By Melissa Gulden
story: Melissa Gulden photo: Brent Van Auken
ERNIE & SUE ODELL'S ONO WINERY
Beautifully situated on top of a mountain, off a winding Ono road, sits Sue Odell’s dream: Acres and acres for her miniature donkeys to run and play, as well as a sustainable farm. On the other side of the mountain, nestled among the pine trees, are sprawling vines of grapes—her husband’s dream. A dream which nearly died, as did he.
Three years ago, Ernie Odell had a major stroke, one so bad it left Sue with a huge decision to make. “We decided as a family that we wouldn’t let Ernie’s dream die,” says Sue. So they continued the family winery. “Let’s just say I’ve had a really high learning curve.” Sue knows a thing or two about learning; both she and Ernie are retired teachers, and have been in the area for nine years.
This bionic woman not only cares for the vineyard, she maintains 20 acres, complete with horses, cows, goats, and, of course, those famous donkeys. Her 92-year-old mother, Dorothy, acts as the “ranch manager,” zipping around the Ono countryside in an orange Kubota utility vehicle. Ernie, who is bouncing back extremely well (though it’s still day-to-day), does all of the irrigation himself, wandering about the property testing levels and micromanaging the grapes as only a science teacher would.
When Ernie set out to plant a grapevine and make a gallon or two of wine, neither he nor Sue envisioned that they would soon have more than 1,400 vines, producing 200 to 300 cases of wine. They like to keep it small and exclusive so they can better nurture the grapes. According to Ernie, fewer grapes on the vine leads to better quality and more nutrients, since the vine isn’t overstressed. “Some people want quantity, quantity, but sometimes with that you lose quality, quality.”Their “little retirement project” has grown into quite the adventure. Ono Wines has three varietals, Petite Syrah, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The wine itself is a dark, beautiful color, with a smooth, fruity flavor; they lightly oak the wine so as not to cover up the fruitiness. They enjoy drinking red wine, so that is the grape they grow. The irony, however, is that because of his medication, Ernie cannot drink alcohol anymore, but he can still manage his grapes, which seems to be just fine with him, considering how close he came to losing everything.
About five years ago, the Odells built a “green” building for storing the wine. Energy efficient and well-insulated, the wine room stays a comfortable 70 degrees, and the whole building is run on a swamp cooler. “We’re proud of the fact that we do everything ourselves,” says Sue. “That way, we can manage every step of the process.” They even employ the help of friends and family when it’s harvest time (early September). Sue puts out a spread of food and everyone chips in, including their children and grandchildren, who like to cork the wine.
It truly is a family affair.
The whole operation is basically local, which is how the Odells would like to keep it. “We’re just plugging away, hoping to break even,” Ernie says. “If you want to make a small fortune, you’d better start with a big one.”
And while they would like to get their name out there and better market their product, they stay decidedly low-tech and rely on farmers’ markets and local stores to carry their wine.
Although it is Ernie’s dream that Sue has been harvesting for the past few years, the Ono Winery has blended nicely with Sue’s love of donkeys. For instance, the name of the varietals is a pun on the sounds donkeys make, “Caber-Bray Sauvignon,” and “Hee-Haw Syrah,” and the accolades on the label are a twist on what donkeys eat. The wine label itself was born from a painting by artist Lisa Baechtle, which is proudly displayed on the fireplace mantel. Says Sue, “It’s a perfect balance, the donkeys and the wine—two wonderful things we love that go together.” Strolling among the vines and through the pasture, it’s easy to see why that little piece of heaven, on a mountaintop in Ono, is exactly the balance the Odells need. •
For more information about Ono Wines, call (530) 396-2719, or email Sue at [email protected]