A love letter to an unsung hero of Oregon wine

Laurel Hood is the captivating owner of Cannon Beach’s ‘dinky’ wine shop, Laurel’s – plus her own estate out in the Chehalem Mountains. Gaston Guibert tells the story of this lesser-known legend of the Willamette Valley

Words by Gaston Guibert

Laurel's wine shop
Laurel's Wine Shop, on the coast of Oregon

As part of our partnership with The Institute of Masters of Wine, we asked current candidates to submit to us a love letter to wine – on a person, region, grape variety or other topic that has inspired them on their journey and studies – and we were blown away by the submissions. Here, we publish the second of two personal essays that most impressed the Club Oenologique editorial team (you can read the first, written by Jane Dunkley, here). This one is written by US-based student Gaston Guibert in dedication to a local legend of the Oregon wine scene, Laurel Hood.

When I first met Laurel Hood, it was in her self-described ‘dinky’ wine shop in Cannon Beach on the Oregon coast. Crossing the threshold, guests walk through a grapevine thriving in full sun, trained in a natural arch above the doorway. A happy, handmade sign simply indicates where you’ve arrived: at ‘Laurel’s’. Inside, it’s a world away from the salty ocean air and tourist bustle of main street. The low ceiling, dim light and sparsely filled shelves don’t offer much in the way of distractions – all the better for focusing your attention on a genuine piece of living, speaking, surviving Oregon history; the person who gives their name to that sign at the door.

Laurel Hood
Hood in her vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains, which was planted in 1989

Most people who walk in for the first time get some version of the same rundown: ‘Welcome in! Sorry the shelves are a little empty right now but there’s some great stuff… just let me know if you have any questions,’ Laurel Hood will usually say. But those who do choose to ask her anything will often spark a conversation that will transport both parties beyond the dinky wine shop to another time and place. To late nights in the winery with Dick Erath in the 1980s, where she cleaned tanks and strengthened her triceps with punch downs before Oregon was firmly in the global wine picture. It’s from him that she learned crucial bits of farming wisdom like, ‘always have a second tractor handy, to help you pull the first one out of a ditch.’ She spent many a rainy Oregon day in the vines with David Lett at Eyrie, where her love for tending the vines was born, drawn in by ‘Papa Pinot’s’ creativity and passion – and stubbornness. From Fred Arterbury to David Adelsheim, there may not be a Founding Father of Oregon wine who Laurel hasn’t already met.

Her friends, an eclectic group of blues and jazz musicians, artists and knowledge seekers, share a love for this place and understand its magic

The best place to be transported to during those conversations, in my opinion, is Laurel’s own vineyard. Planted in 1989 in the Chehalem Mountains, it is her baby, and embodies just about everything she is. In its essence, it’s authentic: just over three acres of vines, dry farmed and planted on their own roots.

Hood named her steep-sloped, west-facing half-acre, and her finest plot, ‘The Pearl’

The Pinot consists of the two classic clones of the valley before the arrival of the now ubiquitous Dijon clones. There’s the Pommard clone, planted with a few thousand sticks given to her by Erath (which, as any old-school grower knows, also had to include a few rogue Riesling vines from the cuttings he once snuck back from his grandfather’s village in Germany). And then there’s Wadenswil, which she got from Lett’s South Block and used to plant her steep-sloped, west-facing half-acre, her finest plot and one she has appropriately named ‘The Pearl’. When the summer afternoon sun heats up The Pearl, the smell of spiced earth rises from her Willakenzie soil and is unmistakably reminiscent of past Pinot Noirs born from the land.

Though, to pretend that Laurel’s vineyard is an idyllic plot of perfection would be a half-truth at best. The fact is, she’s usually battling the realities of her two roles as farmer and businesswoman, trying to do it all by herself. The drive from her Calkins Lane vineyard to the shop in Cannon Beach is an hour and a half – if a logging truck hasn’t stalled on the two-lane highway. The sprayer seems to always be broken, with powdery mildew threatening to break out at any hour. The mower is similarly unreliable, though when the grasses between the rows get to knee-high, her resiliency comes through: ‘the crickets like it,’ she’ll note, and on certain magical summer nights, they’ll serenade whoever is lucky enough to be there with a rhythmic chorus of call and response.

Laurel makes her farming decisions with soul, a respect for nature, and in the way of a true vigneronne

Adjacent to The Pearl, a huge old walnut tree overlooks a small block of Pinot Gris vines. Had she been able to afford the advice, surely an agricultural consultant would have recommended that she cut it down prior to planting. Not only does it shade out the vines but it offers a home to countless birds, which gleefully take their annual tithe from the vineyard at harvest. But without the birds, who would sing during the day to keep the farmer and her friends company? And if the Gris vines were without their towering timber guardian, would they make grapes with such fine acidity, and an unmistakable signature walnut flavour? Laurel makes her farming decisions with soul, a respect for nature and, in the way of a true vigneronne, with a sense of stubbornness and individuality. After 35 years, she knows what is right for her vineyard better than anyone else ever could.

The Pinot consists of the two classic clones before the arrival of the Dijon: Pommard and Wadenswil

There is nothing fancy about ‘The Farm’, as Laurel calls it. No tasting room, shiny glassware, or fees for ‘guests’. Anyone who comes there is a friend. They’re welcome to sit at the picnic table and enjoy some fresh fruit from the home orchard, a snack from the garden, and if she isn’t down in the vines, the joy of Laurel’s company. If she isn’t home, she might ask you to leave some food out for one of the vineyard cats.

Her friends, an eclectic group of blues and jazz musicians, artists and knowledge seekers, share a love for this place and understand its magic. Though the land in this area has skyrocketed in value since she bought it in the ‘80s, there is nothing Laurel would rather have than this very piece of earth. These vines that she planted with her late husband Jim. Those apple trees, which were once tended by her grandparents, a fact she discovered the day she signed the deed. That view of the setting sun behind The Pearl. The peace of owning your dream and continuing to work for it every day.

Like Laurel, her farm brings joy to those that know it, imparts wisdom to those who listen, and creates community for those who need it.