Making time for wine

Phelps Creek owner Bob Morus fits grape growing into an around the world flight schedule

October 22, 2005

On a recent Friday morning, Bob Morus padded through his sprawling house perched on a hillside overlooking the Hood River Valley in jeans and a button-down shirt.

Cases of chardonnay sat around the living room as a fire crackled in the fireplace. Morus walked casually outside to his deck at frequent intervals to shoot, with authority, a 15 mm bird-deterrent pistol into the air, the resulting “screamer” shot delivering an ear-splitting boom and drawn-out hiss as it sputtered across his vineyard below. Birds scattered, squawking wildly, only to return a few minutes later.

“Holy cow, when they come, they really come,” said Morus, who owns Phelps Creek Vineyards. “I was fine ’til the rains came. Now the birds are one of the biggest things we’re fighting.”

In a little more than 24 hours, the nuisance of birds eating his grapes, the boom of the pistol and the rapidly approaching harvest of his 10 acres of grapes will be merely a thought tucked in the back of his mind; Morus will be on his way to New York for his day job, flying jumbo jets for Delta Airlines on overseas trips. Before he returns to Hood River, he will have been halfway around the world and back twice, flying back-to-back trips to Berlin, Germany, and Athens, Greece.

Such is the life of a Hood River Valley grape grower. Or, at least, this one.

And because this is his life, and this is October, many things could happen in his vineyard while he’s gone. In particular, some or all of his meticulously grown chardonnay and pinot noir grapes could be harvested and well on their way to becoming wine by the time he returns.

That’s just fine with Morus. He’d like to be here for harvest, but he’s got a well-trained crew that he trusts completely. Morus is often gone for 10 days at a time, flying multiple overseas trips from his base in New York, so it’s inevitable that major things will happen in his vineyard while he’s gone. One time, he talked to his crew before taking off from New York for a cross-country flight to L.A. They were just beginning to harvest that year’s grapes. When he phoned after landing on the West Coast, they were just finishing.

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Morus did not, like some, fall unexpectedly into the world of viticulture. Growing up in northern California, he had family friends who made wine from fruit growing on his family’s property. During college, one of his favorite pastimes was visiting his father on weekends in Sonoma’s wine country.

After becoming a pilot, he and his wife lived in the Chicago area but always had designs of returning to the West Coast and owning a vineyard.

Oregon became Morus’ dream destination.

“I’d been to Portland, but never too far beyond it,” Morus said. He started researching the region, looking at everything within a 90-mile radius of Portland International Airport. He eventually narrowed his search down to the Willamette Valley and the Hood River Valley.

One spring about 15 years ago, he and his wife flew to Portland and set off to drive around Mount Hood on Highways 26 and 35. Morus will never forget descending Highway 35 into the Hood River Valley.

“It was a beautiful spring day,” he recalled. Fruit blossoms created a blanket of pink and white across the valley. “I remember thinking, this is really gorgeous.” They drove into Hood River and had lunch at Bette’s Place. Morus was bowled over by how friendly everyone was. He stopped at a real estate office and ended up being shown the property where his house and vineyard now sit above Phelps Creek. At the time it was a big open hillside field with a doublewide trailer at the top.

“It didn’t strike us that much,” Morus said. After exploring the Hood River Valley, Morus headed to the Willamette Valley for a look.

“I noticed moss growing on the trees,” he said. “I realized it was a lot wetter.” Morus returned to Hood River a short while later and took a second look at the hillside property. With a little imagination, he envisioned the steep, south-facing hill planted in grapes. The rest is history.

“The search that was supposed to take years – well, we really found it in the first weekend,” Morus said. Within a year, his house was under construction and a year later he planted his first block of grapes.

Now, a dozen years later, Morus’ initial vision of a hillside vineyard above Phelps Creek has turned into a dream come true. His property’s location at the cooler, wetter western edge of the Hood River Valley makes it ideal for growing chardonnay and pinot noir grapes. The steep hillside, just a few degrees shy of requiring terracing, acts like a catcher’s mitt for the sun during the important ripening days of summer and early fall. Morus’ vision for his vineyard rounds out the dream.

“I want to position my wines as premium wines,” Morus said. “We won’t be competitive on the supermarket shelf.” The grapes in Morus’ vineyard produce about four tons per acre. But Morus and his crew reduce that down to one and a half tons per acre through meticulous pruning and cluster thinning.

“The less fruit there is hanging on the vine, the higher the quality,” Morus said. The process, which goes on throughout the growing season, requires additional labor and therefore more expense. “But it allows us to charge more for our grapes.”

Morus, who does not have his own winery facility, sells his grapes to some of the premiere Oregon wineries and wine makers, including King Estate, Ponzi Vineyards and Sineann.

One of Morus’ goals was to produce grapes of such quality that a winemaker using them would be compelled to list Phelps Creek as the single vineyard. In 2000, Morus met that goal when Sineann came out with its Pinot Noir Phelps Creek.

Morus has been producing chardonnay under his Phelps Creek label since 2001. (The wine is made at a Newberg facility.) This year, a pinot noir will come out under the Phelps Creek label as well. In total, Phelps Creek produces 500 cases of wine annually.

Morus’ goal is to increase production to 2,000 cases annually within three years. To get there, Morus plans to plant another five acres of grapes on his property. Eventually, he hopes to lease property where he can plant another 15 acres.

“I always want to maintain a boutique-size winery,” Morus said. “I don’t want to get bigger than that.” Morus plans to plant more pinot noir, both because it grows so well on his property and because of its surging popularity. Renowned winemaker Peter Rosback of Sineann heralds that move.

“Of all the pinot I make, this is the most unique,” he said. “This is a very distinct terroir.”

Along with his busy schedule as a pilot and a grape grower, Morus serves as president of the 40-member Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, where he hopes to continue increasing awareness of the “distinct terroir” of his own and the many other vineyards and wineries cropping up in this burgeoning winegrowing region.

“We feel that we are still in the beginning wave of attention that’s going to come to our area,” Morus said. “We think people will be astounded to see how many vineyards will be here in the next five years.”

Last year’s federal designation of the Columbia Gorge as a distinct American Viticulture Area has helped bring attention to the Hood River Valley and the Gorge as a wine region, according to Morus.

Last month, the Oregon Wine Board hosted a week-long media tour through Oregon’s wine country. The tour finale was held in the Gorge, with more than a dozen national and international writers staying for two nights in Hood River and touring local vineyards and wineries.

“Our goal as a group (Columbia Gorge Winegrowers) is to bring greater attention to the wines of our area, and to integrate ourselves with the wonderful things going on here in agriculture and tourism,” Morus said. “We’re charting a course that brings us attention and continues to increase the quality of what we produce.”

It’s a course that Morus’ Phelps Creek Vineyards seems to be traveling, as well. For the pilot-turned-vintner, he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I always like doing things with passion,” Morus said, “whether it’s flying or growing grapes.”

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