The Beckhams bought their property in December 2004 with the intention to build an art studio for Andrew’s work, plant a garden, and raise a family. And they’ve done all three—just not quite in the way they imagined.
After spending many evenings with neighbors across the street who had spent part of their retirement planting Pinot noir and Chardonnay vines, Andrew and Annedria began to fall in love with the idea of growing something on the property.
In 2005, Andrew came home from helping the neighbors with the back end of his truck full of Pinot noir cuttings. He asked Annedria what she thought about planting a couple of rows, “just for fun.”
“A couple of rows just for fun turned into staying up late every night and propagating vines on the coffee table in the living room,” Annedria says. They started planting the first block in May 2005, with Pommard and Wädenswil clones of Pinot Noir on their own rootstock. As Annedria remembers, “it was me and 15 lengths of hose and a couple beers, every night after work.”
They chose to dry farm, ensuring their baby vines learned to find their own water source right from the start. “We just did our research and found that if you push the vines and stress them out to the point where they’re just hanging on, they will dig down and dig deep and they won’t always be jonesing for that drip on the surface,” Annedria explains. It was the first step toward what would develop into a remarkable philosophy balancing calculated risk-taking and intimate stewardship.
They sold the first few harvests, but it wasn’t long before the Beckhams knew the fruit their site had to offer was something too special to part with. “You’ve propagated every vine, dug every post, hand-picked every cluster—you’ve done all of that work and then you just hand it over to someone else,” Annedria recalls. While still teaching art, Andrew began volunteering his time with winemakers Mike Hallock of Carabella Vineyards and Jim Saunders of Le Cadeau/Aubichon Cellars, and finally he and Annedria made their own wine in 2009.
“We didn’t know much about wine,” Annedria says. “We had never really had Burgundy, so we didn’t come into it with this love affair with this other place. We started with our vines in the ground, with Oregon Pinot Noir.”
Between farming, starting a winery, and raising three children, the Beckhams knew they’d need a support system. They became involved with their local wine community in the Chehalem Mountains, where they were able to bounce ideas off neighbors and benefit from the wisdom of local winemaking pioneers like David Adelsheim and Harry Peterson-Nedry. Annedria says, “We would ask, Does it get easier? And just like with children, it doesn’t necessarily get easier, it just changes. The challenges change but you’re better prepared for them. I was nine months pregnant and out there trying to sell wine at one point. It’s sink or swim. You’re in it and you’ve got to figure it out or you will sink.”
Fortunately, the partnership between Andrew and Annedria has been one of their greatest assets. “We’re so lucky we have each other,” Annedria says. Now that the kids are old enough to help, having the winery on-site allows the whole family to be intimately involved with day-to-day wine production. “It’s been a huge blessing,” she says. “It’s tiny, but it’s ours.”
One day, Annedria showed Andrew an article on the clay amphora being used by cult Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori. “I looked at the pictures and thought, I can make those,” Andrew remembers. “I’ve been building bigger and bigger pots my whole life for seemingly no purpose, and all of a sudden here was a reason.” His first amphora held 40 gallons of wine. One by one, they began to get bigger—each progression earning its keep as a demonstration for the classroom where Andrew still teaches pottery. “We moved out here to build a pottery studio, but I hadn’t made any artwork in years because I teach ceramics all day,” he says. “But I was inspired enough to try to get this going, and just put in as many hours as it would take.”
Those hours have paid off, by trial and error, as Andrew has developed an amphora program that he’s eager to expand beyond his own winery. “I put a lot of energy into trying to create a good product and now I’m ready to share it,” he says. Amphora have millennia of history in winemaking, but they’re incredibly scarce in the New World. Andrew hopes to change that. “If these were available on a larger scale, winemaking would look different. I know there’s enough interest and I know that the wines are special, that there’s a reason people have used clay pots for the last 9000 years.” With interest from winemakers (and a few brewers) all over the Pacific Northwest, not to mention as far away as Tasmania, he adds, “it’s going to be as exciting to track other people’s projects as it is to track my own, really. I’m so personally attached to them.” In one of the wine world’s many twists on the usual arc of history, he’s creating the opportunity for one of the youngest wine regions on the planet to tap into something very, very old.
As their understanding of their land and desire to experiment grew, the Beckhams’ decision to introduce amphora come in concert with the adoption of organic farming techniques and low-intervention winemaking practices. “We started farming organically, we stopped using yeasts, eventually we stopped filtering,” Andrew recalls. “That’s when I started figuring out who I was as a winemaker. Up to that point I had been imitating my mentors, but then with those vintages, 2011-2012-2013, I started knowing what I was doing and what my approach was going to be.”
Beckham Estate Vineyard has followed the organic spray program since 2012 and has recently started introducing biodynamic practices—but as always, the Beckham philosophy is that the site must inform the practice. “We don’t spray something just to spray something. You only do what’s important, don’t just put it in because it says on a calendar to do it,” says Annedria. Consistent with the biodynamic philosophy of a closed system, the farm has its own mowers and pest control in the form of livestock: sheep rotate through the vineyard mowing the grass and producing manure, chickens make short work of insect pests, enormous pigs roam the forest and will eventually feed the family, and two dogs keep everyone safe at night.
For the Beckhams, a bit of calculated risk-taking is what got them into this life, and it hasn’t steered them wrong. Andrew’s career has prepared them well for the unknown. “I think if you’re going to be a successful artist—who’s not stagnant and doesn’t just make the same thing their whole life—you’re going to push boundaries, and your work is going to change, sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse, and inevitably you’re going to fail along the way,” he says. “I’ve just primed myself for failure with the type of art I do. The raku pots I make, for example. Half of them break in the firing. It’s like painting with fire and it’s super special, but you have to know the risk going in or you’ll just quit.”
Winemaking is no different. “If you don’t take risks and you don’t try new things and you don’t push the boundaries, you’re going to have the same problem: you’re going to be boring, predictable, and eventually just like everyone else,” he explains. “For that reason we’ve been able to make some cool wines that are less like what’s traditionally made, because I’m not afraid to fail and have to pour stuff out.”
The latest experiment is an array of new plantings that reflect the Beckhams’ love of fascinating Old World grapes: trousseau, aligote, schioppettino. “Knowing your site is super important,” says Andrew. “Adding these new varieties that no one here really has much experience with is going to be like learning our vineyard all over again.”
Annedria adds that after a recent trip to Alsace, “We realized we’re such babies here in Oregon; as a region we’ve only been doing this for 53 years. And we’ve got 13 of those years here at Beckham. I’ve earned these gray hairs and there’s a reason we’re tired, but there are a lot of exciting things happening in Oregon. Its reputation has been built on world-class Pinot Noir, but there are also a lot of other exciting possibilities.”