2022 Oregon Winery to Watch: Vino Vasai Wines/The Potter’s Vineyard

By on April 12, 2022
Bill and Sandy Sanchez own and operate The Potter’s Vineyard and Vino Vasai Wines near Newberg, Ore. Great Northwest Wine selected their project as the 2022 Oregon Winery to Watch. (Richard Duval Images)

NEWBERG, Ore. — After spending decades traveling for work, it’s not a big deal for scientist Bill Sanchez to leave Oregon’s Chehalem Mountains and head into Washington’s Yakima Valley for grapes.

Last year, he proved that it’s well worth the effort as his Cabernet Sauvignon from historic Konnowac Vineyard near Yakima, Wash., ranked among the best in the Northwest and earned a Platinum from Great Northwest Wine.

He’s also proved that he and wife Sandy’s vineyard ranks among the Willamette Valley elite by earning a pair of double gold medals this year in the McMinnville Wine Classic, adding up to why Vino Vasai Wines/The Potter’s Vineyard is the 2022 Oregon Winery to Watch for Great Northwest Wine.

“We’ve always drunk wine, especially with the Italian cooking in Sandy’s family, and I knew about yeast cultures through my research of animal nutrition,” says Bill, who has spent 35 years in that field. “But I didn’t start making wine until 2005. I wanted to learn everything about yeast but I knew it would be a wine pursuit because I didn’t like my brother-in-law’s beer.”

And there’s a third leg to the Sanchez business model — the Clay Art Gallery — that makes for a unique Northwest wine country experience. It’s one that’s remarkably easy to get to in the hills above Newberg, just off Highway 99 and near Rex Hill. The art component is a product of Bill’s ongoing passion for pottery work that began as a high school student.

“I carried a wheel with me everywhere I moved to, and I still work with clay,” he says.

That wheel has been a part of his life from the time he grew up in Beaverton with dreams of being a veterinarian then matriculating to Portland Community College, earning two degrees from Oregon State University, a doctorate at University of Florida and becoming a professor at the University of Idaho before two decades of probiotic feed research for Iowa-based Diamond V.

One of Sandy’s responsibilities with the business is interacting with regional artists whose work is displayed and for sale at this gallery overlooking the vineyard. Those pieces include pottery thrown by Bill. 

“With all of the winemaking and vineyard work, Bill can’t make enough pottery to fill the art gallery, so we invite other potters we know and rotate them every three or four months,” Sandy says. “It’s not just pottery, but photography, glass, woodworking, oil painting, jewelry. People love it. They come out and buy a piece of art while they are tasting through our wines.”

Tasting room visitors also can see the original terracotta painting by Portland artist Patrick Noe that serves as the logo for Vino Vasai Wines/The Potter’s Vineyard.

At this point, about 10% of the pieces on display in the Clay Art Gallery come from Bill’s wheel. He’s quick to point out that he’s not the only winemaking/grapegrowing ceramic artist in the Chehalem Mountains. There is Andrew Beckham, whose amphora-influenced wines are known around the world for their unique brilliance.

“Andrew is across (Highway) 99 from me on Parrett Mountain,” Bill says.

There are numerous tributes to Italy with the program Bill and Sandy continue to layer. Vino Vasai in Italian translates to potter’s wine. His father in-law, Dario Casciato, served as the longtime head produce buyer for Fred Meyer before retiring in 1996. Casciato became a recognizable figure because the regional grocer often depicted him and his recommendations in advertising campaigns.

As an amateur winemaker, Bill started working with Konnowac fruit. More than a decade later, he added Merlot to his program. In 2020, wildfire smoke at The Potter’s Vineyard prompted Sanchez to back away from making a red table wine from their Pinot Noir, so they picked up Sangiovese from Two Mountain, an estate planting for Konnowac vineyard manager Patrick Rawn.

“We want to get our hands on more for a Super Tuscan project,” Bill says.

Despite being a Willamette Valley winemaker, Sanchez produced one of the top examples of Cabernet Sauvignon in the 22nd Platinum Awards. The intensely flavored Vino Vasai 2018 Cabernet Sauvignon earned a gold at the McMinnville judging during the first quarter of 2021, as did the 2018 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.

Sanchez showed well with both the 2018 Estate Barrel Select 17 Pinot Noir and 2018 Estate Reserve Pinot Noir, each a double gold medalist at McMinnville. Last year, those same wines were awarded gold medals, and each was the product of a handful of barrels. 

Why would a Willamette Valley winemaker work with Cab?

“You don’t eat salmon every day,” Bill says with a chuckle. “There’s steak or a rich Italian red sauce, but we also tell them a softer-style Cabernet can be really approachable and versatile with food, too.”

In recent vintages, Bill has grown his sparkling wine program to include blanc de blancs as well as rosé.

Vino Vasai Vines complement their fellow members of the Chehalem Mountains Winegrowers Association, and The Potter’s Vineyard was among the featured wineries last year at Magic in the Mountains event at the tony Allison Inn & Spa. It was the first public event since the federal government established the Laurelwood District American Viticultural Area, a sub-appellation of the Chehalem Mountains.

The Potter’s Vineyard began in 2001 as Volkman planting

Bill Sanchez purchased the 3.5-acre vineyard of Pinot Noir in the Chehalem Mountains from Laura Volkman in 2012. (Richard Duval Images)

A decade ago, just as Bill was looking to become a commercial winemaker, Newberg grower/winemaker Laura Volkman — mentored by Michael Etzel of Beaux Frères fame — reached a turning point with the vineyard she planted in 2001. It’s a high-density site with 3-foot by 6-foot spacing for 6,000 vines across 3.5 acres. She named it Elle Rêve Vineyard.

“It was 2012; land prices were dropping, there were those cool vintages of 2010 and 2011, which were tough, and she was harvesting into November,” Bill says.

Even though Bill remembers, “It felt right when we drove in here,” he asked Sandy, “Are we ready for this?”

She answered, “I’m not afraid of hard work.”

They moved in on Sept. 15, 2012, began to harvest Oct. 9 and Volkman mentored them along the way. She had populated it with Dijon 115 clones and lesser amounts of 114, 667 and 777. The Pommard typically serves as the base of the reserve bottlings.

“We made 200 cases,” Bill says. “The ’12 vintage was amazing, but other than the 2020 vintage, it’s still our lowest yield. Looking back on it, it was good for us to start with just one layer of barrels.”

For seven straight vintages, Bill continued to work full-time for Diamond V and his pottery wheel was spinning fairly regularly until early 2019 when he decided to commit to The Potter’s Vineyard full-time.

“I still consult a bit (as an animal nutritionist) and I love doing both. There’s the grind of the travel to balance the blissfulness of living and working on the farm,” he says.

Last spring, Sandy joined him in retirement after 22 years in special education in Tigard and Tualatin schools.

Early on, Volkman guided Sanchez into the Columbia Gorge for Chardonnay until historic Celilo Vineyard was sold to the Corliss family. Since he was already venturing into the Yakima Valley’s Rattlesnake Hills for old vine Cab, Sanchez began buying Wente clone Chardonnay planted during the 1980s from Bonair Vineyard, also in the Rattlesnake Hills. If either Bill or Sandy hear a guest reference famed California Chardonnay producer Rombauer while tasting theirs, that will please the Sanchezes because they’ve decided not to chase the Chablis-style that’s become the vanguard in the Willamette Valley.

“At our scale, it’s fun to go against the grain,” Bill says. “I really enjoy the richness of that clone; we use up to 50% new French oak and there’s good acidity to start with because we pick those older vines so early.”

Recognition of their effort and the story behind their program continues to grow. Last year, researchers for Linfield University’s Oregon Wine History Archive sat down for an extended interview with Bill and Sandy.  

“We are celebrating our 40th anniversary of marriage, the 20th vintage of fruit from the vineyard and our 10th vintage of producing wine from it,” Bill says. “Sandy has always been the executor, and I’m the dreamer. She’s very smart and motivating. I give her a lot of the credit for the wine and my life.”

Last year marked the third vintage for Vino Vasai Wines/The Potter’s Vineyard to receive Bill’s full-time attention, and production from 2021 will amount to about 1,000 cases. Helping them along the way have been assistant winemaker Art Roberts and his wife Gretchen, who have been working with them for nine vintages. Their newest employee is a yellow English Labrador retriever — Terra — their chief greeter. They are teaming up not only to build upon their own successes, but also to pay tribute to Volkman.

“Laura came to my 60th birthday party, and we want to get her back out here to see what’s going on and celebrate with her,” Bill said. “We never believed her when she told us, ‘You guys will do something special with this.’ ”

  • Vino Vasai Wines/The Potter’s Vineyard and Clay Art Gallery, 14725 NE Quarry Road, Newberg, OR, 97132, PottersVineyard.com, (503) 504-3796.

About Eric Degerman

Eric Degerman is the President and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. He is a journalist with more than 30 years of daily newspaper experience and has been writing about wine since 1998. He co-founded Wine Press Northwest magazine with Andy Perdue and served as its managing editor for a decade. He is a frequent wine judge at international wine competitions throughout North America and orchestrates 10 Northwest competitions each year.

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