The Big Crush

Meet the Oregon Woman Who Makes the Wines for Costco

Viticulturist Sarah Cabot makes more than a million bottles a year.

By Natasha Tandler October 17, 2018 Published in the November 2018 issue of Portland Monthly

Sarah Cabot at her Dundee wine operation

Can you ever make too much wine?

Sarah Cabot—a sommelier turned winemaker—wants to find out. After spending seven years working at high-end, small-batch vineyards in the Willamette Valley, Cabot jumped into large-scale production in 2014 when she took a job at Precept Wine, the largest privately owned wine company in the Northwest. Today she is responsible for one of Oregon’s highest annual wine productions, cranking out at least 1.2 million bottles a year for Costco, Whole Foods, and the restaurant group Landry’s—retailers that move a lot of wine.

Yet, for all those bottles, Cabot hasn’t partaken in the fruits of her labor—or consumed any alcohol at all, for that matter—since February 23, 2016.

“I wound up in this dark little place [where] everything had to be perfect all the time. I worked three 24s during harvest of 2014,” says Cabot, referring to round-the-clock shifts. “The only way that I knew how to unwind from all that stress was just drinking.”

After almost two years of excessive imbibing—to the point where Cabot claims it “almost” affected her work—she admitted herself for treatment. But the thought of a new profession never occured to her. “So much of what I love about winemaking isn’t about alcohol,” she says. “It’s this combination of practical labor; botanical, chemical, and biological knowledge; artistry, preference, and craft.”

Cabot says her sobriety has made her a better viticulturist, noting that her palate is “much sharper” when she samples wine (and then spits it out). Feeling confident as a winemaker is more important now than ever, as Cabot has found that producing $15 bottles of Kirkland Willamette Valley pinot noir for Costco is more challenging than crafting a 90-point single-vineyard pinot noir for $59.

“When you are buying four tons here and five tons there from these beautiful, hand-farmed, low-yield vineyards and you can baby them all day long, that’s easy, honestly,” she explains. “To do all of that stuff but at a much larger scale with a much quicker time frame, it’s much more difficult to have your final product be delicious.”

Her operation requires up to 26,400 tons of grapes to mass-produce more than 100,000 cases of wine annually. For each batch of pinot, Cabot and her team use a hydraulic crane to tip three eight-ton tubs of machine-harvested fruit—sourced from 17 Oregon vineyards—into a slow-moving auger. After a quick trip through the processing line, the grapes are eventually sent to one of Cabot’s 7,000- or 4,000-gallon fermentation tanks in Dundee, where she has 27 tanks in total. She also uses 25,000 gallons of bulk wine for blending. In a typical season, Cabot is producing 24 different wines in 80 batches.

In her free time, Cabot plans to try out for the Shockwave, a full-contact women’s football team, and she still keeps up with “geeky” small bottling projects on the side—like aging skin-contact Hood River pinot gris in an Italian clay amphora or making carbonic pinot noir. Now, when will that get to Costco?

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