Tom Monroe of Division Wine Co.
On bureaucracy, suitcase smuggling, and the meaning of natural wine.
June 19, 2021 — I met Tom Monroe on one of those rare sunny spring days in Portland while he was finagling a lockbox outside the winery on Division Street. He’d forgotten his keys. A hectic morning with his newborn, he’d told me by text.
Inside the winery, I followed him down a damp hallway lined with stacked barrels and the lingering smell of yeast as he turned on the lights. “Hi,” he said through a white medical mask in one of those awkward COVID-era introductions sans handshakes and formalities.
Monroe started Division Wine Co. in 2010 with Kate Norris, his business partner and co-winemaker, after attending enology school and learning to make wine in France. Soon after, they founded the Southeast Wine Collective — a winemaking cooperative meant to join hands, share space, and split costs with other local like-minded producers.
“Kate and I met in San Francisco, but we didn’t love the wines coming out of California,” Monroe said. “We found a lot more wines that we liked in Oregon. So we came here.” The Willamette Valley, he explained, is climactically similar to Beaujolais — one of the regions he and Norris worked in during their time abroad. However, the Valley’s vicinity to the Pacific Ocean makes for dryer and more temperate summers than are found in interior France.
Today Division produces roughly 7,000 cases of wine each year and works with a number of organic, biodynamic, and LIVE-certified vineyards across the Willamette Valley and beyond, including the Columbia Gorge on the Washington border and Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley — where they source fruit for their Division-Village Béton, along with the rest of their Loire-style wines. “We have granite soils there — Oregon pink granite it’s called — which is close to what you see in Beaujolais.”
We spent most of the morning chatting in their recently converted private tasting room — formerly home to Oui! Wine Bar, which they ran until COVID restrictions shut them down last fall. It was a beautiful albeit tiny space with brick walls and warm wood floors and a single table that seated up to seven.
“We’d designed it to be elbow-to-elbow, Paris style,” Monroe said. I could easily picture the place candle-lit and bustling.
He found his way behind the bar, and immediately seemed more at ease. I got the sense that if we weren’t masked up and distanced, he’d probably have been lining up glasses and pouring tastes, despite the fact that it was still technically morning. The wall behind him was stacked with fifteen or twenty different Division wines, plus bottles from fellow Oregon wineries and national and international friends and inspirations. I spied a can of Old Westminster’s 2019 piquette in the corner. On a cart near when I was leaning, there were a few bottles of Gamine (Norris’ solo project) and a bottle of Nightshade Nebbiolo — an Italian-inspired project that Tom and his wife, Andrea, launched with fruit from Red Mountain AVA in Washington.
Like so many other wineries, Division was forced to pivot in 2020 — transitioning to direct-to-consumer online sales and shuttering its wine bar. Monroe was grateful for their success selling wine online, but admitted that it hadn’t been easy.
“People look at wine and think, why can’t I get it like on Amazon?” Monroe said. “Well, there’s a shit ton of bureaucracy around it.”
Direct-to-consumers sales is an expensive proposition for small wineries, who don’t move enough inventory to receive the shipping discounts (up to 60%) and efficiencies enjoyed by larger brands. Instead, they face high shipping rates that are further inflated by adult signature fees ($3 each), fuel surcharges, and additional fees for rural areas and failed delivery attempts.
All said, ground shipping on a case of wine from Portland to New York costs a winery like Division around $60 — and that’s before you factor in the ice packs and refrigerated trucks. Wine is perishable, after all.
Then there’s the regulatory rat’s nest of licensing. Chicago, for example, requires four separate permits and licenses — which translates to taxes, fees and a lots of work. “Ten hours each month,” according to Monroe. “And that’s just for Chicago. Now duplicate that across every state.”
For the 2019 harvest, Division partnered with a local restaurant group to produce a special rosé by the keg. But when restaurants were forced to close in March, Monroe and Norris had to think on their feet. Salmagundi was born — a red blend named after a magical sort of hodgepodge, whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It became one of the most popular wines of their 2020 release.
Still, they sold less than usual. “Typically we sell out our rosé by the end of the summer,” he said, noting that they still had a few cases left.
What impressed me so much about Division — beyond the adaptability of its owners — was that the wines walked this fascinating line between the “funkier” styles associated with the natural wine movement and a more classic character. When I brought this up, the conversation drifted toward the wavering, ever-confusing definition of natural wine.
By all accounts, Division’s wines are natural: organically farmed grapes, low intervention cellar methods, native yeast fermentations. But Norris and Monroe have opted out of using the term.
“We were pretty guarded with that word,” Monroe explained, “Which our peers tended to think of as a catch-all for shitty wine. Instead, we described Division as old-school European wine. We have some wines that are funky and fun because we enjoy making and drinking them, but when Kate and I were in France, we learned to make natural wine in a very classic style.”
He lined up wines on the bar in front of me — ten or so bottles — ordered from “most to least funky.” He sees the 2018 Division Chenin Blanc as one of their most classic efforts while Division-Village Béton, a refreshing red blend modeled after Touraine rouge, landed somewhere in the middle.
What about their Pinot Noirs, I wondered?
“We do lots of whole cluster fermentation, which gives them a carbonic maceration character” — think bright fruity aromas, sometimes even a slight effervescence. “But because they are aged in barrel — old barrels, mostly — they are going to taste like Pinot Noir.”
Monroe’s litmus test for gauging funkiness in a wine: “If I can’t tell what grape it is, then it’s pretty funky.”
A lot of the wines coming out of regions like Beaujolais are natural by definition, but they don’t boast that “funk” that we’ve come to expect with some natural wines. “When I started enology school, I had never heard the term. It was just coming in as a buzzword out of Paris — vin de nature.”
I asked him if the vin de nature movement was a reaction to wine becoming more conventional and industrialized in France and otherwise.
“Yeah, it’s that swing of the pendulum. For so many people in France, this is just the way they’ve always done it. But as far as marketing and consumer identification, the wineries, merchants, and wine bars needed something to differentiate this stuff from big, buttery, oaky Chardonnay. They needed a way to classify that. Now the challenge of natural wine is that the definition is very loose and hard to define.”
I admit that when I first started drinking natural wine, I sought out the funkiest ones. It was all I wanted. Though now I’ve come to a point where I’m back to preferring more classic expressions. Well, I like both.
Tom agreed, saying he heard the same exact sentiment echoed by friends and fellow winemakers all the time. “We get a lot of customers who come from the beer world. They like saisons and weird bretty or microbial beers — and they want the craziest wines we have. Then a year or two later they come back and are like, ‘Hey man, I tried your Chardonnay and I really liked it.’”
In that sense, maybe, the natural wine movement has done its job, using “out there” wines as a foil to mass-produced conventional wine before guiding drinkers back towards old-school European winemaking.
Monroe and Norris don’t farm their own fruit — common for small-scale winemakers in America, where land is prohibitively expensive and difficult to access — but they maintain close personal relationships with their vineyard partners. “In the beginning, we didn’t have much of a say in farming decisions, but each year we would get more involved.” These days they work collaboratively with their farmers, discussing everything from pruning methods to pick dates based on what was successful the previous season.
“We have one vineyard [in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA] that we kind of consider our estate vineyard now. We lease the entire vineyard and the owner is a dear friend, which means we can pretty much control the whole thing.” They’d recently planted Gamay from cuttings sourced from Touraine vigneron Jean-Michel Gautier, whose family domaine dates back to 1669. It had been a several year-long wait, as the plant material was genetically tested, virus tested, and trialed through the nursery program at UC Davis — the typical procedure for cuttings imported from Europe.
“It’s the first time these vines have been planted in Oregon,” explained Monroe — most Gamay vines in Oregon could be traced back to cuttings from the Seven Springs Vineyard, planted by the MacDonald family in the Eola-Amity Hills in the early 1980s, mainly to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Norris and Monroe easily rank among Gamay’s chief evangelists in the Valley. Their first vintage was in 2011, and they’ve been challenging drinkers to take Gamay seriously — and not so seriously (see the I Love Gamay Fest, which they co-founded in 2017) — ever since. And surely no wine backs up their high hopes for the grape better than the Division Lutte Gamay Noir — proof that Gamay can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the region’s top Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“The other thing you see people do is suitcase stuff over from Europe.” Monroe was holding up a bottle of the 2019 Division Chardonnay, the fruit for which they sourced from Johan Vineyards — a 175-acre biodynamic property situated in the Willamette’s Van Duzer Corridor AVA.
“That’s how this Chardonnay was brought here. In a suitcase in the 60’s,” he said, evoking an era when vineyards were still fifteen miles apart and Chardonnay vines were scarce. With today’s much higher vineyard density, this approach has become too risky. “If you bring a virus in on the plant, the entire area gets it,” he said.
This, of course, is why regulation exists. But there’s something sexy and alluring about a wine made from vines that journeyed illegally across the Atlantic. Suddenly I was dying to taste it.
To me, Division feels like the crest of a new wave in the natural wine movement — one that values ethics over a specific flavor profile.
The Southeast Wine Collective, with its community-focused mission, was arguably ahead of its time in 2012 — yet it’s emblematic of the cooperative efforts popping up at wineries across America today.
But it also fits right into the longstanding spirit of Oregon wine. The region really didn’t start making a name for itself until the early 1970s when winemakers began moving in and working together — and even, say, sharing smuggled vine cuttings.
When I finally said goodbye and left the winery, I had more than twelve bottles in tow. Back at my hotel room, I poured myself a glass of the Salmagundi — that red blend born out of necessity amidst the worst of the pandemic. It’s juicy and complex — a swirl of black cherries, lemon zest and leather. The nose almost reminded me of marshmallow or birthday cake. A wine that’s classically delicious, but doesn’t take itself too seriously. Tom and Kate’s playful and infectious spirit was palpable.
Katy Severson is a writer and chef who covers natural wine, sustainable agriculture. regenerative foodways and climate change.
Photos Courtesy of Division Wine Co.
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