A Simple Wooden Table

At The Filling Station, a coffee shop in Carlton, forty miles southwest of Portland, Gino Cuneo nurses an espresso macchiato and chooses his words carefully. It is mid-October and the grapes still aren’t ready to pick in this unusually late, 2008-vintage season. The winemaker is wearing old blue trousers, New Balance sneakers, and a green long-sleeved shirt beneath a faded blue Joel Palmer House T-shirt. Gino is sixty-one but could pass for forty-five. He is trim and handsome, with long, wavy, silver hair, bright brown eyes, red cheeks, and small, almost delicate hands and fingers. He has a quick, easy laugh and a sonorous, pleasing voice. He inquires about my family and Italian heritage, and when he mentions Italian places or wines, names like Barolo, Veneto, and Liguria are inflected and given Italian pronunciations.

“Not everybody should be a partner; not everybody should be married,” he is saying. Cuneo makes it clear he doesn’t want to speak ill or name names, saying only, “There was one partner who I had serious issues with. He should have never been a partner.” He studies his coffee cup and finds the positive note he’s searching for. “What this whole experience taught me is that there can be great partnerships. That’s the redemptive point of all this. Partnerships can be tremendous. But you have to be very, very selective.”

The coffee shop sits practically at the epicenter of Oregon’s winemaking region. There are more than two hundred wineries in the Willamette Valley—the long, fertile expanse that begins near the Washington border and stretches south to Eugene—and at least twenty-four of them are based in or around Carlton, population 1,582. Ken Wright, who opened his winery here in 1994 after experiencing problems with his own partner in McMinnville, is just down the street. Scott Paul is on the corner, and Andrew Rich makes his wines at the Carlton Winemakers Studio, just below Cuneo’s old winery, where, beneath the big, oval sign reading “Cana’s Feast Winery,” hangs a smaller sign: “Cuneo Cellars.” Less easy to downplay is the “Cuneo” etched in glass over the winery’s main entrance. “That’s the entrance that I still use,” he jokes.

The big, ocher-colored stucco building, which Cuneo designed and built in 2001, was the culmination of years of making award-winning pinot noirs along with big, rich Bordeaux-style blends and Italian varietals—but red wines only; Cuneo doesn’t drink whites and doesn’t care to make them. He had been making wine professionally since 1989 under the name Cuneo Cellars, and by the time he built his winery, he had three principal investors and business partners. First came Martin Barrett, a businessman from a prosperous Salem manufacturing family, who became a minority partner in 1995 and later would become a principal investor. John Hall, executive vice president of Portland’s EthicsPoint, which designs fraud- and incident-reporting software for corporations, met Cuneo shortly thereafter and volunteered his time and wealth to Cuneo Cellars’ growth. Ken Knight, a retired dean of Seattle Pacific University’s School of Business and Economics, signed on soon afterward. Hall and Barrett were involved with Young Life, the Christian ministry that reaches out to adolescents through camps and prayer groups. The three men and Cuneo shared one strong passion: God. In their operating agreement for Cuneo Cellars, the partners even chose a Biblical arbitration service to mediate disputes, should that ever become necessary.

Their two and a half acres overlooked a sweeping stretch of the western hills; the land cost $127,000, and the partners spent another $750,000 on the building and development. Their plan was to focus Cuneo Cellars around its winemaker: Cuneo. “Gino would say, ‘I want the tasting room to look like this picture in this Italian cookbook,’” Hall recalls. “It was the essence of Gino, the whole Italian thing. We were going to focus on Gino’s heritage.”

Retail sales, or selling wine directly to the visiting public, became a major part of the business plan. Cuneo hired Jody Christensen, now director of the McMinnville Economic Development Partnership, to run the tasting room. She remembers the space, with its stucco walls and washed concrete floor, as simple and quiet—elegant. “It was a warm room bathed in sunlight, with a heavy wood table at the center,” she says. “We didn’t stand behind a counter pouring wine. You need a story to sell stuff, and the table becomes part of the story. Gino wants you to sit at his table. It wasn’t spit and shine; it wasn’t fabricated. Very authentic. Very famiglia.”