SALEM, Ore. – Joe Olexa and Ankeny Vineyard are one and the same. The thirty-five acres of grapes are growing on proven Willamette Valley farmland that has been in operation since 1849. The combination of gentle slopes and low elevation make it one of the earliest ripening sites in the valley resulting in extraordinary Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes.
Though most of Ankeny’s grapes are sold to other wineries, winemaker Andy Thomas turns out small handcrafted batches of wine for sale in the winery. A magnificent unobstructed view west through the valley to the Coast Range is available from the tasting room.
Vineyard owner Joe Olexa, was born and raised in Pennsylvania. A self-labeled academic junkie, he moved to San Francisco to go to school, then to Eugene to attend University of Oregon. After getting at least four degrees (including a law degree and a PhD in political science) he worked in Portland for the Multnomah County Court system. He started looking for grape land in the 1970s, bought the farm in 1980 and retired to work full time in the vineyard in 2000.
“I really need to give credit to my professional career for being instrumental in my current life as a vineyard owner, because I became sick of what I was doing,” Olexa said. “ I remembered an old Chinese proverb that said if you want to be happy for a week, roast a pig; if you want to be happy for a month, get married; if you want to be happy for the rest of your life, plant a garden. So, I began looking for vineyard property and started planting grapes.”
Understanding that grape growers, like farmers, are pretty low on the food chain, Olexa started small using his own resources. Between 1985 and 1989, he made wine in his basement and sold it to distributors out of his dining room.
“Today, I’m happier selling grapes to other wine makers and making just enough wine to take care of the sales here,” he said.
When Olexa went looking for the perfect place to grow wine grapes, he found the old Tom Cox homestead. He decided that if Cox chose this piece of ground as his first choice that was good enough for him. In 1847, Cox and his wife Martha, both who were 55 at the time, came overland from Indiana with eleven wagonloads of gunpowder, several cases of shot and store supplies, and opened Salem’s first store. After Martha died in 1849, Cox retired to the homesteaded on which the vineyard now sits. Both Tom and Marsha are buried in a two-acre cemetery above the vineyard. Also of interest on the winery grounds are a small herd of goats, an emu, a pair of llamas, donkeys, ducks and a flock of egg-laying chickens.
“When I bought the farm, the hillside was overrun with Himalaya blackberries so I bought the goats to get rid of them. The next step of course was adding the guard llamas to protect the goats from the coyotes and I’m not sure where the donkeys, ducks or the emu came from. The chickens are my favorite – right now I’m experimenting with feed from the garden trying to produce a higher omega 3-egg.”
Ankeny Vineyard guests and visitors come from all over for daily wine tasting, musical weekends and special events. Open Friday, Saturday and Sunday during the winter, and daily during spring summer and fall, their weekend wood fired pizza menu is a specialty.
Besides the importance of location, location, location, Olexa says there are three keys to success in the wine business.
“First, 80 percent of the quality comes from growing good grapes,” Olexa said. “After that, you need to know how to make good wine and find the best way to sell it. I’m happy that I have the staff that allows me to do all three.”
For more information on Ankeny Vineyard, visit www.ankenyvineyard.com