What am I doing here and who is Michael Caputo? PART I
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
I entered Oregon’s wine industry in 2008 and finished my degrees in Chemistry and Fermentation Science at Oregon State University shortly thereafter. It was not hard for me to figure out that making wine was more fun than doing organic chemistry research. I began my winemaking career at a small winery in Amity, Oregon named Coelho Winery. This boutique winery rented out space to other small producers and I was periodically loaned out to work on their teams. It was here that I met some amazing and generous winemakers, Brian Marcy of Big Table Farm, Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra, and Don Sandberg of Iota Cellars. Between the 4 producers, I soaked up every ounce of wine knowledge.
In 2010, I transitioned to one of the pioneers of the Oregon wine industry, Amity Vineyards. Under the tutelage of winemaker Darcy Pendergras and owner Myron Redford, I learned the art of making vibrant and site-specific white wines and fell in love with Riesling. During a Christmas party in late 2010, I met New Zealand winemaker Poppy Hammond of the cult winery Dry River. She thought that I was very nerdy about wine and offered me a harvest position for the 2012 harvest.
2010 also marked the start of my wine writing career. In April of that year, I created TheWeeklyCrush, a website that explored the wines and histories of lesser-known regions. With almost no money to my name, buying a web domain and paying for hosting was a financial stretch, but I knew that it would help me expand my wine horizons. At its peak, I wrote articles with two contributors, Joe Smith and Chris Brown, and released weekly reviews on grapes, regions, and wines. With a low bank balance, competing interests, and international travel, the website shut down in 2012.
In 2011, while waiting for my international winemaking gig and in a search to expand my understanding of winemaking, I transitioned to the farming side with a position in the vineyard at WillaKenzie Estate. It was here that I cut my teeth on managing vineyards, driving tractors, and leading teams. It was also here that I grew an immense appreciation for the hard labor that goes into farming those precious grapes. Additionally, I began my career as a novice afficionado of Mexican music genres, notably with Norteño and Corridos.
In February of 2012, after months of pushing off purchasing the most expensive plane ticket of my life, I boarded a flight to New Zealand and embarked on a 6-month journey of learning, tasting new foods and wines, and meeting people from all over the world. My experience living and working with people from France, Hungary, Germany, and New Zealand opened my eyes to the big, unknown world. Following this amazing experience, I rejoined WillaKenzie Estate for the 2012 northern hemisphere harvest and then continued my work in the vineyards.
In the summer of 2013, I found myself at a crossroads between farming and making wine. While the value of farming was never disputed, I knew that my true calling was on the winemaking side. Through a mutual friend, I met the associate winemaker at Owen Roe and the timing could not have been better. Owen Roe had been producing wine since 1999 and split its’ focus between Oregon and Washington wines. With the case production growing annually, it was time for owner David O’Reilly to split the business into two wineries. I joined Owen Roe in August of 2013 and signed up to look after the wines while the Washington winery was being completed, design its new Oregon winery, and redefine the lackluster Oregon wine portfolio. Over the next years, I saw out the construction of a new winemaking facility in Newberg, Oregon, built a portfolio of highly regarded vineyard specific Pinot Noirs, and consulted in the winemaking of Lenné Wines.
Over my years in the wine industry, I voraciously read every book I could find about wine. In early 2013, I connected with Trevor Smith, a Master of Wine candidate, who ran a tasting group that met weekly and helped people study for wine exams through blind tasting and thoughtful discussions. With this new focus and amidst my work with Owen Roe, I decided that it was time to get certified. The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) piqued my interest because of its balanced and academic focus on viticulture, winemaking, wine law, wine business, and the identification of wines from across the globe. In the Spring of 2013, I passed the WSET Advanced Certification with Distinction, the highest honor. In 2014, I began pursuing the WSET Diploma but put my studies on hold after passing 2 of the 6 exams, due to the high costs of the exams and required travel to Philadelphia. I would continue attending and eventually leading the weekly tasting group until August of 2016. Over that same time, I taught the winemaking sections of the WSET Advanced course through the Wine and Spirits Archive in Portland, Oregon.
After 3 successful vintages at Owen Roe, my friend and longtime winemaker at WillaKenzie Estate, Thibaud Mandet, reached out to see if I would come back to join the team as his assistant winemaker. I loved the WillaKenzie site, wines, and team and jumped at the opportunity. In January of 2016, I officially returned to WillaKenzie Estate. Over the next two years, I helped Thibaud make the wines while adding some innovation through the cellaring and fining programs. Thibaud’s plan was to open his own winery and have me replace him at WillaKenzie Estate.
It was the middle of harvest 2016, we showed up to work and found a room full of people in suits waiting to speak with us. Little did I know at the time, but my future in the wine industry was about to change…
Part II of my history is linked below