Bill Fuller, Oregon Wine Pioneer

How hard do winemakers work . . . especially at startup?

Last week, I had the privilege of a long visit with Bill Fuller, co-founder of Tualatin Vineyards near Forest Grove, Oregon. Now, Bill is a good friend going back almost to his 1971 arrival in Oregon, but there is something really special about discussing old war stories when you’re in your mid-70s. Bill is one the true pioneers of Oregon’s wine industry. 

Here’s one of them. In Bill’s first vintage in Oregon, he purchased grapes from Washington vineyards, as he had just planted Tualatin’s vineyards. The grower couldn’t deliver them, so Bill had to go get them. He drove his car up to the vineyard across the Columbia River from Hermiston. After renting a truck he, personally, used the grower’s forklift to load them onto the truck. He headed for Forest Grove.

Then, the fun began. When he tried to cross the river at Hood River, an Oregon State trooper pulled him over. Seems, Bill hadn’t obtained a trip permit. Worse, he was still driving on a California license. So, he was escorted to see the judge, a guy whose last name was John Cushman.

When the judge dealt with scheduling a court date for the hearing, Bill asked to have four days to get the grapes to the winery, crush them, and start fermentation. Then, he would have to return the bins to the grower, return the rental truck, and pick up his own car . . . all without sleep. Judge Cushman accommodated Fuller‘s schedule.

Four days later, back in Hood River, Bill plead his case. Judge Cushman imposed the necessary fine for transporting across the state line without a trip permit. But, he waived the fine for the drivers license with this admonishment: “Get an Oregon license. If I ever catch you driving around here with a California drivers license, I’ll throw you in jail, young man.”

Yes, Judge Cushman was the father of prominent Oregon winemaker Rich Cushman, who was just a pup at the time.

Having had my own experience of 104 hours/week over several weeks in starting up a new winery, I asked: “Why do we do things like that?” Bill’s answer: “We were young and foolish.”

While we’re on the subject of Bill Fuller, let’s recap his history in winemaking.

Bill Fuller is a native of California and a chemistry major in college. He was teaching chemistry at Ukiah High School when curiosity led him into doing the lab analyses for Italian Swiss Colony Winery as a moonlighting job. It was a significant upgrade in technology for ISC; winemaking wasn’t as rooted in chemistry as it is today. ISC was an immense growers’ cooperative winery, located at Asti. Among their brands were Colony, Petri, and Jacques Bonnet sparkling wine.

Somehow, Bill met Louis Martini, who told him that Bill could come to work at Martini if he would take classes at University of California at Davis (UCD). Thus began a nine-year stint with Martini during which Bill was the hands-on winemaker.

Fuller received a Master of Science degree in food technology, specialization in enology. During that time, he crossed paths with Chuck Coury and David Lett, who also went on to establish wineries in Oregon.

In 1970, Fuller evaluated vineyard sites as a consultant for Eagle Crest Vineyard, an ambitious, very large proposed project to the west of Salem that did not reach development.

The next year, 1971, Fuller explored Oregon vineyard sites with Bill Malkmus, a San Francisco investment banker. The two decided to “partner up” and purchased 65 acres northwest of Forest Grove. In 1973, Tualatin Vineyards was bonded as a winery, and Fuller bought Washington grapes to fill the gap until Tualatin’s vineyard began bearing.

Tualatin’s first wines inspired Oregon’s strict label regulations. Under federal laws, Tualatin could just show “produced and bottled by Tualatin Vineyards, Forest Grove, Oregon” on the label. No statement of the grapes’ origin in Washington was required. The group in Yamhill County didn’t want that to happen, so they lobbied Oregon Liquor Control Commission (OLCC) to adopt regulations that were stricter. Henceforth, a declaration of origin would be necessary on Oregon wine labels. If the grapes were grown outside Oregon, the wine would have to bear the origin “American.”

Fuller’s wines were good, among the best of Oregon’s wines over the years. He blazed the trail into market acceptance by distributors and retailers inside and outside of Oregon. Many awards were to follow. The 1980 Pinot Noir and 1981 Chardonnay won double gold and Best of Show trophies in London’s prestigious international judging in 1984. The trophies were presented by the Queen.

Bill Fuller was a co-founder of Oregon Winegrowers Association, and served three terms as its president. He was on the Board of Directors of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture. He was always a strong force for moderation and keeping things on track. At some tumultuous meetings, it seemed as though he was the only adult in the room.

Bill and his first wife, Virginia, were instrumental in establishment of the blue winery directional signs under Oregon Department of Transportation. Virginia did the heavy lifting on that one.

In 1997, Tualatin Vineyards was acquired by Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Bill Fuller retired.

Not so fast! Fuller later did stints as director of winemaking for McMenamin’s chain of restaurants, microbreweries and winery, as winemaker for Cooper Mountain Winery, and as a consultant with my firm.

Fuller is definitely among the six winemakers most responsible for established Oregon’s wine industry. Unfortunately, media focus on Yamhill County has minimized the recognition he deserves.

Today, at 76, Fuller is still getting around well.