Gospel of the Grape

Brianne Day

Posted on March 17, 2019

With a strictly religious upbringing that discouraged her artistic leanings, Brianne Day was on track for a career in the church. Then she landed in northern Italy on a youth mission trip and encountered wine. Her inevitable epiphany? She was destined to leave the church and spread a different sort of gospel.  Brianne began working harvests around the world, devoting herself entirely to the study of the grape.

A chance encounter while waiting tables led to the launch of her dream business: Day Camp is an award-winning winery, tasting room, and custom-crush facility in Dundee, Oregon.  In a region where Pinot Noir vineyards dominate the landscape, Brianne seeks out unlikely varieties, making everything from field blends to a Pet-Nat with minimal intervention.  Her creative zeal and yen for experimentation has made her a leader of Oregon’s natural winemaking scene.

You didn't always want to be a winemaker. What did you want to be when you were a kid?

I was raised a little atypically, in a very religious household. The world was not completely open to me. I was strongly encouraged to pursue goals within the faith in a full-time capacity. College was something I was discouraged from strongly. Every time I thought about something I really wanted to do, I had to mentally check myself because I figured the idea wasn’t a possibility.

All my life I loved to cook, and as a little kid, I pretended I had a cooking show. But the two ideas I pursued as a teenager were a fine artist and landscape architect. I looked into schools for both and tried to plan a proposal that would be appealing to my folks, even got an appointment at a local art school and met with the dean and my dad. Not having parental support as a 16-year-old was very daunting. I had no idea how I would make [my dreams] happen. I painted on my own, untrained, all of the time.

I found a lot of personal expression that way.  I get the same feeling when I make certain wines: Tears of Vulcan, Mamacita, and Vin de Days Rouge, especially.

What eventually drew you to wine? Tell us about your early days in the biz?

When I had just turned 19, I was invited to go to Italy with a group to preach to English-speaking people. I wanted to go to Italy period, and would do anything to get there.

I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald. I loved visual art and wanted to see the pieces and places that inspired them. So I went to Italy, and almost as soon as I got there, I was completely distracted from the preaching project and was drawn in by all that is Italy: food! wine! art! guys! history!

When I was in northern Italy, in a little village on Lake Como, I first tasted “real” wine. The man who owned the shop let me taste anything I wanted, from all over northern Italy. I loved that each village had “their” wine–the thing that they made and that they defined themselves by and which was completely unique from anywhere else in the country. That kind of cultural expression through a beverage was totally unknown to me, and it fascinated me. So I went home–with 18 bottles of wine in my backpack!–and thought about this for a long time.

[Once back in Oregon,] I bought wine here and there, as my budget allowed. I was aware of the wine industry at home in Oregon and worked here and there for wineries. In my early 20s, I planned on taking a long, extended trip since wanderlust had taken up residence inside of me. I saved and saved for years. When I was 26, I sold everything I owned and traveled around the world for two years to wine-producing regions. I worked some in exchange for room and board, but mostly tasted, asked questions, and dove in deep.

I came home at the beginning of 2008 ready to be a winemaker. I wanted my own brand. I wanted to make wines in a specific manner, with minimal intervention, and I had a whole boatload of other ideas and philosophies to try.

One night, when my first vintage was in barrel and I was working four jobs to pay for my second vintage, I was waiting tables and the diners saw my grapevine tattoo and asked me about it. Over the course of their dinner, I told them pretty much everything I just told you. By the end of their dinner, the gentleman put down his napkin, leaned back and said, “I’m going to back you!”

There's kind of a legend that your tattoo led to your winery getting funded. It was surely more than a little ink that led savvy investors to believe in you. Can you tell that story.

So, I came home in 2008 and began classes for winemaking but was so eager to get working that I left and worked my first harvest in the spring of 2008 in New Zealand. Hands-on was the kind of learning that I did best with this endeavor. So I continued working two harvests per year, took winemaking classes between harvests, and started doing other things in the industry to fill in gaps in my education. I knew I wanted to own a winery. And I wanted it to be successful.

To learn about direct-to-consumer sales, I managed the tasting room at The Eyrie Vineyards. I also learned so much about winemaking in Oregon, the history of Oregon wine, and other ideological things about wine when I was there.

I worked harvest and in cellars for about nine different wineries, learning something different from each one.  I sold barrels, covering the Pacific Northwest for a Bordeaux cooperage and learning a ton about how wood interacts with wine, élevage times, and varietal differences. I waited tables at fine dining restaurants and learned what motivated customers to select bottles, how to guide them, how to pair with their dinners, and other aspects of front-of-house beverage service. I ran a wine program at another restaurant–tasting, buying, selling, and training staff.

It was all really a very good education. I did every bit of it with the goal in mind of applying what I was learning to my own brand and business. I wrote a business plan and a 10-year projected budget for exactly the business I have today.

One night, when my first vintage was in barrel and I was working four jobs to pay for my second vintage, I was waiting tables and the diners saw my grapevine tattoo and asked me about it. Over the course of their dinner, I told them pretty much everything I just told you. By the end of their dinner, the gentleman put down his napkin, leaned back and said, “I’m going to back you!”

I was cautious at first about what he meant by that. I didn’t think he knew what it meant to back a winery. It is a very expensive thing to do. But I met with them later in the week and decided to present the “big version” of the business plan to them, with all of the bells and whistles. I figured if it scared them off , then they weren’t the right people.  It didn’t scare them off, and they helped me to first grow my business (to 3,000 cases by my third year, and to about 6,000 cases presently).

Then in 2015 the gentleman said to me, “Well you grew the business, now let’s find a building!” When someone says something like that, you don’t ask questions–you hustle and go find a building. So we bought a warehouse (a former vitamin production facility) in the heart of wine country in July of 2015. By August of 2015, we had remodeled production space, had licensing, and [had] brought our first fruit into the building.

You seem to have an experimental streak. What compels you to push boundaries in winemaking?

My goal is to run my business and make my wines in a way that

1. expresses the site clearly,

2. is healthy for the grower and the consumer, and

3. interacts with our world in a way that has the least negative impact as possible.

I want my son to be able to have his own kids and live full healthy lives on this planet.

I believe that making minimal intervention wines expresses the site more clearly than manipulated wines, especially when the wines themselves are clean and free of distracting flaws. So, I make my wines from fruit grown organically or biodynamically, or “sustainable” but without the use of glyphosate. I use native fermentation. I use low levels of sulfur (none at fermentation), low levels of new wood, and don’t utilize practices such as extended hang time, extended maceration, or high heat for extraction. I don’t use products such as enzymes, sugar, water, tannin, or other things to affect the wine.

I have used acid to bring the wine’s pH down into a stable zone. High pH wines are very prone to bacteria, spoilage yeast, and other problems, and require higher levels of SO2 to stay clean. I don’t do that on a regular or prophylactic basis.  I think some in the natural wine world would think that I don’t meet the mark [as] “natural” because I use sulfur… others think what I am describing is perfectly reasonable.

I guess I’m a “moderate”.  I’m not that worried about that though–wine politics are less important to me than knowing what I am doing meets my personal goals of making a site specific wine that is healthy for those who come in contact with it and for the planet.

Let's talk about gender inequity in the wine business. Have you felt challenged by it, or felt relatively unscathed?

It exists, that’s for certain. I did things a little differently than others might in the industry because I wasn’t trying to work for someone else at a large company. My goal was always to work for myself. So I haven’t experienced pay discrepancies, or hiring discrimination, or other things that women absolutely experience in this industry.

I have experienced dumb men behaving like dumb men (and I don’t mean all men… there are a lot of smart, kind, and wonderful men out there). I have been talked to like I’m an idiot. I have had men insist on talking to my male intern instead of me because he couldn’t imagine I was in charge. I have had sales reps pass me over to talk to my assistant. I have had incredulous people who couldn’t imagine that I was the winemaker or business owner.

At the end of the day, none of that affects my life, my job, my income, or my self-worth. So fuck ’em.

What does Brianne Day drink at the end of the day?

Until very recently, I was breastfeeding all the damn time so it was mostly water or tea. It’s still water or tea three or four nights a week, but [the other] three or four nights it’s Pilsner, Champagne (I am a huge sucker for Champers), or something interesting made by a friend. I don’t drink much [alcohol] these days, and when I do, I want to really enjoy whatever it is I am drinking.