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Matt Wengel Goes From Two Buck Chuck to Award-Winning Pinot

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By Sophie Brochu

Matt Wengel was supposed to be a pre-med student. Then a winemaking class at UC Davis changed everything. Today, Wengel utilizes organic farming methods and gravity flow production to make award-winning wines at Lemelson Vineyards in Oregon.

How did you get into wine?

I didn’t grow up in a wine family. My dad drank boxed zinfandel, still does. My mom doesn’t drink. I took an intro to winemaking class at UC Davis just to get an easy A. I thought I was going to be pre-med, but I didn’t have what it took. I was floored by the winemaking class. At the time, I was drinking Trader Joe’s two-dollar syrah, two-dollar chard, two-dollar pinot noir because it was what I could afford. Two-buck chuck is what got me into this industry.

How would you describe your winemaking style?

Here at Lemelson, we’re very traditional. It’s one of our three pillars: tradition, nature, and innovation. This means organic farming and respecting the environment. From a winemaking standpoint, it’s very minimalist.

What does an average day look like for you right now?

Right now, getting ready for harvest. The wine cycle is very come-and-go. It’s not always fast. We’re coming off the post-bottling, calm season, and now we’re just trying to get serious about making sure all of our tanks are ready, testing all of our infrastructure, all of our equipment, receiving all of our brand new French oak barrels that we’re going to be using, and reorganizing downstairs. 90-percent of it is cleaning.  It may not be sexy, but you’ve got to have a clean winery.

 “Two-buck chuck is what got me into this industry.”

You spent some time in South Africa and Chile. How did that impact your craft?

When all of my colleagues were going to France, Italy, and Spain, I kind of wanted to take a different route, to think outside the box, and go places that I probably wouldn’t be able to go later on in my career. So, I started with Chile. I went down there with just two years of high school Spanish, which was humbling. I worked at a big winery, and I was immersed in the culture. I had the misconception that after college I could make wine on my own. That was so naïve and wrong because there are all these skills you don’t have when you’re 21.

In South Africa, I fell in love with sauvignon blanc, and dare I say pinotage, while working at a premium-focused winery. I learned that I liked the hands-on approach, and I liked putting in the efforts, and seeing that translated into the bottle.

Matt with Eric Lemelson tasting samples.

What do you love about Lemelson?

In addition to distinctive, organic estate winemaking, it’s the relationship I have with Eric Lemelson himself. His life’s work is combating climate change and global energy policy, and that translates to our gravity-flow facility and sustainable farming. That’s a big part of the Lemelson story, so it’s inspiring to work for someone like that.

One bottle you recommend for the holiday season?

The Thea’s Selection is our flagship wine. About 80-percent of our pinot production goes into Thea’s. It’s an approachable, Willamette Valley blend and I think Eric Lemelson just did such a good job balancing the portfolio of vineyards to where when you mix them all together, the sum is greater than any individual part. It’s just a wonderful wine to show who we are.


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