A 'Wine'-ding Path

Van Duzer Vineyard winemaker Jerry Murray took a long and circuitous route to becoming a Willamette Valley resident and winemaker. His past jobs include teaching anatomy at a medical school, cooking in restaurants around the country, baling hay, and driving a taxi cab.

DALLAS -- Van Duzer Vineyards winemaker Jerry Murray said to make wine you have to be half scientist and half chef.

He's been both.

Murray, 40, took a winding path to Oregon and winemaking in Polk County. But now that he's here, it's a perfect fit.

"I've found what I want to do and the where I want to do it," Murray said while sitting in Van Duzer's elegant tasting room overlooking the picturesque vineyard. "That's a pretty exciting feeling."

His journey started in Ohio, where Murray grew up surrounded by agriculture. He spent summers baling hay and developing an appreciation for farming and having a connection to the land.

In college, he took another direction. He earned degrees in physiology and biochemistry and began teaching anatomy at a medical school.

"I sort of realized it was too one-brained," Murray said. "So I got completely out of that and moved to New Orleans."

His goal was to find a job working with his hands. He considered learning a trade, but found himself working in kitchens in a city famous for its cuisine.

Murray wasn't able to sit still, though. He crisscrossed the country, moving from New Orleans to West Virginia and eventually Tucson, Ariz. Again, Murray wanted a change of scenery. This time he set his sights to the north.

"I came to Oregon sight unseen," he said. "I wanted to move to a place where it rained."

While he was quickly cured of the want of rain, everything else about the state suited him -- from the appreciation of agriculture -- even in metropolitan areas -- to the food scene and, most importantly, the wine culture.

"Everything about the state felt like home," he said. "I had never felt that before."

Murray worked in the kitchen at Wildwood in Portland. It was his last full-time restaurant job before making the leap to wine. While fun and creative, Murray said cooking has its drawbacks.

"I felt when you are a chef you have to produce a product people want," he said, noting what the customer wants is what he had to prepare.

With wine, the reverse is true.

Photo by Pete Strong

Murray inspects some fruit in the vineyard at Van Duzer earlier this month. His winery stops in Oregon include Panther Creek, Chehalem and Patton Valley Vineyard.

"You don't have to compromise with the product," he said. "You can make a product you believe in, then you find people who like that."

His first harvest season was in 2001 at Erath Winery in Dundee. There, he realized where the journey through different destinations and careers was taking him.

"During harvest at Erath in 2001 at the end of an 18-hour day, soaking wet and cold, it occurred to me that everything I've done up to this point had delivered me here," Murray said.

He dove into his new career ambition, taking winery jobs where he could find them and working others on the side to make ends meet. He even traveled overseas to learn about other winemaking regions.

"I did three harvests in one year," Murray said. "Not a lot of people do that."

His global adventure took him to New Zealand, like Oregon, an emerging winemaking region, and Germany, where vineyards are hundreds of years old and wine is embedded in the culture.

Murray started tasting wines constantly, even incessantly, to get an idea of the type of wine he wanted to make when he had the chance.

He found elegance in wines was more attractive to him than power. Of all varieties, pinot noir is his favorite.

"In my opinion, pinot noir should always wear a dress," he said. "Subtleties and complexities are far more interesting to me than power and girth. There's always this sense of completeness without excess."

Murray developed his winemaking skills at several Willamette Valley wineries, including Panther Creek, Chehalem and Patton Valley Vineyard before joining Van Duzer in June 2010.

Van Duzer gives Murray the perfect site to make the wine he favors, especially in colder years like 2010 and 2011. While they may end in a flurry of action during late, hurried harvests, cool years have the potential of making wines with complexity.

If Murray's wines are elegantly understated, his personality is charmingly oversized.

He defies the wine lover stereotype with his full beard, constant and playful humor and lively persona.

"Essentially, I try to make wines that are the opposite of myself," Murray said, grinning. "People always say the wine reflects the winemaker. In my case, I would be making big, loud wines. That's not what I do. It allows me to explore an alternative self."

Fittingly perhaps, Murray said he isn't bothered that he didn't immediately fall into his dream job. Rather, he's enjoyed every minute of finding his way home.

"I'm thankful I didn't get into wine when I was 18 and miss out on the journey," Murray said. "If I could do it all over again, I would do it the exact same way, only better."

Jerry Murray ...




Mount Gilead, Ohio.


Winemaker at Van Duzer Vineyards.


Cooking, taking in documentaries, and practicing mixed marital arts.

Interesting fact:

Before finding a full-time job at a winery, Murray worked as a cab driver and caterer.

Favorite food to pair with pinot noir:


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