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Buona Notte Creates Beauty in a Changing Climate

Colorado-Born Winemaker Graham Markel Remains Agile at His Oregon Winery

Article by Kate Lacroix

Photography by Jess Smith Photography

Originally published in Boulder Lifestyle

It’s an early morning after what is arguably the worst ice storm in Oregon’s recent history. Winemaker Graham Markel stops to get a gas station coffee before heading towards the Columbia River Gorge to assess the damage. Highway 84 has been closed for days (Oregon does not salt their roads) but Graham wants to have a look at his vines. He assures me they are most likely fine because winter is when they are most dormant. “In recent years we haven’t been as lucky as we’ve had freezes in both spring and fall,” Graham says.

Buona Notte is the brainchild winery of Graham and his father, the late Jeffrey Markel. “In 2016 my dad gave me the money to buy my first fruit," Graham says. "The day we showed up to buy the Sangiovese it was twice as much but he doubled down and purchased four tons of grapes (300 cases of wine). There was no turning back.” The grapes are organically or naturally farmed. The wines are made with no additives other than a little sulfur and made in the ”low intervention” way that allows the grapes to take center stage. Buona Notte contracts around 20 acres of co-opted vines grown by some of the best farmers in The Gorge and their winemaking and bottling space has been shared with Son of Man Cider since 2018. Italian varietals like Sangiovese, Pinot Grigio and Syrah grow well in the sunny climate and volcanic soils of The Gorge, nearly mirroring the climate in some of the famous grape-growing regions in Italy.

Having been steeped in food and wine from an early age he is not surprised by his career path. His father ran an organic fruit and vegetable distribution company in Boulder and his mother is an intrepid global traveler with her eponymous company, Peggy Markel’s Culinary Adventures. After graduating from Buddhist-inspired Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, he worked at the famed restaurant The Kitchen and became interested in the indelible combination of food and wine. In 2011, Graham followed another Boulderite, Nate Ready, to the Willamette Valley to work with storied natural winemaker, Maggie Harrison of Antica Terra. “For four years, Maggie gave me all the encouragement in the world to start my own winery,” Graham says. In 2015, Graham followed Ready–one of a small handful of Master Sommeliers–to help him make his natural wine that has been broadly recognized as some of the best in the nation. In 2016, Buona Notte began making wine at Hiyu Wine Farm before moving to where they are today.

Ice isn’t the only environmental winemaking hurdle. Forest fire season is anywhere between June through September and in both 2017 and 2020, the grapes turned smoky. In 2017, the entire Oregon side of The Gorge burned down—part of the broader West Coast fires. Wine correcting techniques such as less skin contact and meticulous leaf and stem removal had to be employed to mitigate the effects of the smoke. To provide full transparency, “This wine is going to be smoky,” had to be communicated to all of Graham's accounts.

No aspect of winemaking is without its rigors and now those in the craft must remain agile with a series of unpredictable weather events. The fall 2023 harvest was nearly a month earlier than the previous year. “It was crazy, the grapes were ready to pick almost four weeks earlier than the year before," says Graham. "We had to train and hustle for weeks to make sure we didn’t miss the moment.” Any description of that month feels like an understatement. Graham worked 18-hour days with his farmers, pickers, winery employees and his partner, Jess Smith, also the winery photographer.

Graham is also doing his best to stem the tide of climate change in his packaging. Buona Notte’s labels are 50 percent post-consumer waste and 50 percent hemp. The bottles come from recycled glass in the area and the cork-sealing beeswax comes from local hives.

Despite increased challenges, Graham continues to imbue his wines with inspired food and warm hospitality wherever he goes. 2024 is already packed with a spring winery lunch series in which he cooks and conducts to the many guests who come by each Saturday. He’s also planning an ambitious eight-city West Coast wine tour with some of his favorite restaurants running along the coast from Washington to SoCal. And he’ll be continuing to process another kind of change—the death of his father from stomach cancer last year. Regardless of professional and personal setbacks, Graham’s philosophy is to do the work no matter what it takes. “If you believe you have been entrusted with a thing of beauty, you have to chase it—you have to put in the work,” Graham says.

“The vines are fine!” Graham bellows from a faraway row.  Just another day in the life of winemaking on a swiftly changing planet. Though he continues to speculate about climate change, Graham is willing to accept the conditions necessary to keep making wine.  As he climbs into the car, he smiles and repeats a well-known Buddhist phrase: “The only thing constant is change.”