Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Remembering winegrower Cal Knudsen


Photo of Argyle wines courtesy of Jason Tomczak

C. Calvert (Cal) Knudsen, whose memorial service took place today in Seattle, is remembered in British Columbia as a forestry executive - but in Oregon, they know him as a wine industry pioneer.

In 1971 he began planting 125 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on a property in Dundee Hills. It was then one of the single largest vineyard projects in Oregon. The following year, he teamed up with winemaker Dick Erath to launch the Knudsen Erath Winery.

When that partnership ended in 1987, he led a group that invested in Argyle Winery, another Oregon producer that had been started by Australian winemaker Brian Croser. Cal was Argyle’s chairman from 1990 until he stepped down two years ago, at the age of 83, having become ill with cancer.

On this side of the border, he is better known for having been the chief executive of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd. for seven years, beginning in 1981.

Previously a senior executive with Weyerhaeuser in Tacoma, Cal was recruited to resolve a corporate crisis at what was then British Columbia’s major forest company. MB’s board had fired both its chairman and its CEO after a series of miscalculations – included an ill-fated ship charter – cost the company millions.

Cal showed up just as the economy was going into recession. He had to make some tough decisions to turn MB around, including laying off so many people that the local headline writers dubbed him “King Kut”. But he got the job done and MB thrived for a number of years before being taken over, ironically, by Weyerhaeuser.

I doubt Cal enjoyed being as tough as he had to be. He was a thoroughly decent man and, as I discovered, an engaging man to share a drink with.

When he first arrived in Vancouver, he was staying at the Sylvia Hotel. Having learned from his biography that he was also a wine man, I invited him to come to a meeting of my amateur winemaking club, reasoning that he was new in town and needed some socializing. He actually came one evening.

I was then writing for The Financial Post and thus interviewed him on a number of occasions. Both of us had difficulty leaving enough time to talk about trees because we both preferred to speak of wine. Had I known then, as I learned later, that he was on Richard Nixon’s transition team, we would never have discussed trees at all.

A native of Tacoma and a lawyer by training, he became interested in wine as a tourist in Europe in 1954. It was an interest he nurtured for years before buying vineyard land in Oregon. There is an amusing tale that he lost the first property he wanted to buy when the seller learned Cal intended to grow wine grapes. The seller was a fierce teetotaller.

Cal certainly was not. In 1985 I was researching an article on Port, a wine I knew nothing about at the time. So I set out to locate and interview people who did know something about it, among them Cal Knudsen.

By the time he replied to my letter, the article had been completed. No matter, he said. He had little chance to share Port with someone and he was not going to pass this one up. He arranged to host a lunch at the Vancouver Club for the two of us in a private room. He arrived carrying under his arm a bottle of Sandemans 1945 , a Port from the vintage of the century.

Getting at the wine was an entertainment in itself. The Club had to produce a decanter, a funnel and some muslin so that he could strain the wine. Not only had the crust broken loose; the 40-year-old cork disintegrated into the wine. However, the strained wine was superb. At Cal’s urging, we had it before, during and after our three-hour lunch. There was not a lot of work done later that afternoon at either MB or The Financial Post.

The story reflects his genuine passion about wine. Both the Erath Winery, as it is now called, and Argyle are leading producers in Oregon. Argyle still gets 40 percent of its grapes from the Knudsen Vineyard, now run by his daughter and his three sons. Cal left a remarkable legacy.

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