Clare Carver is co-proprietor with winemaker Brian Marcy, of Big Table Farm–a winery and working farm in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. In charge of winery marketing and hospitality, she also manages the 70-acre farm including a herd of Irish Dexter cattle and heritage breed pigs. An accomplished fine and graphic artist, Clare has exhibited her oil paintings internationally and designed hundreds of wine labels for which she has won awards, including the San Francisco Chronicle’s America’s Top Ten Wine Labels.
Karen MacNeil: Some of Big Table Farm’s wines have been below 12% alcohol. Was that a gamble? Tell us about some other risks you and your husband Brian have taken on this journey.
Clare Carver: Brian tastes the fruit in the vineyard and makes his picking decision based solely on flavor. He doesn’t care if the Brix are low as long as the grapes taste ripe. It’s about optimizing the vintage and making the wine that reflects that year. If that means a wine is 11.5%, then that’s what the year gave us. If it’s 14%, that’s fine too. We are not shooting for a style; we are making the best wine we can each year. In 2013, I remember Brian calling me from the vineyard at Cattrall Brothers, one of our coolest sites. “Clare, do you think we can sell a wine that might come in under 11%?” I said “If you think that fruit is ripe and tastes good, you should pick it.” And to that Brian replied, “Good, they’re picking tomorrow.” He knew I would trust him, and I do; he also trusts me. When we only had $50k saved in 2013 but needed to build a winery because we had grown out of our space, I said “I think I can crowd fund this.” Three months later, 100 people had each gifted us $1700. We made our first wine in that beautiful winery by 2014. When we moved to Oregon and put all our money from the sale of our Napa house down on the farm, and spent our last $5k on grapes, that too was a huge gamble. But here we are, 14 years later, and we are planting our own vineyard now! I think as an artist, every time you create, you put yourself out there; you are taking a risk. Every time someone gives you their hard-earned money for that wine or painting you made, you enter into a relationship of affirmation and joy—the risk is rewarded.
KM: Tell us why you give Brian final label approval, and he won’t settle on final blends without your input? Is this the perfect “wine marriage?”
CC: I’m the creative force behind the labels starting from the spark of each year’s inspirations that fuel me through the finished drawings. Brian is my sounding board at the end of that process. The same is true for him with the wines. That spark for him starts when he is sampling in the vineyard and guides him through the vintage to final élevage. I go through the cellar with him as his sounding board when we build final blends. Yes, it is a true collaboration. Is it perfect? Heck no—what is? But are we still working at it? Yes, that’s the adventure. We started this journey together, even before we started Big Table, when Brian made some of his first vintages in Napa in the 90’s. I remember I would go into the winery at the end of the longer nights during harvest and help squeegee the floor or hose down barrels. He helped me build giant crates for shipping back the paintings I did when he worked a vintage in South Australia. We’ve built Big Table Farm at each other’s sides. There is no possible way one of us could have done this without the other. We are best friends and partners. Our personalities are very different, but we share the same values and work ethic. Brian and I got engaged on the tandem bike we rode on some of our very first dates, and still ride today. That bike is a sweet example of our relationship.
KM: Is wine art or perhaps a form of art?
CC: Absolutely it is. We are incredibly lucky that both of us are able to make what we love without feeling that we have to follow any style but our own. We have no one dictating that. We have a purity in both of our pursuits because they are of our own making over long careers of honing our crafts. We both are firm believers in good craft being the armature on which art can hang.
KM: What do you believe is your greatest contribution to the winery’s success?
CC: I truly believe the great things are never the big ones. It’s the accumulation of all the daily things that make you successful. But I would say two things. First, waking up with a good attitude and doing the work—I believe in work. Both of us are incredibly creative, but we BOTH show up and do the work, whether it’s doing chores every day, rain or shine, or just returning those phone calls. Second, I’m very positive and generally see all things, good or bad, as opportunities. I know Brian values this in me.
“Every time someone gives you their hard-earned money for that wine or painting you made, you enter into a relationship of affirmation and joy—the risk is rewarded.”
KM: You’ve finally been able to turn your attention to developing a vineyard on your property. What are your plans?
CC: We have cleared 15 acres very thoughtfully and carefully, working around every native hardwood tree. We dealt with the slash—all the brush, small fir trees and invasive scotch broom we took out—in a way that had never been done before. Called biochar, it was a huge and exciting project that is really important environmentally. There’s more on that on our website. If all goes well, planting will happen this year.
KM: Two working residents of the farm are Hummer and Houston, your draft horses. I understand you enter competitions with them. Can you tell us about that?
CC: My boys are the best! My journey with horses has been a long one that started when I was 8 years old and cleaning stalls for a chance to ride at a barn down the road where I lived back east. I’ve driven horses all my life, from a little burro I drove in a little cart as a girl, to carriages in Philadelphia. When the dream of our farm started to come to life, so did the dream of being able to work with draft horses. Fourteen years in, I’ve got a few broken bones and some good stories. I’ve learned a lot from my mentors and the horses. I have had the honor to walk with a lot of teams of horses behind plows, harrows, cultivators, manure spreaders, you name it. I’ve driven them in competitions as well as in my own farm fields, and those of my mentors and friends. Hummer and Huston have been on this adventure with me and have taught me so much!
KM: Who were some of your mentors or inspirations?
CC: My mother. She is one of the most joyful generous people you would ever meet. I really admire Eugenia Keegan and Mike Etzel for their grace and honesty. [See our past People to Know interviews with Eugenia and Mike.]
KM: I’m sure there are no typical days, but describe what a day during your busy season might look like.
CC: Chores first. Every day starts with feeding the animals—that’s my church. Every morning Brian and I walk up our hill and then walk back down together and talk. It takes about 45 minutes and starts our day on the same page—it’s our glue. The rest of the day might include farm work or hosting customers, unless it’s a studio day when I don’t see anyone, just focus on art. Then there’s email—there’s always email! A day in July might include some or all of the following: filling water buckets, picking up manure, weed wacking, hosting a wine tasting, reviewing inventory spreadsheets, checking on my bees, collecting eggs, riding my horse, and enjoying a glass of wine while taking in the long, beautiful, summer evenings that we love here at the farm.
KM: What is your most memorable wine tasting experience?
CC: At IPNC (International Pinot Noir Celebration), I got to taste pinots from four different producers, each pouring the same vintage, with the same basic wine-making but from young and old vines side by side. It was illuminating!!
KM: Tell us something most people would be surprised to learn about you?
CC: After I fell off my horse and broke both my arms 14 years ago, Brian suggested I consider trying martial arts to learn how to fall better. I have been practicing ever since, and now have a third-degree Black Belt in Shaolin Kempo Karate.