Food & Drink: Local Winemaker Makes his Way – William Marie Wines

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Lefferts “thiefing” barreled 2020 WMW Cabernet. (Photo/Peter Strong)

It’s a rare thing to see an artist grow. Rarer still to witness that growth firsthand. And, truly a gift of rarities: to be able to experience that art and to taste that growth throughout the years. That honor has been bestowed upon me with the winemaking of Ed Lefferts and his beautiful William Marie Wines. 

Ed and I began working together at a downtown Portland steakhouse in 2018. Despite the hectic environment, he always appeared stoic and focused. There’s a game I’ve played for nearly 25 years in the restaurant industry. When it comes to my coworkers, and that is: What else do they do? For many years the answer was the same, working in NYC and LA… actor. However, in Portland, it’s more difficult… therefore more fun. Ed stumped me. So, when I found out he was a winemaker… well, to me they’re kind of like rock stars- this amazing combination of artist, scientist and farmer. I had to know more…

So, it sounds like an old joke… Two Winemakers, a Sommelier and a Writer belly up to a wooden slab, propped up by three wine barrels… but, no joke- it really happened when I had the pleasure of tasting with Ed, his wife and partner, Mo, and sommelier, Peter Strong, and learn more about William Marie Wines.

While he poured the 2019 WMW Pinot Gris, Ed explained, “I always thought it was a millionaires game- wine making. Painted as glamorous.” But, when a chance meeting with a talented, veteran Napa Valley winemaker and an opportunity to “ride along” and pick his brain, the lesson on making wine (on a budget) coupled with passion and a little knowhow was explained to a younger Lefferts, then an Arizona State student and baseball standout. “It was then I knew,” Ed recalled as he sipped this deliciously fruit-forward, yet crisp white, “I wanna make wine.” 

Ed and Mo moved to the Tualatin Valley in 2010. “Coolest, cloudiest year on record in Oregon,” Ed recalled as he opened the WMW 2019 Chardonnay featuring grapes from the Dion vineyard in Cornelius. “First 45 days we lived here” added Mo, “we didn’t see the sun.” They questioned their move from sunny… and dry Arizona, but it was Ed’s literal thirst for knowledge about wine coupled with Mo’s support of his dream that kept them on course. 

Ed began volunteering at harvests, crushes, bottlings… anything, at wineries all over the Willamette Valley, seeking the knowledge he desperately sought. “I studied to be a sommelier. Certified in 2014,” explained Ed, as we savored the playfully bright, tart cherry notes of the WMW ’19 Pinot Noir. Despite years of drinking, studying and collecting wine, it was practical knowledge and hands-on experience that he yearned for.  

After late-night sessions at communal winemaking facilities, and hand pressing grapes for 12 hours in his driveway, it wasn’t until Lefferts met Bradford Cowin, vintner and owner of Adega Northwest, that he finally found his mentor and the learning ensued. Ed began what was essentially an internship for Cowin, which after learning the ropes evolved into a more formal “custom crush contract,” paying rent for borrowed space and equipment use. Although Ed and Mo call their place on the border of Tigard and Tualatin “home,” as well as home office and storage for past and current vintages, Adega Northwest Winery in SE Portland is where William Marie’s wines are made. Ed describes his tutelage under Cowin as “invaluable” and the information and experience as “immeasurable,” however he shares the simplest lesson of winemaking, “Wine wants to make itself, you just have to guide it.” 

Since their first vintage in 2015, nearly all of the fruit has been sourced from Columbia and Willamette Valley vineyards, but in 2018, Ed jumped at the opportunity to use Cabernet from Napa. The rich dark color and luxurious mouthfeel mirror the label, compared to the lighter labels from his PNW offerings, yet both are still emblazoned with the “little piggy” wine opener that has become William Marie’s unofficial mascot. This Cabernet and a number of Ed’s other vintages and varietals are prominently featured at a handful of downtown Portland eateries, however, the months of closure have definitely had its effect. “Large wineries have done just fine, excelled even, during the pandemic,” Lefferts shared, “but our business is based on dining and restaurants. Then with the proposed statewide wine tax hike from $.65 to $10.65 per gallon,” he lamented, “I don’t know if we’d survive.”

Uncorked! 2016 William Marie Columbia Valley Syrah. (Photo/Peter Strong)

As we finished our tasting with the 2016 WMW Columbia Valley Syrah, a wonderfully complex expression of the valley fruit, that is almost too easy to drink, Ed recalled that as fledgling winemakers, “you’re forced to sell inventory to perpetuate and grow,” he paused to sip the older vintage, “but then you open one of those bottles years later and you wish you could have held onto more.” 

I have faith that Ed and Mo will survive… and flourish, and as I continue to drink William Marie for years to come I know that, along with sensational wine, what I’ll taste is the culmination of passion, persistence and the drive to follow your dream. Cheers. 

William Marie Wines are available at local restaurants, wine shops and www.williammariewines.com. Tasting room located at 4855 S.E. 18th Ave., in Portland and opens in May.