When Life Hands You Grapes: How Time Off for the Worst Reason Led to New Life

On the fourth day of our road trip, I found my happy place. I didn’t know I was looking for it, but there it was, perched atop a hill in the Willamette Valley.

At the stellar recommendation of the Eyrie tasting room (the people who also recommended the best lunch place on our trip in Valley Commissary), Cait and I ventured to Brooks Winery. There we were treated to perfect weather, stunning views, Oregon’s famed pinot noirs, and the winery’s signature “Pizza Fridays” that draws a crowd of hungry winos. I should mention that the views alone earned the “happy place” qualification, since as the pregnant designated driver, I wasn’t able to partake in all the day’s offerings. I was however able to snack on the strawberries (with permission!) right out of the Brooks gardens.

All that would have been enough for a fantastic afternoon, but our waitress treated us to a story that proved what makes Brooks special goes far beyond what you can see.

Founder and winemaker Jimi Brooks started Brooks in 1997. After graduating college, he grabbed a small backpack and headed for the Beaujolais region of France where he worked for the Deschamps family making wine. In that job, he found his passion and returned the U.S. and eventually started his own label, making Rieslings and Pinot Noirs, which the Brooks label produces to this day.

In 2004, Jimi Brooks died unexpectedly of a heart attack at age 38. The winery and vineyards would all go to his son, Pascal. There was only one problem. Pascal was just eight-years-old. Jimi’s sister Janie, who was working in the healthcare industry, came up from San Francisco to help settle his affairs. She had no intention of keeping the Brooks label operational, until she walked into Jimi’s house and found 11 of his winemaker friends sitting in his living room.

Jimi passed away just weeks before harvest time. The 11 winemakers wanted to honor him by seeing through the harvest and completing his final vintage. It was during that process that Janie fell in love with winemaking and volunteered to manage Brooks until her nephew was old enough to take it over or make a decision about what he wanted.

The time Janie took off from her life in San Francisco may not have been planned and was initiated by the worst circumstances there are, but in that process, she discovered a new passion and a new mission that has led her life and Pascal’s forward in a way that honors her brother’s legacy.

More than a decade later, Brooks is thriving. Janie has grown the label by 400% and a brand-new winery opened last fall (where we visited). At 18, Pascal is now figuring out his own path, a path that may very well lead him back to the Willamette Valley. In his most recent contribution on the Brooks website, he wrote of his father, “He left us this, and in his absence it’s grown to reflect not only him, but also all of us in one way or another.”

From Brooks, we made the short 25-minute drive to the brand-new Best Western Boulder Falls Inn, one of the nicest hotels we’ve ever stayed in. As we sat on the back patio overlooking the koi pond, we had a chance to reflect on our day at a beautiful winery with a beautiful story. In just an afternoon, we felt as if we were part of the Brooks family. If you get the opportunity to visit, I highly recommend that you do. They offer far more there than an excellent flight of wine.

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