Meeting an Oregon wine legend

Me, Jimmy Leyden and Rob Stuart checking out Jimmy’s vineyard.

It’s not every day that you get to meet someone who is 97 years old, let alone a man like Jimmy Leyden, a familiar name amongst those in the Oregon wine industry. Apparently today was my lucky day, though, because I got the opportunity to meet Jimmy and hear him talk for a few hours. Through my job at the Oregon Wine History Archive, I am often given the opportunity to meet people in the wine industry who are successful and impressive, like Jimmy Leyden. We facilitate many oral history interviews with anyone from wine critics to winemakers, with a wide range of ages, backgrounds, and professions within the wine industry. These oral history interviews are what brought us to visit Jimmy all the way out in Banks, Oregon.

After an hour-long car ride through scenic backroads filled with vineyards and rolling hills, Linfield College archivist Rich Schmidt, me of course, and Rob Stuart, owner of R. Stuart & Co., arrived at Jimmy’s house. His home was perched at the top of the hill surrounded by vines, trees, and rolling wheat fields, creating a view that could take anyone’s breath away. Jimmy had fresh coffee and doughnuts waiting for us when we arrived, and after getting set up, we were ready to talk to Jimmy about his life. What a life that man has led!

Jimmy recounting his life stories.

Like many others in the wine industry, Jimmy followed a long, interesting path before he finally retired and made it to his career in wine. He started out by talking about one of his life adventures: flying planes during his time in the Air Force. We got to hear about his many travels abroad to places like Japan and the Caribbean, along with the many states that he has lived in. He talked about earning his livelihood by making commercial jingles for American Airlines, Cheerios, beer companies and many more, before deciding to teach music to high school students. After several exciting careers, Jimmy finally retired, moved to Oregon, and immediately got into the wine industry as a grape grower. This venture has lasted him 35 years and counting, as he still lives on his vineyard today. In his time in the industry, Jimmy has sold his grapes to big names in wine such as Ponzi, Rex Hill, Elk Cove, Erath, Sokol Blosser, R. Stuart, and so many others, proving that he has had an extremely successful career as a grape-grower on top of everything else in his life.

After hearing Jimmy recount his incredible life and achievements, Rob Stuart, Jimmy, Rich, and I all loaded up and headed to the vineyard to check and see how his vines and grapes were looking. I learned more today about grapes than I ever could have hoped for. Rob — who purchases grapes from Jimmy — showed us what he will eventually look for when the buds bloom, explained how he chooses when to pick during harvest, and how the harvest date can be approximated even in June before the grapes have barely begun to develop. He explained certain techniques about how he prunes and so much more information that would take me another few pages to recount.

It also happened to be Jimmy’s 97th birthday on the day of our interview, so we toasted with sparkling wine Rob had made from Jimmy’s grapes. He was so touched by the gesture, and watching him enjoy wine made from his own grapes was amazing.

He may need a walker to navigate them, but there’s no question Jimmy is happy around his vines.

It is meeting people like Jimmy that makes the wine industry so appealing from the perspective of a young undergraduate student aspiring to join the wine business. I am quickly learning from working in the Archives that the Oregon wine industry is so much humbler than any outsider could imagine. Hearing so many people’s life stories and seeing and hearing about their hard work, passion and drive is inspiring. I have found that it is the people and hard work that makes this industry so incredible. Today was an unforgettable day full of new information, fun, and wonderful people.

— Tia Elder, Linfield ’21

Not a bad view from Jimmy’s place, either!