Portlandia's Mayor Turns to the Bottle

Kyle MacLachlan's Walla Walla winery Pursued by Bear is earning accolades from oenophiles nationwide. Here's how it came to be.

By Matthew Halverson September 26, 2014 Published in the October 2014 issue of Portland Monthly

Early in Kyle MacLachlan’s foray into winemaking, he learned an important lesson: don’t forget to spit. The Yakima native and actor—24 years ago, Twin Peaks’ Agent Dale Cooper, now Portlandia’s earnestly bumbling mayor—was testing blends for his label Pursued by Bear, a cabernet sauvignon collaboration with Walla Walla’s Dunham Cellars, when he realized he was getting tipsy. “I learned very early that you’ve gotta keep your wits about you,” he says. He’s learned a lot more in the past decade, including how to handle the respect that comes from glowing reviews in Wine Spectator. Because his is no vanity project. It’s a damn fine glass of wine.

The adage that it takes a large fortune to make a small fortune in the wine business is absolutely true. It is incredibly expensive to buy the quality of grapes that you need. Initially—and only because I knew people in Napa—I thought this was something I should or could do in Napa. But it became clear quickly that it wasn’t going to happen. The grapes themselves were outrageously expensive.

My wife said, “Why don’t you look at Washington? You’re from there. You have a story already in place.” She recognized early on that the story is a huge component. I had this idea that Washington wouldn’t be as romantic as Napa, which is quite a magical place. But I thought, “You know, we will make our own magic in Walla Walla.” 

The process in the vineyard I understand a little bit, but the aging process is so interesting. I remember tasting the 2005 for the first time after six months in barrel, and then nine months in barrel, and being very frightened about what was happening. It didn’t taste like anything that I linked to wine at all. I was like, “It’s kind of like grape juice—but not a very good-tasting grape juice.” 

I remember the first review of our vintage better than I can remember any acting review. I was at a food and wine event in Beaver Creek, Colorado. This would have been ’09. I was going through the review section of Wine Spectator and saw Pursued by Bear, but I didn’t immediately think, That’s my wine. It didn’t even seem possible to me that it would be in there. Then I saw the 91 rating. I was alone in my hotel and I just had this, I don’t know, euphoric adrenaline rush. It was kind of a blur.

I can recognize when a wine is good, but if you ask me to pick out the three or four notes that I’m getting, I would struggle. Like, I know I taste cherry and I know I taste a little lavender, but the descriptive words don’t come easily to me. I don’t know, maybe it’s the amount of coffee I drink.

I find I really enjoy the sales part of winemaking. The one-on-one is fun. And yeah, some doors have definitely been opened because people are curious to meet me, which I do use to my advantage. It provides me with an opportunity to come talk about the wine, and then when they taste it they say, “Wow, OK, so you are the real deal.”  

Something that I’m good at as an actor is coming in for a show, and once it’s over, I’m on to the next thing. But this is ongoing. When I started making wine, selling wine, promoting wine, I thought, Well, OK, if I make the wine, they will sell it at the winery, and people on the mailing list who are interested will buy it, and that will be it. It will take care of itself. And it became clear early on that that wasn’t going to happen. 

Part of my motivation was an interest in making wine, but the other thing was that it would provide a reason for me to come home more frequently and see my dad. He was getting older, and I just felt bad that I was only getting back once a year, for Thanksgiving or Christmas. With him it was all about doing things together. So whether we were tasting wine, or playing golf, or gardening together, we were always doing something. It was an activity, and then the conversation would just bubble up from there. He passed a couple years back, but to be able to share the winemaking journey with him, that was just golden.

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