They often say: you can take the boy out of Wisconsin, but you can’t take Wisconsin out of the boy. In the case of Chris Berg, winemaker and winegrower at Roots Wine Company in Oregon, the saying may well be true.
Berg spent his formative years moving from place to place. His family lived in Idaho, Pennsylvania and Illinois. In the late '90s, he moved out to Portland, Ore., to help run his family’s fabrication business.
When the recession hit and the business was shuttered, Berg decided to pursue winemaking.
In 1999, he and his wife Hilary planted seven acres of mostly pinot noir on his family’s 20-acre property near Yamhill in the Willamette Valley. In 2002, the Bergs harvested their first grapes, enough to make 72 cases of pinot noir.
Fourteen years later, Roots produces approximately 5,000 cases annually, including a variety of pinot noir, pinot gris, Melon de Bourgogne, viognier, Riesling dessert riesling, syrah and a methode Champenoise.
But, despite his success as a winemaker – now well known throughout the states – Berg says he still maintains a special connection to Wisconsin, the state he calls home.
"I was born in Racine," he says. "And I probably only lived there for about two years. And then we lived in Brookfield for a few years before moving to Idaho. But, I feel like where you’re from really always has a place in your life. So, Wisconsin is always really special to me."
As a result, two of Roots’ wine labels pay homage to home. Roots' reserve pinot noir is called "Racine." And Sheboygandy is a play on words giving homage to both Wisconsin and Burgundy, France – the ultimate region for growing pinot noir grapes.
We caught up with Berg, who will be in town for the Racine Wine Dinner at c.1880 on Aug. 27, to find out a bit more about his Wisconsin memories, his philosophies on winemaking and what we can expect from the wines he’s bringing to Wisconsin for the dinner.
OnMilwaukee.com: How often do you get back to Wisconsin these days?
Chris Berg: About twice a year. I have family in Illinois and some in southern Wisconsin. I love coming back. And I have fond memories of spending summers around Lake Delavan, fishing and spending time with family
Last time, I drove through and went to Madison. Beautiful countryside and amazing food, especially in Milwaukee. It rivals Portland, in my opinion. And it’s even a bit more real and down to earth in my opinion.
OMC: Do you have any favorite spots to visit in Milwaukee?
CB:We had lunch at Bavette and dinner at Morel last time I was here, and both were great. I try to get back to Buckley’s whenever I’m in town, because the folks there are so nice. I hope to try more while I’m in town.
OMC: What prompted your interest in planting a vineyard?
CB:After high school, in Palatine, Ill., I decided I wanted to be a chef. So, I took some culinary classes. I very quickly learned that I didn’t want to wake up at 4 in the morning, and all that. So, basically, I found my way to school at University of Kansas , earned my English degree, played music for a few years in a band. I worked in a brewery.
My folks went in with some friends on the property (in Oregon). When the friends wanted out, my brother and I bought into it. After the business closed down, I bought out my brother and became primary shareholder. From there, I pursued educational classes in winemaking, and worked for a variety of vineyards, in a variety of capacities.
OMC: Can you summarize your overall winemaking philosophy?
CB:It’s like the Italian way of cooking, where basically you work with good quality raw ingredients – in this case, grapes – you don’t overwork it, you don’t add too much to it. You let the ingredients speak for themselves. So, I’m very hands off, very minimal. I use natural yeasts, and that fermentation style really seems more true to the vineyards, giving them a sense of place.
In this case, by not adding a lot of products, you get a truer wine – something with more character and more of a soul.
OMC: What are the best and worst things about wine- growing and making?
CB:In wine growing, you’ve got one shot to get it right every year. It’s not like beer. You can’t do multiple batches. You’ve got to get it right the first time or you’re SOL. So, it takes a lot of understanding of the growing season, the vineyard and the microclimate … the drainage, the water table, how vigorously the vines are growing, how the clones behave. It’s extremely challenging in that fashion.
On the wine-making side, it’s about taking something and crafting it, and that’s something I really enjoy. Plus, if you get it right, it’s really rewarding. And you can look at a wine, after it’s been bottled and aging, it’s an experience. You can get that with beer – some age well and are meant for that – but most are meant to be consumed fresh. But, a wine that’s been bottled for seven or 10 years that still drinks well – or even better – it elevates your senses.
OMC: What are you most looking forward to with regard to the dinner at c.1880?
CB: Thomas (Hauck) is one of my favorite chefs – a great guy who I love working with. His food is always delicious, and there’s so much thought put into it. There’s a freshness and not a lot of manipulation, so I feel like we’re really on the same page insofar as what he does and what I do. His style reminds me of a buddy I have out here in Portland – Ethan Stole – I’d love to get them together. Oh, and he uses a lot of peas, which I really love.
Berg also offered up tasting notes for the Roots Wine Co. wines being showcased at the c.1880 dinner on Aug. 27. (See the full menu here.)
- 2010 Art Brut, Deux Vert Vineyard – Aromatics of White flowers that fade to a touch of Meyer lemon rind; palate of Lemon Curd and bright citric acid.
- 2011 Roots Fairsing Vineyards Chardonnay – Aromatics of cedar, asian pear; palate of lemon custard, pear.
- 2012 Roots Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir – Aromatics of black cherries and rosemary; palate of Cherries, black cherry, and cherry preserve.
- 2012 Yamhill Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir – Aromatics of red delicious apple, coconut, and cocoa powder; palate of Dark cherry, hazelnut, pound cake, minerality, red licorice.
- 2007 Roots 49 Rows Pinot Noir – Aromatics of rich cream, clay pottery wheel, mineral graphite; palate of cherry, baking spice, cocoa.
- 2008 Racine Pinot Noir – Aromatics of cherry fruit leathers, cinnamon; palate of white pepper, cherry, leather tannin.
- 2012 Racine Pinot Noir – Aromatics of bing cherry, oak, leather; palate of dark cherry, mushroom, wet fields.
- 2010 Roots Les Collines Dessert Riesling – Aromatics of Peach, bees wax, honey; palate of honeyed pears and cream.
Lori is an avid cook whose accrual of condiments and spices is rivaled only by her cookbook collection. Her passion for the culinary industry was birthed while balancing A&W root beer mugs as a teenage carhop, fed by insatiable curiosity and fueled by the people whose stories entwine with each and every dish. She’s had the privilege of chronicling these tales via numerous media, including OnMilwaukee and in her book “Milwaukee Food.” Her work has garnered journalism awards from entities including the Milwaukee Press Club.
When she’s not eating, photographing food, writing or recording the FoodCrush podcast, you’ll find Lori seeking out adventures with her husband Paul, traveling, cooking, reading, learning, snuggling with her cats and looking for ways to make a difference.