Finding my family’s roots at a winery

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in October, my wife and I drove into the Applegate Valley to visit a favorite winery. We are members of Cowhorn Vineyard, a biodynamic winery with some of our favorite local wines, a stunning view of the mountains, and a sweet winery dog who gently greets visitors on the back deck.

The tastings included two vintages of their Marsanne-Roussanne blend, a members-only tasting of their 2017 Viogner, and two delicious red varietals. We moved with our fellow club members from one station to the next, sipping wine and hearing about how each one was crafted. The story of the Viogner was most interesting, as it was produced in a year with a high level of smoke in the valley for an extended period of time. They were only able to produce a small amount of this signature wine for their vineyard, and we were happy to be able to bring a couple of bottles home. It was a beautiful day with sunshine streaming through the trees, a stream running under the deck where we drank our wine, and people smiling and relaxed in the crisp air on this early fall day.

I was perfectly happy.

And then I looked down at the barrel where we stood, listening to the stories of the wine, tasting the golden sunshine in a glass. And I saw my family’s name.

St. Romain ~ Cote d’Or ~ France

The barrel at this vineyard in Southern Oregon was shipped from the small winemaking region in France where my father’s family came from a couple of centuries ago. I stopped for a moment and just stared at the engraving in the oak lid.

St. Romain. My family name on a wine barrel.

I grew up in Louisiana, one of a million cousins (O.K., maybe a few less, but it feels like a million) in the southwest part of the state. Our French roots were a constant backdrop to my childhood, etched into everything we did, the food we ate, the music we heard on Saturday nights. I still remember weekend nights when the aunts and uncles were at our house, gumbo bubbling on the stove, spicy boudin on the counter, and the sound of the Cajun French patois they spoke coming from the family room. I loved hearing them speak, the mix of French and English mingling as its own musical language in my head.

My family members were not wine drinkers, other than on special occasions when the crystal wine glasses would come out with the china dishes and sterling silver for holiday meals. It was only when I moved to California in my early 20’s that I discovered the rich world of winemaking, and I was instantly enamored. On visits to the Napa and Sonoma valleys, I was mesmerized by the acres of vines growing against the backdrop of the green, rolling hills, and I instantly fell in love with the stories the winemakers shared about their craft. I loved the taste of wines too, all of them: crisp whites, rich reds, subtly sweet roses, and everything in between.

When I moved to Southern Oregon many years later, I quickly realized that I had landed in a wine lover’s heaven. Home to a growing number of vineyards and wineries that spread across several mountain ranges and valleys, my home now is one of the most beautiful places I can imagine, with four distinct seasons and farm-to-table food available at restaurants and grower’s markets. I have become a student of the wonders of wine, one of the oldest crafted beverages on the planet.

At some point I realized that Oregon is roughly on the same parallel as the small village of St. Romain in the Burgundy region of France, where my father’s family came from many centuries ago. I have never visited (although some of my cousins have), but I started reading about the village and the wines crafted in that valley and hill area. I have come to an awareness that winemaking runs in my family’s veins, as much as the language and style of cooking that permeated my childhood. Through my study of wine in the valley where I live, I’ve discovered a connection to my family’s roots in France.

And now, on this beautiful fall Saturday, I found a connection in the form of a wine barrel, recently made in the village of St. Romain in France, shipped to Cowhorn Vineyard in Southern Oregon.

I was lucky enough to meet Bill and Barbara Steele, the owners of Cowhorn, soon after they opened their tasting room several years ago. I loved their wines immediately and was especially interested in their commitment to biodynamic farming and winemaking. As I stood in front of the barrel with my family’s name, I reminded them of my maiden name and shared the story of what I know about my distant, distant relatives in the village of St. Romain, France. We all marveled at this moment of my finding my family’s name on the deck of their vineyard.

I am grateful that they immediately offered to send one of the barrels home with us. We will now have a tangible connection to the winemakers in the small village in France bearing my family’s name, a promise of my planned visit there one day. I look forward to meeting distant relatives whose stories run through my DNA, those still living in the village of my father’s family roots. I believe that some of what I have to offer my children and the world comes from those roots, from a deep connection with the earth and farming, a love of family and tradition, and the belief that sharing a meal with those we love is one of the greatest pleasures life has to offer. The simple joys in life are the ones I most appreciate and most want to pass on to my children. And it often starts and ends around the dinner table.

I treasure my family’s French roots. And now I will be able to look at my family’s French name etched on a wine barrel, shipped from France, possibly created by very distant cousins. That’s the story I will tell myself, whether or not it is true, as I sip on some wonderful wines, crafted by people who celebrate gifts of the earth, shared with those we love, as much as I do.