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How Brianne Day Is Leading the Next Generation Of Natural Oregon Winemakers

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This energetic powerhouse is about to shake up the domestic wine scene.

Arm credit: Brianne Day.
Arm credit: Brianne Day.
Rachel Signer

It all started with a tattoo of grape clusters, on Brianne Day’s left arm—inked there to cover up a previous lotus leaf drawing she'd committed to after many glasses of Champagne on the day of her divorce. It was spring 2013, and Day had just bottled her first vintage of Pinot Noir. To support her "winemaking habit," she not only was waiting tables at Gabriel Rucker’s Portland restaurant, Little Bird—but also working at a wine shop, managing the wine list at another restaurant called Riffle, and helping out at local winery Grochau Cellars.

Day was overworked, but she was also motivated by the prospect of continuing to make wine. And it was likely this positive attitude that captured the attention of two customers, Richard and Diana, who were dining at Little Bird while in town from Michigan, where they had grown wealthy thanks to Richard’s shares in a residential hot water tanks company. But it was also Day’s tattoo which caught their attention, and they asked what it meant.

Day, who is petite and fiery, with short blonde hair and an audacious smile, explained that she had fallen in love with winemaking in recent years, had worked harvests around the world to learn the craft, and had just started making her own juice out of a rented facility in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

"We’ll back you," they told her. And, boom: by 2014, Day had gone from making 450 cases of wine, to 2,500. This fall, Day will unveil a freshly renovated, state-of-the-art 14,000-square-foot winery in Oregon's Dundee Hills—all thanks to her generous investors. And Day plans to pay it forward: her new winery will be, she hopes, a "destination tasting room" where small-scale producers working naturally can rent facilities for their own wine labels. It will be the realization of Day’s life-long dream: to be a part of a "commune."

Photo by Rachel Signer

Day’s story might paint her as merely lucky—does a tattoo earn one a business these days?—or as someone who wants to make winemaking glamorous, were it not for her very robust, adventurous, and self-made winemaking CV, which started off right in her home state of Oregon. Day was raised Jehovah’s Witness, and has not remained close to her parents, but in a sense her "fairy godparents" Richard and Diana have helped her realize who she was meant to be. Day first became interested in wine while visiting Italy at age 19. But, it wasn’t until ten year later that she worked her first harvest at Murdoch James Estate in New Zealand.

"The first harvest was the most difficult," she recalled recently. "I didn’t know how to pace myself, what the workload would be like." But she was infatuated, and Day went back to Oregon and landed a job managing the tasting room and directing sales at one of the oldest and most respected Willamette Valley wineries, The Eyrie Vineyards. That propelled her through a series of harvest experiences, at three Oregon wineries; at Domaine Huber Verdereau in Volnay, Burgundy; in Mendoza, Argentina at Cepas Elegidas; she also traveled solo through the Loire Valley, specifically searching out natural winemakers, a philosophy that had become important to her as she learned more about the craft.

Going back and forth between the Old and New Worlds exposed Brianne to different winemaking cultures. "France is so different, there’s such a connection between the winery and the vineyard," she recalled, comparing it to Oregon "where the Mexicans pick the fruit and bring it to the winery and then it happens there."

But her star wines, and the hallmark varietal of Oregon, are Pinot Noir. Each wine is made from a single vineyard, something less common in Oregon than Burgundy.

Currently, Day makes six wines, which are mostly sold at restaurants and wine shops in Portland and New York City. Her rosé, a 50-50 blend of Tannat and Côt (she prefers the French name to "Malbec," so customers don't associate her wine with oaky, juicy Argentine Malbec), is a high-acid wine with berry overtones that stands up well to all sorts of foods, including seafood. She only made 45 cases of the rosé, and it’s sold out—so if you see it, grab a bottle. Day also made a natural sparkling wine this year out of Malvasia, called Mamacita. But her star wines, and the hallmark varietal of Oregon, are Pinot Noir. Each wine is made from a single vineyard, something less common in Oregon than Burgundy. When Day began her first vintage in 2012, the owners of Crowley Station vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills approached her, requesting that she be the first to produce a single vineyard wine with their grapes. Since Day, three other winemakers have followed in making single vineyard juice. Day's Crowley Station wine is 100 percent destemmed, and it rests in 25 percent new oak (although there's minimal barrel flavor on the wine), and tastes fresh and pretty, with hardly any tannin.

Day works in a Burgundian tradition, carefully crafting her winemaking according to the needs of the vineyard and the harvest. This technique shows in her wines, which are elegant, if still representative of a winemaker early in her career whose work will surely improve. Day adds no yeast to induce fermentation, though she does add some sulfur to her wines to stabilize them. "Most people sulfur at the crush pad," she said, speaking generally about winemakers everywhere, "but I don’t want to kill the microorganisms there," so she waits until after secondary/malolactic fermentation.

But Brianne Day strives to do more than make beautiful wine. She’s here to do even more than elevate Oregon wine to a new level, or to make it popular amongst natural wine crowds in cities like New York—something that garagiste wineries in Portland like Bow & Arrow and Division have already accomplished. She’s here, quite possibly, to create community. By helping other winemakers find their own paths, providing them with space and mentorship, and continuing to work with growers by putting grapes in the hands of winemakers who make fruit sing.

The new Day Wines winery-slash-incubator is scheduled to open this fall, if all goes according to plan. When Day presented the idea to her investors, she was expecting to "scare them off," but they loved the concept and wanted to take it all the way. Probably, they saw her drive and ambition, and knew that she was bound for success. Oregon will be a place to watch for start-up natural winemakers in years to come. And let this be a lesson to all the aspiring entrepreneurs out there: your years of waiting tables and interning might very well pay off. Especially if you roll up your sleeves a bit, and flash that provocative tattoo.

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