Interview: Antica Terra Winemaker Maggie Harrison

Expressive bottlings of beauty from Oregon's Willamette Valley

Surprise and delight defines the Antica Terra tasting experience. Based in Dundee, Oregon, the winery’s offerings include annual Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vintages. Owner and winemaker Maggie Harrison—also the head of the masterful California Syrah label, Lillian—taps into the intrinsic, aesthetic merit of the Willamette Valley as a whole. But as much as each wine is a study of the exquisite land and luscious grapes, it’s also about the dialogue drawn from decisions in the winemaking process. Harrison’s process is unlike any other and anyone who gets their hands on a bottle understands what this means—and benefits from it.

The wines of Antica Terra do have one important unifying factor. “If you could say one thing—yes, I’m the winemaker and the owner and I make all of them—but I think it’s about the way that we make wine and it’s paramount to understanding what we do: we don’t call out anything in advance, ever,” Harrison begins to explain.

“In every winery, the idea is born before the wine. ‘I am a low alcohol winemaker or this wine is going to come from that vineyard or I use 25% new oak.’ We do not do any of that,” she says. “The way that I learned to make wine is by keeping my head down. If you keep your head down, all you are ever doing is looking at what is right in front of you in that moment. Whether you’re designing a label or selecting a cork or pruning a vine, you say, ‘What’s the most beautiful thing I can do in this moment?’ And then you do it. You do it with fairly maniacal rigor and you trust that if you keep stringing beautiful actions together, you don’t know exactly where you’ll end up—100% whole cluster or 2% whole cluster, from one vineyard or 17 different vineyards—but you’ll end up with the most beautiful example of what was possible from those fields in that year.”

“When we first started making wine, there was a real concern over how anyone was ever going to understand who we are,” Harrison says. This fear stems from their process: one that embraces variations year after year. The winemaking team at Antica Terra blends everything blind. First, they take a sample from every barrel in the cellar—which represents 10 vineyard sites and 42 picking blocks—and number it, make notes and then assemble or divide. For the 2017 vintage of the Ceras, 154 different barrels went it. “We keep everything meticulously separate,” she continues. “There are no moments for homogenization. Our cellar ends up being full of fraternal twins.”

Three-day blocks of eight to 11 hours each day follow, where they “put things together and take them apart and put things together and take them apart in every different way possible, looking for a place of harmony and where the wines rise,” Harrison says. “The through-thread is one of integrity and intention,” she adds.

Those who seek Antica Terra out are aware of, and celebrate, the variation. Still, further principles guide each style that the brand releases. “Ceras and Botanica are counterparts of one another,” Harrison says. “What they represent are the two ends of the range of expression, whatever we see upon the table that year: light to dark, red to blue, pale, fair and ethereal or sappy and dripping. We find the natural moment of bifurcation and make two wines.” Ceras orients toward the terrestrial, with mineral notes and blue fruits. It references the prehistoric seabed. “Botanica refers to the richness, fertileness and fucundity above ground with fruit and flower and blossom,” she says. Antikythera—a nod to the mechanism built in 205 BC to track celestial movement—is drawn from Harrison’s own vineyard and speaks with the clearest voice.

Harrison loves her job, but one particular reason shines forth. “I used to have terrible dreams,” she says, “about what if I became allergic to grapes or what if I run this business into the ground—because the way I make wine is antithetical to the way one should run a business. But what I realize now is that I just like making beautiful things. If somebody took wine away from me I would make candles and if those were taken away I’d make ceramics and if they were taken away I’d make dinner. I like making.”

It’s impossible not to mention that Harrison loves her work and the process so much that for Lillian, she and her team destem one whole barrel of grapes by hand with manicure scissors. She’d heard about the winemaker Jean-Francois Ganevat doing it and at first thought it was ridiculous. Then, “I was at the sorting table one day and I was thinking about how I make decisions. It’s easily 10 to 20 hours of just staring down and your hands are flying but it allows you to go to this crazy place where your right brain gets let off leash.” She reconsidered it one Tuesday and the next day she found herself in a Walgreens in Oregon where she “bought every manicure and eyebrow scissor available.” One person can destem four pounds of fruit an hour—and it takes 950 pounds of fruit to fill the one barrel.

Half of the bottles Antica Terra produces go to Michelin-starred restaurants around the world. The other half goes to consumers on their mailing list (which now has a lengthy waitlist). Harrison likes this balance and finds that the trade channel exposes more interested people to her wines, rather than potentially having more bottles sit in a private cellar somewhere.

There’s one other way to get ahold of these sought-after releases: the tasting room. “The winery itself is a glorified tin can,” Harrison says, but their tasting room (inside a barrel room) is next-level, complete with a full-time chef. There, visitors can buy from the room’s allocation of Antica Terra “or other crazy rare things,” Harrison adds. Her personal collection of wines resides there and a tasting session involves a flight of what she’s made and a flight of five wines that inspired them (at Harrison’s cost). “And we always start with Champagne,” she says.

Images courtesy of Antica Terra