Saginaw Vineyards new owners enjoy fruits of their labor

On a rainy day some years back, while driving through the I-5, Jack Tibbetts noticed the red barn sign near exit 176 and decided to stop into Saginaw Vineyard for his first complimentary wine tasting. Turning into the driveway onto 80247 Delight Valley Road, he was transported to a country landscape. The gravel road leads through a passageway of plants: grapes on the left and blueberry bushes on the right, ready to pick. At the end of the drive, Tibbetts found a majestic red barn with a sign over the doorway that simply read “Tasting Room.”

A Taste of Something New
Tibbetts began buying wine at Saginaw Vineyard two or three years before he heard through the grapevine that the property was up for sale. At the time, he was searching for a house, and the idea of having a farm intrigued him. Moving from Santa Rosa, CA, Jack and his wife, Ali, desired a more slow-paced environment where they could raise their two-year-old, Casey, in a supportive community with small-town values. 

Admittedly, the Tibbitts didn't know what the process to acquire the land and run the business would entail. Undeterred, Jack and Ali made an offer on the property, and it was accepted by its previous owners, Karen and Scott Byler (the likes of which began the Saginaw Vineyard brand in 1991). An owner with three years of winemaking experience was needed, however, so the Tibbitts tapped Ben Gilbert (who had been recommended by the Bylers) and brought him on as co-owner.

Ben Gilbert’s interest in winemaking stems from a 2017 vacation to Germany where he first had access to good wine. The memory of the getaway and growing up in a farming town motivated him to pursue a degree in Enology (the study of wines). Later, he gained practical knowledge related to working at Aurora Colony Vineyards, south of Portland. When Gilbert found Saginaw Vineyard and sampled its wine, Karen Byler made him feel at home with a meal, and before long, he was seriously discussing taking over operations at the vineyard.

In late September 2021, Gilbert and the Tibbitts family began to harvest fruit with Scott Byler leading the crew. Within three days, and with very little preparation, the combined crews representing the past and future of Saginaw Vineyard got things organized and began making wine together. The Bylers stood by their buyers with patience.

The new owners also inherited two previous employees: Kelli Apker and Dave Light, both of whom stayed on board during the transition. Scott Byler is still out on the property grounds every week, helping with irrigation, changing the carburetor of a harvester, and haying the field. The new owners were grateful for this hands-on opportunity to learn the ropes, they said.

While Jack Tibbitts is still working as executive director for St. Vincent de Paul’s, and commuting weekly from California, the day-to-day operations fall to Ali Tibbitts, who works as the vineyard’s General Manager. Saginaw Vineyard’s new team intends to keep the prize-winning wines they are known for, they said, as well as introduce new ones. One of the new grape varieties Gilbert is focusing on is Cabernet Franc. Principally grown for blending with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Cabernet Franc is a hotter plant, thriving on heat and growing well in southern Oregon latitudes. 

With climate shifting in the Willamette valley in recent years, trends and farmers are predicting dryer seasons and hotter temperatures. “Grapes are a long-term investment with four to five years before fruit can be harvested,” said Gilbert. “Cabernet Franc can also endure colder climates.”

This top-shelf product, which is now sold in smaller quantities by some winemakers, is known for its diverse aromatics and earthy characteristics.

Friday Night Live Returns
After a two-year hiatus, Saginaw Vineyard has brought back the seasonal music series Friday Night Live, which will continue through the summer. They have also scheduled monthly farmer’s markets, craft fairs, movie nights, and special member-exclusive events including catered dinners. The vineyard is also available as a venue on which to host weddings and other private parties and events. 

The new owners are appreciative of the wine club members and the supportive community that has kept their dream afloat during this transition, they shared. Gilbert and the Tibbetts are amazed that their small staff is able to run operations and are excited to be the new stewards of the property. It is a long-term investment to care for the land, but for the owners and staff, Saginaw Vineyard has yielded fruitful rewards.

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