As the fifth generation in a ranching family, Travis Cook follows a long tradition of working the land. But his work at Mother Lode Cellars is groundbreaking. Located in the foothills of the Wallowa Mountains near Baker City, Mother Lode is one of a handful of wineries on the eastern side of the state and the only Oregon winery in the Snake River American Viticultural Area (AVA).
“It’s very lonely,” Cooks says with a laugh, when asked of his lone standing in the AVA. While wineries in Oregon’s Willamette Valley are known for a spirit of cooperation, Cook can’t call on neighbors for advice. “I don’t have that luxury. I have to make the best decision I can. It’s exciting at the same time because I am doing something new.”
Founded in 2010, Mother Lode Cellars grew out of Cook’s interest in horticulture, which he studied at Oregon State University. He’s currently making wine from two and a half acres of grapes on the family land and from those he brings in from the Willamette and Columbia valleys. (The winery takes its name from a nearby mine, which operated from 1907 to 1939 and at one time employed his great-grandfather.) Cook’s parents help him with day-to-day operations while he manages several vineyards in the Willamette Valley, returning home on the weekends to work his own.
He says starting out was a process of trial and error. “I knew more about cattle and sheep and how to grow alfalfa than I knew about grape vines.” But after several years of making wine for friends and family, Cook realized that the land was suitable for grapes, and his wine was good. “The soils are pretty weathered and there are not a lot of nutrients. That’s where grapes really thrive.”
Mother Lode currently produces 450 cases of wine per year, which is available for direct purchase (call or email) and at select stores and restaurants in Baker City, La Grande and in the Willamette Valley in McMinnville and Carlton. Look for pinot noir, syrah, rose and various red blends. Mother Lode doesn’t have a tasting room yet, but hosts special events a few times a year.
Cook says he can imagine how David Lett must have felt 40 years ago when his first Oregon vines drew skepticism from the industry. “I am definitely pioneering new ground. But is it going to work? If farming was a guarantee then everyone would be doing it, but I’ve got a good feeling about it,” he says.