Kelley’s words are powerful. It’s hard to strike a balance between being both soft and firm but Kelley has—and when she speaks, you listen.
Sometimes—perhaps more often than we like to assume—you don’t set out to find something particular in life, rather, a path (career or otherwise) finds you, and sometimes it feels like the last piece of a very large puzzle.
It’s a feeling that comes, and goes, and comes—in waves—as we sit talking to Kelley over Zoom, late on a Thursday in March. Kelley is a free spirit who, after some years studying, learning, and working, found herself as a winemaker for a winery in Oregon.
Kelley’s spirit is the very antithesis to winemaking for the social media age. We ruminate for a while over the importance of audience—and the necessity (or lack of) for identifying who one is producing wine for. But that’s not why Kelley is a winemaker. She is not here to define her wines in the cellar or, in the same vein, single out who it is she is making wines for. Rather, Kelley is the steward of the vines she rents and farms near her home, and the person who turns their fruit into wine. And as she tells us, earnestly; “someone asked me recently if I call myself a natural wine producer, and truthfully, the answer is that I don’t have a title. My wines are made for anyone in a body; if it’s delicious to them, and alleviates even the smallest bit of human condition.”
It’s not about owning land, or achieving status or winning hearts; Kelley’s place as a winemaker is to bring to life the ‘message or song’ of a place.
“My job is to shut the f*&%k up, shut my ego down, and listen. In this huge space of emptiness; hear it, and then bring it to you.”
“Winemaking was a calling for me. Really, I felt called. And it hasn’t been easy—it never will be. But that’s because I don’t compromise. I wish I could spend more time in the vineyard—I’m trying to somehow do that more.”
There’s something about the way that Kelley is doing things which feels like a huge, unquantifiable gulp of fresh air. Half way through our conversation, Kelley says: ‘Let’s not talk about wine anymore—let’s talk about you.’ We probably look stunned for a moment, before she follows up with:
“This is what wine is—this—talking about life. It’s there, it’s supporting that, and it’s holding a space for you to be human with another human. To start looking at wine intellectually, or with the front of your brain, is a great disservice.”
And it has us thinking; what if we were to talk about wine without directly talking about the wine? After all, wine is the product of fruit, but also the product of a winemaker’s personality; their life, their philosophies, and everything that they stand for.
“I am not Pygmalion."
This feels like the best and most accurate representation of Kelley as both a person and winemaker. It’s evident, after speaking with her for a mere five minutes, that her place as a winemaker is not to create in her own image; rather, it is to listen to the plants, and translate their words into something understandable by us humans. Luckily for us, that’s what great wine can do.
“I’ve been living in Oregon for thirty years. I originally came here to start an organic farm with my brother and his best friend, but they bailed on that so I studied biochemistry instead.”
This was her second degree, but she started from the very beginning.
“During that time, I drank a lot of Oregon wine because it was cute—there were cute labels; it was inexpensive and...I live here.”
Skipping forward to 1997, just as Kelley was about to graduate with her biochemistry degree, she began to help her then boyfriend plant his vineyard. It wasn’t something she had thought about pursuing, but she went along nonetheless. That same year, they moved to a large vineyard and in 2000, she became a winemaker.
“The history of Kelley Fox wines is kind of funny—I was never one of those people who had a head winemaking job; I was never into the idea of having my name on something.”
As a single mum of two girls, she was spread thinly, she tells us.
“Back then no one was really a winemaker, in fact people were hardly even drinking wine – like they are now – and then we’re also in Oregon, so it was hard to get a job anywhere.”
But we’ve come to realise that if anyone can make it work, it’s Kelley.
“I remember when I first moved to Oregon I was going to get gas for my car on the way to grunge shows, and the people filling my tank had PhDs – there were no jobs here; it was logging, or farming. Not much else.”
She pauses; resting for a moment on the memory of Oregon in the 80s.
“I wasn’t really into having my own winery, it wasn’t something I even had time to consider. But my father and my brother saw that I was getting credit for my work, and they capitalised a very small winery, which became mine.”
In a sense, Kelley Fox winery was a gift - a merit of her hard (and humble) work.
“I did it kind of begrudgingly,” she smiles. “I started with 100 cases a year in 2007. Two vineyards. I kept my head winemaking job, and I grew the winery off of cash sales. And now I’m making about 3400 cases a year, which is about how much I can comfortably do without having a full time assistant, to have more control.”
Before we start to talk about Kelley’s work as a winemaker, she stops us and says:
“Before anything else, I want to stress that I don’t own the farms right out.”
Unlike in Europe, in the New World it is much less commonplace to own a farm. Land is very expensive and, unfortunately, it makes owning some a near impossibility for many. But this doesn’t deter Kelley.
“I think a lot about land ownership and what that really means. I don’t think it’s a requisite to own land to be able to love land. Just as I don’t own my daughters, and yet I love them—unconditionally.”
In fact, it’s a blessing. Working with farmers can cultivate meaningful, lifelong relationships:
“And because I was a very deliberate bohemian, and eschewed money and being a servant to money, I don’t really care about ‘what it took to get all that money and buy land’. But what I do have is relationships—with people who live on their farms—and love their farms; who planted their farms and still live there.”
“I have this beautiful community that arose over the years, and I trust these people more than I trust myself. But that’s a whole other two hours of discussion.”
And within a second, we’re already mentally checking our diaries to see when we can schedule this in.
Kelley’s wines are made to reflect the land, the vines, the fruit of the vines and everything else unknown and unseen that comes with the terroir.. They are wines of place—wines of Oregon—first and foremost, and it is this sense of place that Kelley prioritises.
Kelley works across five rented vineyards, with the majority of her fruit coming from the Maresh vineyard in Dundee Hills (planted in 1970 and run by the Maresh family—good friends of hers), and the Weber Vineyard, also in Dundee Hills and planted in 1978.
“It’s mostly volcanic soils, silt clay. Maresh vineyard is truly a farm; it wasn’t planted to be a vineyard as a monoculture where, you know, Oregon White Oak trees were stripped and all the trees were cleared and you just see rows and rows of vines. No, you see a pruned farm and it still has stands of walnut trees, some 100 years old. And cherry trees—heirloom cherries—and open land and forest that is not farmed at all; a place for the bees.”
The vines were planted in 1970 by Jim Maresh Jr, ‘two beloved people’. They planted vines here and there, rather than in homogenous rows.
“It’s a very special farm that is in great balance and harmony, and I spend a lot of time there because I rent all of those vines. I’m responsible for the farming. That doesn’t mean I go on the tractor personally; it’s Martha Maresh and Sterling Fox who do the ‘big farming’ and then I go in.”
“Since 2008, I’ve been doing biodynamic sprays and a lot of hand work in the canopy, like shoot thinning and sometimes leaf removal, and selecting every cluster that I want picked.”
We talk a little about biodynamics – the principles and reasons for working this way. Kelley is quick to point out that she can’t really refer to her wines as biodynamic,, because she doesn’t work with a certified biodynamic vineyard (in the US, Demeter has trademarked the word ‘biodynamic’). But it doesn’t matter, and it certainly doesn’t hinder her desire to work in this way.
“Like so many things, in so many people's lives, these are things that I have been interested in since I was a child. And now it has all converged into one.”
And what led her to it?
“Like I said, I’ve been studying the stars, and rocks, and archetypes and Eastern thought—old ways and the timing and nature and all these things—quite a bit before I was introduced to the term biodynamics by Rudolf Steiner.”
Like many, her first introduction to Steiner was Education Before Freedom – a book she read whilst raising her daughters.
“I guess my moment where I thought: ‘okay, this is something very special’ was with a friend of mine who was doing a tasting, and I thought it was for a blend, I thought it was the same wine and we were just trying variants of it so we could decide on a final blend.”
But rather than a tasting for a blend, it was a tasting of some biodynamic wines.
“One of the wines just had—it felt like electricity went through my nervous system, my hair went up.”
She lights up at the thought of it. We can almost taste it.
“Back then, it was about big wines and no one was talking about wines like this. But in my notes I wrote: ‘this wine is utterly alive!’ and from that point I never turned back; I looked at things differently, and that’s always changing too.”
“The things that I do now are much more about working with energy and intention, than about working strictly biodynamically, as defined by Steiner and Pfeiffer. I’ve kind of moved to my own ways.”
Come harvest, it’s all hands on deck.
“This work is about people, and I feel like I’m a link between the Earth; it’s an Earth sky thing. I don’t know how to explain it, but it’s the intersection of Earth and humanity.”
Dustin, Kelley’s partner, is a lifeline, she tells us.
“He has good relationships with the people who come to buy wine; on an individual level. It’s a full time job the way we do things—these people who buy our wines are our friends, we care about them, they’re not just ‘consumers.’ I hate that word…hate it.”
Over the years, she has called on help from friends and most recently, Stephanie Sprinkle, who works with botanicals and botanical healing.
“She’s making the sweet vermouth that we’ve started making here. It’s a one off thing, and she has done all of the botanicals by hand using brandy from one of my vineyards and we’re going to bottle it in May. It’s going to be amazing.”
The topic of working with friends brings Stephanie to the idea of working in solitude.
“If I could, I would probably work alone. Not because I don’t like team work and not because I don’t like people, but I think that I do my best work in solitude. Because I’m trying to listen to things that don’t have human voices, and I’m trying to see things that are unseen.”
But Stephanie has been one of those rare friends with whom you can sit in silence. She says,
“She’s one of those kinds of humans who you can really feel your solitude with. If you’ve ever been around someone who gives you your solitude — you’ll know that it’s a beautiful gift.”
“Sometimes I think about speaking properly, in wine terms, and then I realise it’s alienating.”
She laughs, then continues seriously:
“I do believe that every place on Earth has a sense of place. Does that translate well into wine? No. I really believe that the Earth has energy spots, energy lines and grid lines, and I’ve always been able to feel them. I’m sure you’ve been somewhere—maybe you were camping, or backpacking, or hiking—and for some reason you just felt like it was not the place for you. Or you felt so strongly that this place felt like home. The Earth has all kinds of places with all different kinds of energies.”
Terroir, or place, for Kelley is not just about exposition, elevation, or soil type.
“I get kinda bored talking about that actually. It’s from a place way deeper than that, way deeper than that, deep into the Earth. And it’s not just the Earth, it’s the air around. It’s the ocean breezes that come from the Pacific; it’s the bird song. Each vineyard has different birds that I work with, and different butterflies. All of the animals, breezes, the smell of rain. Everything is part of that place.”
Kelley is largely known for her explorations of Pinot Noir.
“Of the three Pinots (Blanc, Gris, Noir) Pinot Gris to me is really not that complex.”
She laughs, and says she’s not sorry for what she’s just said. We tell her that there’s no need to apologise for something that she feels passionately about.
“But… the reason why I started working with it is because I love Maresh Farms so much that when some became available I didn't hesitate whatsoever.”
It’s the place–Maresh Farms—rather than varieties, which mostly drives Kelley’s next steps.
“No matter what’s there, if it becomes available I’ll do it – even if I said I will never do that.”
She laughs to herself.
“In an interview with Josh Reynolds about a year ago, he asked me about Riesling, and I said ‘I’ll never make Riesling.’ I said that I love drinking other people’s Riesling, but I’ll never make it… ever. And guess who’s going to now make Riesling?”
But that, she tells us, is the honest reason why she makes certain wines.
“I also thought ‘why do I not like Pinot Gris?’, but I was thinking that it’s maybe because it wants to be more like Pinot Noir – it’s like the middle child. It’s not quite pink and it’s not quite white. It’s between Noir and Blanc, and so maybe some skin contact would make it sing more and make it more happy.”
And the experiment was a success;
“I think that, in my case, with Maresh and Weber, that it’s true – it becomes a little joy bringer.”
And that’s true of not only Kelley’s wines, but also Kelley herself. A joy bringer.
“But my focus, my number one focus — it’s so much my focus that I don’t talk about it anymore — is Pinot Noir. Pinot Noir, I think at best (if it’s not f*&%ed around with in the winery too much) will always become the place and not Pinot Noir anymore.”
“And that’s just so exciting to me — at that point it’s not just this plant, it’s a beautiful song. And that’s why I love Pinot Noir.”
Kelley’s work, although driven by philosophy and intuition, is still heavily grounded in technique. It has to be, she tells us.
“I didn’t just start off by saying ‘I’ll just go with what I feel’ — that’s very privileged actually. It’s not worrying about your customers, it’s not worrying about ‘where did you get that’ so you don’t have to worry about that. So I do use my intuition in the Chopinarian sense of working in a void and responding in a void to the object; so the subject and the object become one, momentarily, if you will. That kind of intuition. But that’s it.”
All the fruit is hand picked – “by loving and intelligent hands” – and it’s sorted or not sorted, depending on the year. Usually, she will do between 30 and 50% whole-cluster.
“This is because I love respecting the entire plant. Not just the fruit. And I think that the seeds and so on add tannins too, not only make it more adult flavoured, less like a popsicle, but also to give it antioxidant protection.”
She uses small fermenters, 4ft by 4ft, with a small amount of pigeage each day.
“Years ago I stopped daily Brix readings on each fermentor during harvest. I do one ‘must panel’, which is mostly a snapshot for anecdotal things, a PH, TA, Ammonia, Glucose, Fructose. Other than that, it’s un-inoculated.”
She’s very clear that, if there’s an emergency and the wine will perish, she won’t hesitate in stepping in.
“But that’s very rare. People often say: ‘oh you do spontaneous fermentation or, oh it’s un-inoculated’ and it’s like, yeah it’s easier that way. It’s not more difficult.”
Once she has done pigeage, she covers the fermenters and maintains the headspace with carbon dioxide.
“I’m really not a big fan of VA. I’m not really a big fan of anything that detracts from the sense of place; anything that takes away from the vineyard.”
“I also don’t like anything noticeable such as mycelium or oak. This can get me into trouble with people who want no filtered wines, because sometimes if there’s mycelium colonies in the wine I’ll test before bottling and take colonies out using paper—the same stuff you use for coffee.”
But if we know anything about Kelley just from speaking to her for the past hour, it’s that the possibility of getting into trouble is not going to stop her.
“I use low sulfites. Unapologetically.” She adds. “It works better with my wine, but also sulfur is the principle of atoms and essential to life.”
“I smell the alcohol and then I’ll do a quick residual test; if it’s dry then I will rack the free run off the skins. No new wood, ever. I do a short elevage for maybe ten months. I keep it short because I find that with the new world Pinot Noir - the Pinot that I work with - there isn’t enough tannin to necessitate micro-oxidation for that period of time.”
“That’s my personal thing, and I don’t judge other people who do it in other ways. And anyway, it’s not about other people.”
Kelley tells us at one point that the way she thinks is not linear; rather it’s a web. She apologises, in case it’s confusing. But it’s quite the opposite. As she says, wine is about conversations between people—both during the winemaking process and at the very end, sharing a bottle at the table with friends—and so it makes perfect sense that a conversation about wine should progress in this way.
“It’s funny,” she adds, “that you should ask me about my audience...I was talking to someone last week in an interview—and you know, as I have said, my audience is anyone in a body—but I truly don’t care who those bodies are, or what they look like. If I could do this for free, and give it away, I’d do it.”
We click X on our Zoom conversation, and sit for a second. To hear Kelley talk of her wines—to hear any winemaker talk of their wines—is a privilege. But to hear Kelley tell the story of her life, her musings, and her philosophies of life feels like a free lecture from your favourite University professor. And unlike University lectures, we wish we could listen to her on an endless loop.