Staff Profile: Travis Watson, Vineyard Manager

New employees Taylor and Dane (NOT Taylor Dane) recently interviewed Travis at the top of Mount Richmond Vineyard. Here’s a transcript:

How long have you been at Elk Cove?

It will be 16 years in June.It’s been fun. We’ve done a lot of development in that time. When I started we had 90 acres on 3 properties. Now we’re up to 7 vineyard sites with 360 acres planted.

How much has your team grown?

Back in 2002 we might have had 10 year round on the vineyard crew, now we have close to 40 employees in the fields.

And what’s changed in the vineyards here?

We’ve tried to bring in efficiencies in all of our practices. One point – we use auto GPS in our tractors to lay out our vineyards. Probably 99% of Vineyards in Oregon they lay cables to grid out their vineyards, we use a tractor that drives itself. That certainly wasn’t done in the past.

Tell us about Mount Richmond.

Our ideal site is an inverted bowl on one of these hilltops for various reasons: air drainage, water drainage, everything about it is that much better, even if it rolls a little bit to the north or two the west everything is better. But it’s all site specific, everything is site-specific.

Can you tell us a little bit about the soil?

It’s sedimentary marine, very little top soil. In fact in some places there’s no top soil. It’s fantastic for Pinot Noir. Adam can tell you more about what it does for the wines.

How’d you get your start?

I started as a cellar intern for Ponzi Vineyards and apparently was good enough to stick around to run the cellar for the next two years! Then I transitioned to the vineyard around 98/99 I started running their vineyards and slowly phasing out in the cellar. Ponzi went from 40 acres planted to about 110. In 2002 I guess I decided I wanted a break and left Ponzi and Adam called immediately and sucked me in! I had known Adam a couple of years and I liked the program at Elk Cove and what he was doing over here, so here I am.

Did you have a background in viticulture?

No. You know I didn’t. My dad was in construction and I remember the night Luisa (Ponzi) called me, I was having an argument with my dad over something and I had no real interest in wine. I didn’t have any interest in wine, quite frankly. I was 18 years old. But I was mad at my dad so I said heck yeah I’ll work harvest. Sounds like a great thing – I knew they had Bridgeport Brewing, I wasn’t old enough to drink but I thought “Pizza and beer at some point!” It turned out well, I took a bunch of night classes at Chemeketa and headed down to New Zealand in 1999 and helped Larry McKenna, helped Matt Dicey set up his first winery. It’s been a pretty good ride so far.

That’s a pretty great story. So you’re from Oregon?

I was born and raised in Hillsboro. I have a family member who has a farm in Southern Oregon and I would go down and spend a few weeks with him every summer. So I liked the idea of getting into ag, I just didn’t really have an avenue to do that so I seized the moment I guess.

What about sustainability?

You know, Pat and Adam were really farming things sustainably when I started. Windhill was farmed 100% organically, and we still use Organic Materials Research Institute materials. We use a lot of cover crops to build nutrients and organic material. This crimson clover you see growing will build about 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre. If we incorporate that into the soil it will free up not only nitrogen but also carbon, the building blocks of life. So that’s what we use to feed our plants. We might use a small amount of synthetic if we really have to, but that only happens every 7 years or so.

So what’s happening in the vineyard today?

We have two crews in the vineyard today. What they’re doing now is tipping and tying, making sure we have enough buds to wrap on the fruiting wire. When they do the primary cuts they leave 2 or 3 canes on the plants and then they go through at another pass to tip and tie each vine.

Tell us about your own vineyard:

At Bishop Scott Ranch we’ve got 6 acres of Pinot Noir and another 6 acres of Pinot Gris. So the plan is maybe our kids one day will want to take it over. My son starts at OSU next fall and his goal is to get into an enology program. My daughter is 13 and for her science project last year she made some pinot gris. She got a great grade on it (laughs). The teachers wanted to bring in the finished product but the superintendent said no for some reason. So my son thinks he wants to be a viticulturist and my daughter wants to be a winemaker. But if they don’t choose to go that route, I’m going to retire early in Mexico.