Oregon lost one of its pioneers when C. Calvert (Cal) Knudsen died of cancer at his Palm Springs home on April 24. He was 85. Knudsen planted the first large-scale Pinot Noir vineyard in Oregon, and he was chairman of Argyle Winery from 1990 to 2007.
A successful attorney before entering the wine business, Knudsen was an executive in the forestry industry before joining up with Dick Erath in 1972 to start the Knudsen Erath winery. The two were among a small group of Pinot Noir-obsessed vintners who believed Oregon was the place for their beloved grape, ignoring warnings from experts that it was too cold and rainy there.
Knudsen had bought a 200-acre property in the Dundee Hills in 1971 and started planting Pinot Noir and Chardonnay on 125 acres. Erath built a home and winery next to the vines.
"He was the first to invest real capital in Oregon," said Rollin Soles, Argyle's winemaker and general manager. "Everybody in Oregon in the 1970s was planting five acres here or two acres there. He bought a 200-acre property and started banging out 20, 30, 40 acres a year." Knudsen retained his vineyards when the partnership split up in 1987. (Erath is now owned by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.)
"It was a huge passion, but we never lived on the property," said daughter Page Knudsen Cowles, who inherits the vineyard along with her three brothers, Cal Jr., Colin and David. "Dick made the wine at Erath and Rollin makes the wine at Argyle. I think Dad gravitated to Argyle because his vision from the beginning was to make sparkling wine, and Dick didn't [want to]."
She added, "Dad was very proud of his association with Dick. He appreciated how good a winemaker he was."
Knudsen led a group of investors that bought into Argyle, bringing cash, business acumen and a perfectly situated vineyard to the partnership. "Argyle would not be what it is today without him," said Soles.
About 40 percent of Argyle's production comes from Knudsen's vineyard, according to Soles, and he credits the ex-CEO's "steady hand on the tiller" as Knudsen presided over Argyle's rise to prominence. When Knudsen approached Argyle after the breakup with Erath, it was still a struggling venture, started by Australian winemaker Brian Croser and his protégé Soles. He continued as chairman even after Lion Nathan acquired the winery when it bought Croser's publicly traded, Australia-based Petaluma wine company in 2002. Knudsen retired in 2007 as his illness progressed.
Soles added, "He's still my spiritual chairman."