Buzz Kawder’s, owner of Domaine Meriwether, has settled nicely into a property with a view, located on the north side of highway 126 in Veneta. Picnic tables on the grassy lawn in front of the tasting room beckon wine enthusiasts to sit, sip, and soak in the views of the forested foothills of the Coastal Range. If the weather is gray and misty, as it often is in the Willamette Valley, then you can enjoy your wine inside the state-of-the-art winery surrounded by stainless steel tanks and oak wine barrels. Being settled, however, doesn’t mean that the dust won’t be stirred up in the future: Buzz has big plans for this beautiful 54 acre site that currently houses Domaine Meriwether’s winery and tasting room.
4th generation Hawaiian born, Buzz is originally from Honolulu, which is located on the island of Oahu. In the mid 80’s, Buzz arrived on the mainland, and he established his new home in Eugene, Oregon. He opened up a consumer electronics store, and excelled in branding and marketing. Being a wine enthusiast since his teens, Buzz began making friends in the wine industry. In 2000, he began marketing for some of Oregon’s smaller, boutique wineries by offering them sales opportunities that hadn’t previously been available to them. During this time, Buzz met the original owner of Domaine Meriwether, Dr. Jack Bagdade.
Jack began his career in the wine industry in Seattle, Washington when he formed Pike & Western Wine Merchants in 1975. Jack envisioned producing world-class sparkling wine, a niche that was mostly untouched in the Pacific Northwest, so in the 90’s he founded Domaine Meriwether. In order to produce classic Pinot Noir based sparkling wine, he knew he would need to find a location that produced top quality Pinot Noir grapes, so the Willamette Valley was his destination. Jack then hired a 6th generation well-known winemaker from Champagne, France, Jean-Louis Denois, who led Domaine Meriwether through their first harvest in 1998, and the grapes for their 1998 and 1999 vintages were custom crushed at LaVelle Vineyards.
The Pinot Noir based sparklers were produced by Jean-Louis in the traditional Methode Champenois practice, and Jack’s vision of world-class sparkling wine from the Pacific Northwest had become a reality. The 2000 and 2001 vintages were produced at Eugene Wine Cellars, and in 2002 they began producing still wines in addition to their top-quality sparkling wines.
Buzz quickly became known in the wine industry as an expert in sales and marketing, so he joined Eric Hamacher, of Hamacher Wines, and Luisa Ponzi, of Ponzi Vineyards, as one of the founding tenants of the critically acclaimed Carlton Winemakers Studio in Carlton, Oregon.
Carlton Winemakers Studio was the nation’s first “Green” and LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design) certified winery, and the concept behind the idea was “to create a space where artisanal wine producers could come together under one roof and have access to a state-of-the-art, gravity-driven, efficient facility which would not only produce, but also promote their ultra-premium wines.” To date, Carlton Winemakers Studio is home to 11 vintners that produce some of the Willamette Valley’s most recognizable and sought after wines.
Buzz’s commitment to marketing the wineries granted him the opportunity to become fully in charge of sales and marketing at Domaine Meriwether in 2002. In 2004, Buzz became a partner, and in 2009, Buzz bought out the existing partners and became the sole owner of Domaine Meriwether. Soon after, Ray Walsh, a friend of Buzz’s who was well known for his stellar winemaking capabilities at King Estate, became the new full-time winemaker at Domaine Meriwether; ironically, Ray had previously worked with Jean-Louis Denois in Australia, so Ray’s new position at Domaine Meriwether was a perfect fit for continuing the excellent reputation and high quality production of world renowned sparkling and still wines that Jack and Jean had established.
Buzz knew that he would need to find a permanent home for Domaine Meriwether, and because Meriwether was founded in the Willamette Valley, and Buzz considered Eugene his home, he was on a quest to find the perfect location in the Southern Willamette Valley . After reviewing, but before purchasing, the 54 acre property in Veneta, Buzz, his architect, and Ray began the process of designing the expansion of what they considered a beautiful blank canvas of acreage with abundant potential.
They asked themselves, “What would be great to have here?” First and foremost, also known as Phase I, they needed to continue to make wine, so when Buzz purchased the property, they designed and built a facility that would allow them to produce the high quality wines they had become accustomed to, and this is where their tasting room is currently located. Phase 2 was drawn up for public space, which would be the new tasting room facility.
Knowing that after 11 years of existence of an established brand with an excellent reputation and a dedicated following, they designed a large tasting room where they could accommodate the kind of volume of visitors that they would have at their chosen spot; a place where they could hold public tastings as well as private wine club events. Phase 3 included a very large facility that would serve as their barrel room and their club room that could fit up to 400 people for sit-down dinners and large events.
Buzz said, “Part of what we do that’s important to me and the whole Meriwether family, is that we like to make ourselves and our facilities available for non profits, auctions, dinners, fundraisers and things like that.” Since they opened their doors about a year and a half ago, they’ve used the facilities with just Phase 1 completed; meanwhile, groups, weddings, auctions, events and outdoor concerts have all taken place within this first year and a half, and the Meriwether team received valuable feedback and opinions from their customers which led them to re-evaluate phases 2 and 3.
They now know they need a bigger tasting room than they had originally planned, and they may be building the tasting room in a different area on the property: an area that will take advantage of the beautiful views and sunsets.
They want to build an amphitheater that will attract nationally known bands as well as local musicians for outdoor concerts that could accommodate crowds up to 3,500 people. So, for now, the construction phase is fluid because they want to make sure they build what their customers really want.
Buzz anticipates that they will continue to operate with their current tasting room until the end of the year, and sometime in January or February of 2012, they will take another look at how to best utilize the beautiful blank canvas that graces this 54 acre property, all while incorporating their phases into the areas that will be most enjoyed by everyone.
Domaine Meriwether has an incredibly impressive line-up of both sparkling and still wines. Sparkling wines include: NV Discovery Cuvee, 2000 Captain Clark Vintage Cuvee, 2000 Prestige Rosé Cuvee, and 2000 Prestige Cuvee. Still wines include:’05 & ’06 Pinot Noir’s, ’06 & ’07 Pinot Gris, ’06 & ’07 Pinot Noir Rosé and a NV Cuvee Glace.
Since Meriwether is primarily a sparkling wine producer, the facility is designed to age wine for 5 to 9 years, so Meriwether’s still wines are aged longer than most because they have the capability and desire to do so. When they create their still wines, they create them to benefit with age.
Buzz compares aging wine to a jigsaw puzzle, “Making wine is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle, and all the pieces must fit together to create a picture. Once all the pieces are together, the further away you get from the picture, the better the picture gets; it becomes seamless and whole.” Buzz believes that a “seamless wine experience” is the ultimate wine experience, and when you taste the Meriwether wines, you’ll know why his main focus is continuing to produce some of the best sparkling and still wines in the world.
Four of Domaine Meriwether’s superior sparkling and still wines will be showcased this Saturday, September 17th, at one of Heidi Tunnell’s applauded and celebrated Barn Dinners. Buzz will be sharing two of his sparkling wines: the Prestige Cuvee and the Prestige Cuvee Rosé along with two of his still wines: the ’05 Reserve Pinot Noir and the ’06 Reserve Pinot Gris.
If you weren’t one of the lucky wine and food fanatics to get tickets for the Barn Dinner before it sold out, head out to Domaine Meriwether in Veneta and enjoy a seamless wine experience in Phase 1 of what already is a dynamic and sparkling (pun intended) addition to the South Willamette Valley wine region. Cheers!
— Julia Crowley, EDN
88324 Vineyard Lane