Over the past several years of interviewing close to 300 winemakers, we’ve come across a lot of stories of unlikely journeys where individuals or couples of have packed up their (often corporate) lives and moved to a different part of the country to pursue a life in wine. The common denominator in those stories has been a dream fueled by passion. But passion alone isn’t always enough to turn winemaking into a viable business. At Bells Up Winery, Dave & Sara Specter have found success by focusing on making quality wine, while at the same time connecting with quality people.
Tasting at Bells Up is by appointment only. This fact alone isn’t rare as many wineries do the same, however they take the personalization of their tastings one step further.
Sara speaks to every single person before an appointment can be booked to ensure a truly tailor-made experience, “You have to build relationships from the ground up and that means spending time with people and we love doing that. Fortunately, it works well with our personalities, but the point is that when you’re only making 600 cases, you can’t have a business like this and not make those personal investments,” says Dave.
Their approach is also a particularly important way to differentiate yourself when you’re making wine in a region with 700+ wineries, the vast majority of which are producing excellent wine. The global pandemic provided proof that the connections with their customers and wine club members run deep. On multiple occasions people would call up the winery just to speak to a friendly voice and some customers took advantage of their offer to take a break from self-quarantine to come walk in their vineyard as the winery wasn’t able to provide tastings.
And who wouldn’t want to take advantage of walking in their beautiful 10-acre estate vineyard if given the chance? Even on the rainy spring day when we visited, the property is perfectly perched atop a hillside in Newberg offering up a magnificent view.
But how did a self-proclaimed ‘recovering tax attorney’ and marketing consultant from Ohio end up in the Willamette Valley?
Dave and Sara’s improbable story started in Cincinnati where they both got bitten by the wine bug and started making wine together as a hobby.
They used grapes sourced from the southwest Ohio region as well as from California. Dave in particular was experiencing episodes of corporate burnout (Sara was already freelancing by this time). They started working on a plan of owning their own winery someday. Dave began honing his skills from the ground up which included working unpaid as a winery intern while completing an 18-month distance program in enology from Washington State University.
After a trip to Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 2008, they knew that was where they would return when they were ready to make ‘someday’ happen. A few years later, they sold their home in Cincinnati and while Dave worked the 2012 harvest at Alexana Winery, Sara began the hunt for their future home and business.
The Bells Up property was covered entirely with dead Christmas trees and blackberry bramble when Dave and Sara took over, and it took another year to clean it up and make it viable for a vineyard. They started planting in 2014 and today have 7 acres under vine. While waiting for the fruit to be ready for production, they started producing wine with purchased fruit and then began working in their estate fruit in 2019. As of the 2022 vintage, their Pinots will all be made from 100% estate fruit.
The most interesting variety they have planted is Seyval Blanc—the only planting of that variety in the Valley and only the second in the entire state. “It’s a grape that we worked with quite a bit when we lived back in Ohio. We love it for its earthy nose but also citrusy palate. It does really well in the cooler weather climate, so we think it’s not only tailor-made for the Willamette Valley, but also a way to bring something different to the party.”
Dave adds that working with Seyval Blanc is the beginning of their process to see what varieties they can get access to that most consumers in the country aren’t very familiar with but are well established globally for making delicious wines. “We’re not worried about offering up something different because people here get to try before they buy.” He adds that how the Seyval Blanc is received will help guide them on what might be possible for planting with their last unplanted acre and a half.
We learned quickly during the interview that Dave is as unpretentious as they get, quickly downplaying his role as a winemaker, “Once you get wonderful stuff coming out of the vineyard, my job frankly becomes ‘don’t screw it up!’.”
“During fermentation I need to make yeast happy by giving it the right temperature and nutrients and all the things needed to do their job. Once that’s done my job is essentially janitorial, keeping things clean…you just do those things repeatedly as Mother Nature is doing 99% of the work and my job is simply to put her in the best position to succeed. That’s all it is.”
The name of the winery stems from Dave’s 20 years of playing the French Horn in high school and college.
Bells Up is a musical term used in classical music by composers when French Horn players are told to lift the bells of their instruments up so that the sound is projected outward toward the audience more directly.
Dave and Sara recognized that many people starting a winery often name it something deeply personal which doesn’t necessarily resonate with anyone else. By naming their winery Bells Up, it’s still personal to them, but having a music theme also allows their customers to connect with it on their own personal level.
Each of the wines is named for a particular piece of music and all the compositions feature distinct French Horn parts. “In the 20 years that I played, I’ve played pretty much every one of the pieces that we’ve named a wine after. What this allows us to do is tie the tone, color and tenor of the music, with the tone, color and tenor of the wine. I start with the wine itself and then figure out the appropriate name for it as each wine has its own personality to which a piece needs to be assigned. The best way for me to explain it is that when I taste the wine, I’m also hearing it tell its own story.”
An unexpected outcome of the music theme is that several professional musicians have ordered their wine and started sending their performances to Dave and Sara. “The music we play in the tasting room consists of both the actual pieces the wines were named after as well as the performance CDs of some of our customers and club members which is just another fun way to connect with people.”
But the most gratifying reaction to their winery to date has been the steadfast community that they have built so quickly. “We had ideas of what we thought could happen, but we’ve had customers and club members get married and want to serve our wine at their wedding receptions. It’s an incredible feeling to know that they care or think of you enough to trust their most important day with your wines being a part of that experience. It has been truly rewarding and emotionally satisfying.”
Dave and Sara refer to photos or experiences with their wines sent in by customers as a “Bells Up Moment” and it’s pretty clear already that their new vocation has them meeting their own.
2021 Rhapsody Pinot Blanc
Pale yellow with green hue. Citrus notes on the nose combine hints of white peach. The palate is medium+ in body with medium+ acidity. The texture of this wine creates good balance for the juicy acid profile. Flavours of green apple, melon and lemon come together in a refreshing style. No oak and no malo, this is surprisingly textured, given the elevage. Hints of mineral come through on the finish.
Very Good+ (US$32 at the Winery)
This wine is made from the aromatic grape variety Seyval Blanc. This reminded us of a Sauvignon Blanc with its grapefruit flavours or perhaps a Grüner Veltliner with its body and high acid combination. Hints of lemon/lime infuse the aromatic profile. Flavours of pear and golden delicious apple gain added complexity from the mineral streak on the finish. Crisp and refreshing.
Very Good+ (US$40 at the Winery)
2021 Prelude Rosé of Pinot Noir
We are starting to see a few more Rosés made with Pinot Noir and based on this example, it is a trend we would like to see continue. Medium/dark red in colour, it was made in the maceration method with 40 hours of skin contact. Classic Rosé notes give great varietal typicity: strawberry, red apple skin, hint of watermelon and a nice showing of mineral and spice. With medium body, medium acidity and lots of earthy complexity, this is a gastronomic Rosé setting itself apart from the run of the mill. A perfect pairing for oysters or ceviche.
Excellent (US$28 at the Winery – particularly good value for this quality level)
2019 Titan Pinot Noir
Just 74 cases of this Dijon and Pommard clone blend are made. Notes of rhubarb and cherry get support from the earthy notes. Medium tannin and medium- acidity contribute to a round mouthfeel and early approachability. The medium body amplifies the elegance of this wine.
Very Good+ (US$44 at the Winery)
2019 Candide Pinot Noir
The “reserve” character comes through with the greater intensity of this wine. Cherry, hints of blueberry, mushroom and forest floor come together in a unison that shows sophistication and good balance. Lovely now, we guess this will show additional development if cellared over the next 5 years or longer.
Excellent (US$54 at the Winery)
2020 Jupiter Pinot Noir
Made from Pommard and Dijon 667 clones grown at their estate vineyard in the Chehalem Mountains. Raspberry and darker fruits come across with this wine as well as earthy and woodsy notes. The body is medium and there is a suave elegance to this wine that is quite charming. Lovely balance.
Very Good+ (US$48 at the Winery)
2019 Firebird Syrah
The fruit is sourced from Summit View Vineyard in Milton-Freewater, Oregon—part of the Walla Walla Valley AVA that straddles the Washington border and is getting such good press for its Syrah. Plum and blackberry pick up complexity from the pepper notes that gradually morph from black to white as the wine takes in air. There are black cherry notes to be detected after a bit of swirling. Medium body and medium tannin, this wine is very approachable.
Very Good+ (US$52 at the Winery)
2020 New World Cabernet Sauvignon
Fruit comes from the same Summit View Vineyard on the Oregon side of the Walla Walla Valley. Black cherry dominates the flavour and the aromatic profile. The wine is intense yet elegant as well. Medium tannin and medium+ acidity suggest this wine should be as long-lived as other Walla Walla Valley Cabs. Hints of cigar box and old leather add complexity to the aromas. Really delicious!
Excellent (US$68 at the Winery)
27895 NE Bell Road
Newberg, OR 97132
*Tastings by appointment only: 503.537.1328