Melissa Burr is Vice President of Winemaking for Stoller Family Estate. Raised in the Willamette Valley, she intended to practice naturopathic medicine before discovering her true passion was in wine. Following her completion of Chemeketa Community College’s Vineyard and Winery Management program and Oregon State’s Fermentation Science program, Burr interned for Cooper Mountain Vineyards where she eventually became production manager. Melissa joined Stoller Family Estate in 2003, as the winery’s first dedicated winemaker. Promoted to VP of Winemaking in 2018, she now oversees two winemaking teams—one at each of two production facilities on the estate—focuses on blends, and supports marketing efforts.
Karen MacNeil: You were set to attend graduate school for naturopathic medicine. What made you decide to switch to winemaking? Does that original interest inform your approach to viticulture and winemaking?
Melissa Burr: I started to take notice of wine during my pre-med studies and, after some soul searching, decided to take a break from school instead of jumping into the naturopathic grad program. I took a job as an intern at Cooper Mountain vineyards, and never turned back.
KM: What do you believe makes Oregon so special?
MB: Oregon is still a pioneering spirited state. Most people who made the trek here from the east coast went south, the brave and curious went north. The same trail, in essence, happened with wine grapes. The brave and curious came and planted grapes. The land is special with our prime hillside soil types for quality grapes. Our specific cool climate areas fit the needs of many varietals that would not flourish elsewhere. And the state itself has amazing diversity between the ocean, the mountains, the desert, the lakes and rivers and the forests.
KM: I understand that soon after accepting the winemaker position at Stoller, you discovered you were pregnant. When you finished celebrating, how did you manage these simultaneously steep learning curves?
MB: I have a very supportive family, an amazingly patient and helpful husband, a great boss and team of co-workers, and I drank a lot of wine (and still do). I honestly kind of miss the big challenge of it all and am always looking for the next one.
“Oregon is still a pioneering spirited state… The brave and curious came and planted grapes.”
KM: Today, Stoller has 225 acres planted and every wine you produce comes from that vineyard. Why is it important to grow all your own grapes?
MB: To ensure quality, understanding the vineyard, and have control.
KM: Have you experienced what you’d call sexism in the industry?
MB: Sure, I have, but nothing extreme. Lots of “where is the winemaker” questions and some “you’re not an old Italian man” jokes. I have had a very supportive person in Bill Stoller the whole time who trusted in me and supported me professionally and with my family work life balance. I am extremely grateful for that.
KM: Did you have a mentor? Tell us about her/him.
MB: I have many in the industry who I have learned from and continue to learn from. Above all, my mom is my biggest mentor as she has shown me invaluable life skills and continues to do so.
KM: You are considered an ambassador for Willamette Valley wine, yet in 2014, you launched the History wine brand, a limited series of wines produced from the oldest plantings in Washington State. What drew you to that project?
MB: My time in the industry along with My mother-in-law purchased a property in the Columbia gorge with vines planted in the late 60’s lead to starting the brand. I had wanted to work with her site for many years while at Stoller, and I finally got to in 2013. I was intrigued by the age of her vines, as well as the history of the Pacific Coast North West wine industry, so I combined the two into the brand. The rest is History
KM: What other wine regions around the world inspire you?
MB: Burgundy with their tradition and experience. South Africa with the history, passion, amazing (and hard to get here) wines and natural beauty. Priorat for the intensity of wines grown in intense environments. Alsace for its wine texture, expression and charming setting. I could go on a long time. It seems some of the most interesting places in the world are also wine regions. I have my eyes on Croatia currently for a visit.
KM: Other than wine, what is your favorite beverage?
MB: Coffee. Coffee hands the baton to wine on a daily basis as part of my consistent routine.