“I like to tell people that I got involved in the business to follow an Irishman’s dream,” said David O’Reilly (’87). “I wanted to earn a living by drinking!” However much this native son of Ireland may enjoy his trade, one thing is clear: commercial wine-making is a sober business. And another thing is clear: he is doing it right.
Mr. O’Reilly is producing wine that is among the best in the world and in demand by the priciest restaurants from New York to San Francisco. His first vintage of a zinfandel was rated one of the top 50 wines in the world. Most of his wines fetch over $100 a bottle in premium restaurants. His wines are frequently extolled in publications such as Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, and Wine Enthusiast. Avalon of Oregon, a Pacific Northwest wine and gourmet guide, calls him “a guy to watch — a star in the making.”
His wine is so exclusive, he doesn’t even market by conventional means. Wine connoisseurs come to him, such as James Pipkin, who hosts wine-tasting events for internationally recognized connoisseurs at one of the world’s most exclusive high-end venues, the Metropolitan Club in Washington, D.C. Mr. Pipkin stumbled on Mr. O’Reilly’s wines at a wine bar in Portland and later invited him back to a tasting where his wines were enthusiastically received. Mr. Pipkin says Mr. O’Reilly’s wines have “unusual concentration and intensity of flavor. They are products that a knowledgeable perfectionist would wish to make, with little regard for his bottom line. They are the kind of wines I would like to make and share with friends, if I had the talent and skill to do so.”
To all this acclaim, Mr. O’Reilly says, “I really don’t care about the ratings; I care about the taste.” He has no glossy brochure, not even a business card. He sells out a year’s worth of product within a few days of release, and enjoys the luxury of selling to whomever he wants.
So how did such success come to a graduate of a classical liberal arts program? “Well, a few years of experience, a bit of an acquired taste, and a dose of common sense,” he shrugs. Mr. O’Reilly initially planned to get in the business by conventional means — attending a top graduate school in wine-making, getting a degree in enology (the technical word for the study of it), working a few years in a winery, and then waiting for a break. He skipped the first step.
On graduation from the College, he applied and was accepted into one of the world’s leading enology programs at the University of California, Davis, with the condition that he take some prerequisite courses in chemistry. But before starting the program, he thought it would be wise to work a harvest at a winery to see whether the lifestyle was for him. He worked at a small winery in Southern California and asked for the worst jobs he could get. He wanted to see the business from the ground up. He worked the cellar, scrubbed the barrels, labeled the cases.
On his first day there, Mr. O’Reilly got to see the wine-maker in action, a fellow with double degrees in chemistry and biology who had all the learning necessary to produce high-quality wines. The wine-maker brought Mr. O’Reilly through the cellar and had him remove the bungs on each barrel to smell for off-aromas. “You know you have a problem,” the winemaker advised, “if your wine smells like [expletive].”
Mr. O’Reilly was stunned. “Why do you need advanced degrees to figure that out?” he wondered. He started observing that many of the great wine-makers were people who relied not on chemistry, but on their sense of taste and common sense. He aspired to do the same. He declined to attend the UC-Davis program.
While at the winery, Mr. O’Reilly began studying grapes, ground, geography, and climate. He talked with vintners, harvesters, retailers. He also went to the owners with some marketing suggestions. They tried them out. In short order, he moved three years of back inventory. They offered him the lead marketing job. He declined. He agreed to help in marketing, but only if he could continue working with the wines in the cellar. He became a novice wine-maker.
Mr. O’Reilly was particularly drawn to the Pacific Northwest. “I loved the climate, the terrain, the forestation,” he said. “It’s simply beautiful.” He thought at the time that it would offer optimum growing conditions for pinot noir, a wine he particularly liked.
He found that Oregon’s Willamette Valley had recently been tested and promised to be one of the prime growing areas in the world. The climate is comparable to the prime growing areas in Europe. Summers are cool, the rainy season comes close to harvest, and certain hillside soils are sparse — perfect for grape-growing and not much else. But the same reasons, he observed, made the growing conditions particularly challenging. “Oregon wines throughout most of the ‘80s and early ‘90s had amazingly mixed results. One year, you would find a wine that would be among the best in the world; the following year, it would be just awful.”
He liked the style of the vintners there. He found they relied more on common sense than on technology or capital. “They paid attention to health of the soil. They would walk through the vineyard and scrutinize the crop. They would use natural methods in the vineyards and for extracting greater flavor, such as cold-soaking the grape juice and red skins several days before inoculation with yeast.”
Eventually this style would put Oregon on the map for having among the finest wine producers in the world. Mr. O’Reilly saw this in advance and wanted to try his hand at it, too. He scouted out wineries and in 1992 landed a job with Elk Cove Vineyards. “There was something I really liked about the place; it had this neat old style about it,” he said. The winery was struggling financially at the time and was backed up on vintages. Mr. O’Reilly took over marketing efforts and worked as a wine-making consultant. In six and a half years he helped Elk Cove move from 5,500 to 22,000 cases of wine a year; from gross sales of $240,000 to $2 million.
But as part of the deal, Mr. O’Reilly also secured privileges to use the winery to produce wine under his own label. He then produced a wine from 100-year old vines under the Sineann (pronounced “Shen-ay-yan”) label, Gaelic for Ireland’s River Shannon. To give an ancient air to it, he picked a woodcut of St. Dominic for the label and put a red wax seal on the neck of the bottle.
The wine was an instant hit. Using his marketing connections, Mr. O’Reilly hand-picked people whom he knew would write about him in promotional literature. Then he went to certain wine buyers at pricey restaurants. They all liked what they saw (rather, tasted). The 150-200 cases of wine he initially produced sold in an instant. He had produced all he could, given the vineyard space he was leasing from area growers. But he wanted to grow slowly, maintain a positive cash flow, and above all, preserve a reputation for excellence.
In 1998 Mr. O’Reilly left Elk Cove to produce wines on his own. The contacts have grown, along with his reputation. The excellence has endured. With his partner, Peter Rosback, he now produces under the Sineann label as well as under the label of Owen Roe, the name of a 17th Century Irish patriot. In addition to the pinot noir, he produces pinot gris, syrah, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, and zinfandel. He produces white- and red-blended table wines under the name Abbott’s Table. “From the soil to the table” is his company motto.
Born in Belfast, Ireland, the seventh of 12 children, Mr. O’Reilly is one of three brothers to graduate from the College. His brother, Paul (’84) is a member of the teaching faculty.
Mr. O’Reilly credits his success to his experience at the College. “At Thomas Aquinas College, we are always taught to look to first principles. I just try to do the same here. I ask, 'Why is this wine better than that? What are other wine-makers doing to make their wines better?' It’s this sort of analytical approach that the best wine-makers use, and it’s the same approach I was taught at the College.” He is especially grateful to his former tutor, Marcus R. Berquist — “one of the best palates I ever met, and in one of the most humble men I ever met” — with helping to form his interest in and appreciation for fine wine.