Sure, one should not romanticise winemaking, but the story about Liska Wine cannot go without it. Draga Zheleva and Chris Butler combine their passion for wine and art on a sustainable and professional level.
Draga and Chris met at UC Davis
The Viticulture and Enology department at UC Davis is an exceptionally social, very tight-knit community, so it did not take long for Draga and Chris to meet. Their friendship began on a winter trip to the Southern Oregon wine region with the department wine club. Riding in the same car, driving five hours each way and having lots of time to get to know one another. Following that trip, their friendship grew until they began dating in the summer before their last year at UC Davis. Both graduated in 2017 and continued their lives journey together.
By the time they graduated from UC Davis, they had developed some idea of the types of wines they enjoyed and would one day prefer to make. They liked wines that were lower in alcohol, possessed a driving natural acidity and had little to no flavour imparted from oak. This initially led them to do a harvest in the Mosel, where they worked in the vineyards with Heymann-Löwenstein and Chris worked in the cellar of Selbach-Oster. The wines they had, while they were in Germany, were truly inspiring, permanently shaping their perception of wine quality and solidifying their desire to make wines in a cool-climate region.
After a subsequent harvest in Margaret River, Australia, they looked back to the United States to see which region may be a good fit for their winemaking aspirations. Culturally and climatically, the state of Oregon seemed like it could be that place. For the 2018 vintage, they split up so each of them could learn about a different part of the state. Draga went to Southern Oregon to work at Wooldridge Creek Winery in the Applegate Valley, and Chris went north to work at Chehalem Winery in the Willamette Valley. The cooler climate of the Willamette Valley, and consequently the grape varieties that do well there, made the Willamette Valley the obvious choice.
The Willamette Valley
The Willamette Valley is a region in the Pacific Northwest of the United States that stretches approximately 150 miles from Eugene, Oregon in the south to Portland, Oregon in the north. The valley is named for the Willamette River, which runs through its centre and is the primary waterway in the region. The river is fed by a number of tributaries and is a major source of hydroelectric power for the region.
Agriculture is a major part of the Willamette Valley economy, with the valley being one of the most fertile regions in the state. The region is known for its production of grass seed, hazelnuts, and berries, as well as for its vineyards and wineries. The valley is also home to a number of organic farms and is known for its commitment to sustainable farming practices.
The Willamette Valley also offers a range of outdoor activities and recreational opportunities. The valley is home to a number of state and county parks, including Silver Falls State Park, which features a series of waterfalls, and Champoeg State Heritage Area, which is home to a restored Oregon Trail town. The valley also offers opportunities for hiking, biking, and fishing, as well as skiing and snowboarding in the nearby Cascade Mountains.
Step by step
In January 2019, Draga and Chris made the permanent move to the Willamette Valley, settling in McMinnville in the heart of the wine region. For those first few months, neither of them had winemaking jobs lined up, and they filled the gap by helping out with bottling throughout the valley and getting to know the people in the industry. Thankfully, both eventually landed wine production jobs that allowed them to stay, and Chris ended up filling the role of Assistant Winemaker at Cristom Vineyards, which is where they make their own wine currently.
Bringing Liska into the family
At the beginning of 2020, before the pandemic really blew up in the United States, they were in the process of buying a house. Moving out of an apartment into a place with an actual yard meant that they could finally have a pet. So Draga began kinda-sorta looking around for a dog. It wasn’t long before she stumbled upon a German Shephard Mix by the name of Lassie on the Pet Finder app. By her description, she sounded like such a sweet dog and a perfect introduction to dog ownership for Chris, who had never had a dog before.
However, Lassie was about 3,000 km away in Texas, and in March 2020, everything was about to shut down. They quickly went through the interview process, paid the fee, and got her on the last truck to Oregon. She joined the family the first week they moved into the new home, and they renamed her „Liska“, which is a Bulgarian endearing name for a female fox.
Liska Wine embodies sustainability and terroir
The entire concept behind Liska Wine Company is to craft wines that showcase the varietal diversity of the Willamette Valley. Given its latitude and climate, most Willamette Valley winemaking is modelled after Burgundian winemaking, with a heavy focus on Pinot Noir. While this model is well justified by the abundance of excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay coming from this region, Draga and Chris believe they can make a meaningful contribution at the periphery of the wine shelf by focusing on varieties that are minor players in the appellation but that have an equal opportunity to yield compelling wines.
For this reason, they have committed exclusively to varieties that are a bit more locally unique, including Grüner Veltliner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Gamay Noir and Syrah. Each Liska wine ages on its lees in neutral oak barrels, hogsheads and puncheons for 5 to 18 months, depending on its needs, and they all possess a concentrated, linear palate that seems to preserve and amplify the freshness of the fruit.
In their first vintage (2021), Draga and Chris made around 4,700 bottles. More wine is currently in the french oak barriques waiting to be bottled. Also, they might produce some Pét Nats (Pétillant Naturel) – sparkling wine. This can go especially well because of their preference for acidity-rich grape varieties. Most of their wines are actually stored in neutral french oak barriques to cut off the edges without integrating a wooden flavour.
For Draga and Chris, sustainability plays a key role. Hence, they leave away the foil on the bottle giving it a minimalistic look which suits the Liska Wine bottles. In order to reduce CO2 emissions they decided to use lightweight bottles. This cuts emissions during the production and transportation process in many ways.
Relief printing for the labels
Incorporating Draga’s art into the brand has been the plan from the beginning. She is a hobbyist printmaker and wanted to contribute another dimension of creativity to the overall project. She has been in love with art almost her entire life. Back in elementary school in Bulgaria, she also attended various art classes. Her art ranges from watercolor paintings to relief printing. Each relief print is designed with both the specific wine variety and Oregon flora in mind. For example, the berry print was made for the Gamay noir. The wine is bright, with red fruit aromas and the art closely represents the drinking experience.
The Gewürztraminer label, on the other hand, depicts Oregon native flowers which beautifully match the floral character of the wine. Similarly, the Grüner Veltliner is represented by the local ferns and the Syrah by the coniferous trees in our region. Finally, the 2021 Riesling art showcases a mix of the native to the Pacific Northwest ocean spray, silk tassel bush, manzanita and Mahonia aquifolium, also known as Oregon grape. Our 2022 vintage includes a small batch of botrytized Riesling. Draga carved her most recent linocut with this wine in mind and the label will include fruit found growing at different local orchards.
What the future holds
Draga and Chris don’t have any immediate plans to build their own winery. Draga is currently pursuing a PhD in Biological and Ecological Engineering and they have a 19-month-old daughter, so their hands are a bit full at the moment. However, both have certainly considered the possibility and maybe in a few years, they will find a permanent home for Liska Wine Company.