Chow Town

Former Kansas Citian making wine at Ayres winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Brad and Kathleen McElroy run Ayres Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Brad and Kathleen McElroy run Ayres Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

I love finding and reporting on Kansas City’s connections in wine country locales the world over.

Some are new to me, like Christian Ahlmann who is making Tempranillo, among other wines, with his family in Lake County, Calif. Some I’ve known about, and been jealous of, for years, like Dwight Stanford who owns a bed and breakfast and a winery in the Marche region of Northeastern Italy. Or Mark O’Connell, who bought Domaine de la Chapelle and produces world-class wines from France’s Burgundy region.

Still others are living the life and making beautiful wines in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, one of my favorite places on the planet. That’s where I reconnected with Justin King whose family business, King Radio, was started in Kansas City, and Brad McElroy, whom I’ve known since his days selling wines at Gomer’s South and who now owns Ayres Vineyard and Winery in the Northern Willamette Valley.

I recently chatted with both King and McElroy. McElroy called me after what he said was a very short harvest season, the result of the third straight hot year in the Willamette Valley.

“That’s one of the things that drew me to Oregon. We have vintage variations. I know we’re going to have colder years. As a winemaker, that jazzes me up,” McElroy said.

McElroy’s sojourn west from Gomer’s, his own shop on The Plaza, and his house in Brookside, started in the late ’90s. He and his wife, Kathleen, were looking for land in Oregon when they realized they needed to move there to make it happen. So in 2000, they did just that — sold their business and their home, loaded up the U-Haul and headed west. Manifest Destiny? Maybe not. But, destiny? I think so.

“Kathleen and I didn’t have jobs. We didn’t have a place to live. We rented a house in Portland, and I got a job selling wine wholesale,” McElroy said.

McElroy said he got to know a lot of trade folks on the job. He and his wife also joined a wine-tasting club, which led to more contacts and then an entry-level job at Domaine Drouhin, one of Oregon’s most respected wineries.

“I started out as a cellar rat and worked my way up. After just two and a half years, the winemaker left to take another job, so I was elevated to that position. I feel so fortunate that I was able to do all of that so quickly,” McElroy said.

Meantime, things were happening fast on another front. The McElroys had purchased a 40-acre property with her parents just five months after moving to Portland. It was a Hazelnut orchard.

The climate was perfect for growing Pinot Noir, so McElroy tested the soil. Turns out, a large portion of that was perfect for Pinot, too. Just under half the property has been planted to Pinot with the possibility of adding another four or five acres of vineyards.

“The first commercial vintage for Ayres was 2003. We made a little more wine each year, and by 2006, I felt I was able to leave Drouhin and become Ayres’ first employee,” McElroy said.

The Ayres winery is in the basement of McElroy’s in-laws’ house. Although he says he wishes he had more space, he told me he loves the sense of control he gets by growing his own grapes and making the wines by hand.

“We do everything by taste, My boys and I go out in the vineyard and taste the grapes every day. That’s what we base our decisions on,” McElroy said.

They make between 3,000 and 4,000 cases of wine a year at Ayres. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough to make a living, and it affords the McElroys the chance to live a wonderful life.

Ayres Pinot Noirs are elegant and balanced with a core of ripe fruit, but also have notes of tobacco and mushroom-earthy tones McElroy says are important to him.

McElroy eschews the term “Burgundian,” but as a man making wine in the basement of the family home and walking the vineyard with the next generation of winemakers, it sounds awfully Burgundian to me.

“Yeah, I sometimes wonder if I’m turning into this old French guy. I haven’t started smoking yet, but the rest of the routine pretty much fits the bill,” McElroy said as he chuckled.

As for his Kansas City connections, McElroy said he gets back once or twice a year, still has family here, and loves to share his childhood experiences with his boys.

“My son, Lucas, his first baseball game was a Royals game and he will be a Royals fan forever. Going back and seeing what I experienced as a teen through my kids’ eyes is really special,” McElroy shared.

As we wrapped up our conversation, McElroy promised to get in touch next time he’s in town. I hope he does, and I hope he brings a bottle or two of Ayres Pinot Noir with him. I bet those earthy tones will go quite nicely with some good ole’ Kansas City barbecue.

Next time, the story of King Estate, a family with deep Kansas City roots.

Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.