gallon buckets. They guard against juicing, degradation of grape clusters and exposure to harmful yeast before processing. The grapes are loaded onto the sorting table where any unripe or damaged clusters are removed by hand.
Grapes are then either destemmed (whole berry) or kept whole cluster before entering the fermenters. For the 1899 Pinot Noir, the destemmer is powered by hand.
The grapes are cold soaked for two to six days before undergoing a fermentation by natural yeast. Illahe uses over 40 fermentation vessels to increase complexity and retain cool ferments. The cap (the skins and pulp floating on the surface) is punched down by tool or on occasion by (a very clean) foot. Their red wines ferment naturally.
The finished product is drained and then scooped carefully down to the press level. They use a wooden basket press, only retaining enough tannin in pressing for aging. The 1899 Pinot Noir is pressed using an iron channel bar, chains and come-alongs. It is settled and transferred to barrels with the assistance of a bike-powered pump—an instrument Brad constructed.
Some whites (the Grüner Veltliner and Viognier) are destemmed and skin-soaked overnight;
The Pinot Gris and Tempranillo Rosé are pressed whole-cluster. They are fermented cooly in stainless steel, neutral oak or acacia. A small amount ferments in clay.