CARLTON, Ore. — Master Sgt. Rebecca Pittock Shouldis was a winemaker without a winery for the 2015 vintage because of her military service, but last week she and other Oregon airmen in the Air National Guard were honored for their role in Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Each of the nearly 200 airmen made their own sacrifices as part of their service to their country. In the case of Pittock Shouldis, the four-month deployment brought her back home Oct. 2 — about a month after crush began at Ghost Hill Cellars and other wineries in the Willamette Valley. Her tour of duty in Romania permanently cost her the job as winemaker at the winery in the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticultural Area.
“In reality, there really wasn’t a way that Ghost Hill could make wine without hiring someone else,” Pittock Shouldis told Great Northwest Wine. “I found out in the beginning of August, and that was tough. You get attached to a site and the people you work with and pour your heart into that. It was disappointing and sad.”
On Oct. 5, the Bayliss family, which owns Ghost Hill Cellars and Bayliss-Bower Vineyard, announced Eric Hamacher as the new winemaker. Hamacher also co-owns the Carlton Winemakers Studio with his wife, Luisa Ponzi of Ponzi Vineyards.
“Rebecca Pittock Shouldis came along eight years ago when Ghost Hill Cellars needed a winemaker,” Drenda Bayliss wrote in an email. “As owners of Ghost Hill Cellars, we had no experience in the complex business of winemaking. She did so much more than make wine, she helped make Ghost Hill Cellars a brand, and for that we are grateful.”
Today, the F-15 Eagle aviation technician will observe Veterans Day in the Central Oregon town of Prineville with her father, a Vietnam War veteran.
“Eric’s a great guy, and he will do a beautiful job for Ghost Hill,” Pittock Shouldis said. “He’s been buying fruit from the Baylisses for a while, so he’s familiar with the site, and the family and the fruit. It’s an easy transition.”
She also left the Bayliss family on a high note. Last week, Wine Spectator critic Harvey Steiman announced his rating of 94 points for the Ghost Hill Cellars 2012 Bayliss-Bower Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir ($42). It was the highest score for an Oregon Pinot Noir in the Nov. 4 edition of Wine Spectator Insider, outpointing wines by the likes of Beaux Frères, Brick House, Domaine Serene and Soter.
“It’s been an exciting month,” said Pittock Shouldis, who recently traveled to New York City to fulfill a prior commitment to an East Coast distributor promoting wines she’s made for Ghost Hill. “It’s definitely a nice note to go out on.”
In the world of sports, it’s a walk-off home run. And she now views her work status as that of an unrestricted free agent.
“I like the sound of that,” she said with a smile.
Delayed deployment, early Oregon wine harvest
When Pittock Shouldis first learned the 142nd Fighter Wing would serve an extended deployment, she offered to go, believing it would begin in March and return her to the Willamette Valley well before harvest would begin — even in a warm vintage. It turns out she didn’t leave until June because the 125th Fighter Wing in the Florida Air National Guard — rather than the 142nd — got orders to take the first half of the two 90-day rotations.
“This was the time when my name was called, but I was supposed to be back at the beginning of September when the trip was first planned back in January,” she said. “And I don’t think we had the exact date until nine days before takeoff.”
After spending 26 hours traveling from Europe, she returned Oct. 2 to Oregon still disappointed. Had it been a cool vintage for Pinot Noir in the Willamette Valley such as 2010, perhaps she would have arrived in time. Global climate change has moved up the pick dates above the 30-year average for each of the past three vintages.
“This was the third time since I’ve been making Pinot Noir that it started before October,” she said.
And it would be easy to view Vladimir Putin as the reason for the deployment to Camp Turzii in Romania.
Pittock Shouldis’ call to duty had global implications as explained in a news release by Tech. Sgt. John Hughel, a public affairs officer for the 142nd Fighter Wing. The unit joined the 123rd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron “to reinforce interoperability with NATO partners to reassure America’s continued commitment to European security in light of Russian intervention in Ukraine.”
Last Friday’s demobilization ceremony at the Portland Air National Guard Base, which Pittock Shouldis attended, included Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici, Congressman Kurt Schrader and Jeanne Atkins, Oregon’s Secretary of State.
“This was the unit’s largest deployment to Eastern Europe,” Atkins said as part of her keynote speech. “Your presence alongside NATO forces strengthen our nation’s capabilities to carry out joint operations and bolstered our continuous commitment to peace and stability.”
Hughel reported the 123rd EFS sent 12 F-15 C/D Eagles, which assisted the U.S. Air Force missions in Romania and at Kecskement Air Base in Hungary. The Redhawk pilots flew more than 500 sorties and 500 hours.
Mechanics, military service runs in family
In many ways, Pittock Shouldis’ military service as an aviation technician based in Oregon seems to have been her destiny.
“My ex-husband was in the Marine Corps and a lot of my family has been in the military,” she said. “It’s in my blood, but the greatest inspiration to be in the military was my dad.”
And as an adolescent growing up southern and central Oregon, influences down the street or within her extended family inspired her career path.
“The neighborhood handyman — the type of guy who probably would get in trouble these days for having a bunch of washing machines around his property — would let me tear anything apart. And I would spend countless spring breaks with Uncle George and his auto shop, tinkering away and getting into trouble,” she said. “I love to make things work again and love to try to figure out how they work.”
She said she takes a similar wine to approach, particularly breaking down the components and understanding structure.
“I have no formal education in winemaking,” she said. “If someone wants to hire someone with a degree in enology, I’m not that person. Now, tell me why you like a particular wine, then I can reverse engineer it and try to arrive at that kind of style.”
And while she drives a Honda Element, her all-time favorite car was that 1976 Chevrolet Nova, which she rebuilt and later sold to buy a motorcycle.
“That wasn’t a computer on wheels — like they all are now — and there was so much room under the hood,” she said.
In January 2000, she decided to attend Portland Community College and enroll in the school’s aviation maintenance program.
“I wanted to go back to school, and I liked aviation,” she said. “My goal was to become FAA-certified to work on aircraft and start a contract maintenance business for companies like Nike and Intel, but 9/11 destroyed that sector of the aviation industry for a long time.”
The fiery, well-spoken and athletic redhead had been in the Air National Guard as a regular dedicated service guardsman and a PCC student for 18 months at the time of 9/11 attacks. She was activated days later under Title 10 orders.
Pittock Shouldis continued to go to school full time, but she also worked the swing shift full time at the airbase in Portland. She came off Title 10 in February 2004, when she returned to civilian life and a dedicated service guardsman.
“I became your typical National Guardsman who does the one weekend a month and 15 days each year,” she said. “The Bayliss family was always supportive of my Guard commitment and understanding about that.”
Flexibility is important because her Air National Guard duties are attached to the F-15s at the Portland base. “When the aircraft are required to go, that’s when we go,” she said.
In January, she’ll celebrate 16 years of service, which leaves her four years before retirement. And one positive to come out of her unemployment is that she plans to fulfill her annual long commitment for 2016 later this month.
“In our unit, we are allowed to choose — to a certain extent — when to serve the 15 days of annual active duty training,” she said. “Since I didn’t have a harvest, I’m going on my TDY (temporary duty) next week. The unit is really great about supporting their Guardsmen to do those days when it’s beneficial to us and the unit.”
Wine appreciation began as teen in France
Pittock Shouldis’ interest in wine began in France as a foreign exchange student during her junior year of high school. The patriarch of the host family was a retired general in the French Air Force — and a wine lover, of course.
“His perspective on my time there was for me to learn about French people and French culture, but that couldn’t really happen unless I understood the role that wine plays in their culture,” she said. “I learned that you can sit down at a table full of strangers, but there’s an interaction that a bottle of wine has in connection with a great meal. By the time the meal ends, you are all friends.
“So I saw wine as a catalyst for something that helps create special memories, and it is those memories that become the foundation of our life,” she added. “After that, the thought of one day opening a wine shop always was a spark in the back of my mind.”
In June 2005, a year after she completed her Title 10 order, she opened her Art of the Vine wine shop in downtown McMinnville. In this case, Dana Dooley, owner of Honest Chocolates, provided not only the spark, but also the space.
“Dana had just started Honest Chocolates, and I went into her shop to buy some chocolates and told her, ‘You should really have a wine shop, too,’ ” Pittock Shouldis recalled. “Dana told me, ‘Why don’t you do it?’ ”
It began with a sweet deal on renting floor space from Dooley and opened doors to meet many of the Willamette Valley’s top producers, including WillaKenzie Estate winemaker Thibaud Mandet.
“I then went to people like Wayne Bailey of Youngberg Hill and asked them to let me be an ambassador to people,” she said. “So I started with Walnut City Wine Works, Viento Wines’ Gewürz, Panther Creek and Youngberg Hill, and it took off from there. I moved across the street into a space that’s now the Willamette Valley Vineyards Wine Center, and I grew the shop to more than 250 wines until I was without a lease in early 2007. At that point, Thibaud encouraged me to come out to WillaKenzie and work harvest.”
Her passion and organizational skills led her to job as manager of the Trappist Abbey wine warehouse operations in Carlton. By the 2008 harvest, she made the full transition from sales to production with Ghost Hill.
“I adore Mike and Drenda Bayliss, and they gave me a beautiful opportunity,” she said. “I understand absolutely that things have to move on.”
The Wine Rat, á La Main, Grow Africa
Operation Atlantic Resolve not only cost Pittock Shouldis her job at Ghost Hill Cellars, but the 2015 vintage will signal a gap in her work for several boutique brands, including Grow Africa, Gypsy Dancer and her own á La Main Wines label.
“I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t going to be able to make wine this year,” she said. “At this point, I really don’t know what’s next. I’m looking for opportunities.”
She works with Bay Area marketing maven Allie Merrick on The Wine R.A.T. (Raise a Toast) — a portfolio that includes Grow Africa, a fundraising project by Grow International that uses the sales of Pinot Noir to help with infrastructure and small farmers in West Africa. Pittock Shouldis collaborates with Grow International founders Jerry and Erika Tindall, who also operate The Brookside Inn B&B in Carlton on Abbey Road.
“They are great, great people, and we’re hoping to keep Grow Africa growing as a label,” Pittock Shouldis said.
She also hopes to dedicate more time to á La Main, a French term for “handmade” or “to be done by hand.” Each wine is a post-production project with her children. The Syrah is done with her son, Matt, while her Viognier is with her daughter, Michaela.
“My kids grew up with me missing out on a lot of their stuff because of either guard drill or harvest,” she said.
Pittock Shouldis gets emotional when discussing that Viognier, in part because Michaela is a sophomore attending Oklahoma Wesleyan University, where she plays varsity softball.
“My son is a senior at Dayton High School,” she said. “He’s the only thing not attached to a winery that’s keeping me in Yamhill County. It’s been exciting to watch him play football this season. They went out of the playoffs last Friday, and that was really hard.”
Earlier this year, she reconnected with Mike Thompson, her high school sweetheart from John Day, and they married just before her deployment. Unfortunately, he recently suffered a fractured shoulder and back during a car accident. He’s slowly on the mend and made the six-hour car ride to Prineville for Veterans Day.
“I believe we will settle somewhere in Oregon,” she said.
A natural inclination would be Southern Oregon because of her fondness for Syrah and Viognier, two Rhône Valley varieties that thrive in the warmer climate.
“I’m a fourth-generation Oregonian on father’s side,” Pittock Shouldis said. “My father and my father’s father grew up in the Applegate Valley, so a big part of me would love to end up a winemaker in the Applegate Valley.
“John Michael Champagne Cellars (in Jacksonville) is in my great uncle’s old barn,” she added. “I used to sing from the rafters in that place.”