Before he was a winemaker, Thomas Houseman was a professional modern dancer. While leaps, twists, and chasses are only rarely required in the cellar, his second career still gives him ample opportunities to practice that rarest of virtues: grace.
Over the past 12 years, Thomas has been the winemaker at Anne Amie Vineyards in the Willamette Valley’s Yamhill-Carlton AVA. Known for elegant estate wines that eschew bombast in favor of balance, this is a big year for Anne Amie Vineyards. It’s the 20th anniversary of the business, and the 10th anniversary of the Counter Culture festival, Anne Amie’s annual summer event that pairs local wines with delicious bites from some of Portland’s best chefs in a casual, bohemian atmosphere.
In celebration of a summer of milestones, we caught up with Thomas to learn more about how Counter Culture got its start, why estate winemaking is so important to him, and why he’s OK with making wines that don’t scream for attention.
1) It’s Anne Amie’s 20th anniversary this year. What accomplishment are you most proud of?
The biggest thing for us is becoming 100 percent estate. When I came in to Anne Amie in 2007, we were about 35 percent estate, and we’ve been 100 percent estate since the 2014 – 2015 vintage. I think it’s made us a much better winery. Even when people are farming sustainably for you, you still have to make picking decisions a week to a week and a half ahead of time. How do you know what something is going to taste like a week and a half out? Now, I can do it 24 – 48 hours ahead of time. I know the blocks, I know the grapes, I know the microclimates, and I’m not driving all over the valley looking at grapes to make picking decisions.
2) What’s exciting to you about making wine in the Willamette Valley right now?
I’m excited about the transition we have made as an industry. We used to make wines in the Willamette Valley that were higher pH — lots of oak — we were trying really hard. Nobody was happy with a base hit. Everyone had to hit the ball out of the park.
Now, there’s a lot more emphasis on individuality. There are non-Pinot grapes being grown — people doing natural wines without sulfites. There’s a focus on Chardonnay, lower alcohol wines, Gamay, (and) sparkling wine. I think all these things are happening because people are looking less to the Robert Parkers of the world to make decisions for them. In 2007, my first vintage here, I had another winemaker call my wines “shrill,” because I wasn’t chasing after a Parker score by making a huge, oaky, overripe Pinot bomb. Now, 12 years later, my wines don’t stick out anymore. Which is a cool thing. I don’t mind sinking into the middle of the pack.
3) How did Counter Culture start?
It actually started after participating in some really fancy dinners as part of the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC). But we’re not really fancy-dinner people, so it felt like a square peg in a round hole. At the same time, the Portland food scene was exploding. So we thought, how about we do an anti-IPNC dinner? Rather than being fancy and having white tablecloths and candles in the cellar, how about we make it like a carnival, with food carts and pairings and a DJ and fire dancers?
Counter Culture isn’t fussy; it’s just a lot of fun. There’s some great wines and amazing food and you can wear shorts. If you’re from out of town, you can taste an amazing array of some of the best things from Portland. If you’re from town, you can try some new things. If you’ve ever been to a wine dinner, you know it’s only as good as the people you’re seated with. If you get stuck someplace you don’t want to be, it can be a really long evening — but if you’re lucky, it can be fun. Counter Culture gives you the opportunity to mingle all night long.
4) Any tips for attendees coming to Counter Culture for the first time?
Hat! Wear a good hat, sunscreen, and sensible shoes. It’s summer in Oregon — you want to be comfortable!