When Family Wineries Pass Beyond the Founding Generation


As seen through the lens of Don and Jesse Lange

Owners of small, family wineries face a never-ending parade of challenges. Along with the financial strains that plague most small businesses, wineries must deal with climate change, unfriendly weather events, rising labor costs, increasing competition and massive generational changes in recreational consumption. But even those small wineries with enough grit and talent to come through all of it in pretty good financial shape eventually end up slamming into the question of succession.

Here in the Pacific Northwest the first wave of winery pioneers began aging out two decades ago, and the trend continues to gain momentum. Although I do not have hard data, I am sure that the number of wineries that pass on successfully to a second or third generation while remaining under family ownership is pathetically small.

Many more wineries simply go out of business. Some are purchased by outside investors. Some are gobbled up by mega-corporations and left to slowly wither away. Some winery founders lack heirs, or the heirs lack interest, or there are so many heirs that the asset must be divvied up (hence sold).

Our tax laws do not have the kind of options that favor intra-family transitions as they do in much of Europe. The hard truth is that the European model of family-owned properties that in some instances continue for centuries is all but untenable here in the U.S.

For me it means that those few founding wineries that manage to make succession work are not only rare but in some sense critical to building a regional winemaking history. It’s not all that uncommon for a winery to be sold and have the new owners keep the brand name, without any connection to the person or persons whose name it is. And I’m not saying that that’s a negative. But I am saying that keeping the name that’s on the bottles under the ownership of a new generation is a genuine plus factor – for longevity, continuity and known history. It’s a winery’s DNA.

Last week I had the pleasure of doing a Zoom tasting with Don and Jesse Lange, whose family winery is approaching its 40 year anniversary. Don and Wendy Lange founded the winery in 1987, purchasing 30 acres in the most desirable location of the day – the Dundee Hills. They were living in Santa Barbara, and Don was looking to transition from an earlier career as a singer/songwriter (some of his more recent recordings can be streamed on your favorite platforms).

As their website recounts, “their move north was precipitated by a few inspiring bottles from two of Oregon’s most iconic producers: Eyrie and Erath. A call to Dick Erath (whose phone number was listed on the back label) convinced the Langes to embark on a scouting trip.” Once purchased, the land was quickly planted, and some of those original 1988 vines are still bearing.

“For me,” Don recalls, “it’s how the beverage resonates in your system. There’s a certain truth to this beverage; it provides profound experience for certain people.”

Jesse Lange was just 12 when the family moved. A perilous age for anyone. I asked him if he, like so many second gen winemakers I’ve known, had to work through any resistance to taking over the family business. Not at all he told me.

JL:  “I felt I had something to prove on behalf of my region and my family. That competitive challenge was instrumental in my motivation, from the time I was 12. I remember publications telling my folks you shouldn’t be making Pinot Noir here, it rains all the time. I wanted to prove people wrong and showcase what we can do here. I still have that chip – we’re making world class wines here. That’s an opportunity I was fortunate enough to be a part.”

There is much to admire about Lange wines. They’ve maintained a focus on Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay throughout the decades. They have committed to long term contracts with some of the Willamette Valley’s most desirable vineyards – Freedom Hill, Durant, Yamhill, Hirschy and their own estate. The least expensive wines are given the same care as the most expensive. A great example is the Classique Chardonnay, a sensational springtime bottle at a price well below most of the competition. The website also lists both Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir Classique bottlings (not yet tasted).

The wines reviewed below may be purchased here.

Lange 2022 Classique Chardonnay – A combination of grapes from the estate, Freedom Hill, Durant and others – 25 different lots all separately fermented. A small portion was fermented in concrete. A truly delicious, juicy, palate-cleaning style, with instantly appealing aromatics, lip-smacking acids and good concentration. The mixed tree fruits and lively citrus flavors keep it fresh throughout. I suggest a 20 minute chill in the fridge for maximum enjoyment. 645 cases; 13.2%; $25 (Willamette Valley) 92/100

Lange 2021 Three Hills Cuvée Chardonnay – This is a barrel selection, chosen to emphasize brighter acidity and minerality. “We pick on pH,” notes Jesse. “When you have that tension, acid profile, vibrancy and energy you can balance out the fruit profile.” About 30% was fermented in concrete, the balance in French oak puncheons. The style overall is full-bodied and fleshy, I suppose it’s fair to call it richer than the Classique. Pick the style you prefer – for me the sappy brightness of the Classique is the favored choice. 13.4%; $45 (Willamette Valley) 92/100

Lange 2022 Reserve Pinot Noir – Jesse calls the “the funnest Pinot Noir we get to craft. Every barrel has DNA we can track back to a specific plot of land.” Though labeled Reserve, this is not the winery’s top Pinot. What can be said is that it is a very good compilation of fruit from the estate and many of the excellent vineyards under long term contracts. A strong aromatic note carries suggestions of camphor, dried herbs and wild red berries. It gathers concentration in the back palate as it breathes. This is a firm, complete wine, not overly tannic, with excellent balance. Lithe, textured, it weaves its herb, earth, tannin, acid and berry components into a satisfying whole. 3000 cases; 13.5%; $45 (Willamette Valley) 92/100

Lange 2021 Three Hills Cuvée Pinot Noir – This cuvée, begun in 1997, features an overlay of AVAs from exceptional vineyards. “The winemaker interfering with terroir” says Don with a chuckle. Floral top notes lead into a lively, juicy young wine with fruit flavors of red berries, currants and plums. There is a foundational streak of earth and dried herb, lightly composty. As with all of Lange’s Pinots the blending decisions and overall balance are excellent. This is highly ageworthy, and will want decanting if you are opening it now. 450 cases; 13.5%; $55 (Willamette Valley) 93/100

Lange 2021 Yamhill-Carlton Assemblage Pinot Noir – This is a dark, dense, volcanic wine with a strong mineral note. Powerful and packed with black fruits, it’s accented with graphite, smoke and char. The tannins are polished with a hint of granularity. With ample airing more and more details emerge, adding texture and elegance to the wine as it unfolds. All of Lange’s Pinots showed best after being open for a full day. 450 cases; 13.5%; $80 (Willamette Valley) 94/100

Lange 2021 Lange Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir – Some of the original 1988 Pommard and Wadenswil vines are still bearing and included here, though many have been replanted. This brings a purity and focus that multi-vineyard blends cannot; both styles make sense, but they offer different strengths. Here there is a delightful verticality to the palate – firm, balanced, dense, packed with blue and black fruits and finished with ripe and polished tannins. Highlights of spice and tea, hints of underbrush, all in all a captivating wine with decades of life ahead. 450 cases; 13.5%; $80 (Dundee Hills) 95/100

Catching up…

As I’ve stated previously, it is my policy here to focus on the best wines, and especially limited production wines from small, family-owned wineries. Along with the themed profiles such as this one on Lange, I need to catch up on some highlights from other recent tastings. I’m pointing you to the wine or wines that for me stood out above the rest of any individual flight. Sometimes it’s everything (as with Mendivia), sometimes just one or two. I’m not suggesting that the other wines were bad – bad wines are truly rare these days. But wines that are just OK are not the point, so I leave those notes out. That said, if you are a winery that has sent me wines for review, whether or not those reviews are published here I will gladly send you the complete notes and scores on request.


Argyle 2022 Chardonnay – Barrel fermented, nice leesy mouthfeel, lightly spicy with clean apple and pear fruit. It’s a balanced, well-made example of middle-of-the-road Oregon Chardonnay. 5000 cases; 12.5%; $25 (Willamette Valley) 90/100

Argyle 2022 Pinot Noir – This is a big production wine sourced from Argyle’s almost 500 acres of vineyards. Very little (5%) French oak is used for this wine. It’s fresh, clean and balanced, with crisp acids and lightly ripened red fruits. 55000 cases; 13.5%; $28 (Willamette Valley) 90/100


Colin Howard is the Associate Winemaker for GC Wines in Amity. His Mendivia wines are focused on limited production Spanish grape varietal wines. I tasted and enjoyed all three of these new releases. To order them email hello@mendiviawines.com.

Mendivia 2023 Blanco – Half Albariño and half Chardonnay, this creative blend works on several levels. The Albariño (from the Oregon slice of the Columbia Valley AVA) brings sharp, edgy, lightly peppery citrus fruit; the Chardonnay (from a vineyard in the Yamhill-Carlton AVA) broadens out the mid-palate and fleshes out the finish, with white peach and crisp apple highlights. Both vineyards are recently planted and winemaker Colin Howard neatly captures the youthful jubilance that young wines can offer. 79 cases; 13.5%; $27 (Oregon) 92/100

Mendivia 2023 Oso Rosado – This is all Tempranillo from the Rock Steady vineyard on the Washington side of the Columbia Gorge AVA. Clean, unadorned and just about perfect, it tastes of strawberries and a hint of gravel, lively and utterly refreshing. 108 cases; 13.5%; $23 (Oregon) 91/100

Mendivia 2022 La Carrera Tempranillo – Sourced from the high elevation Upper Five vineyard this is a showcase for one of the emerging strengths in the Rogue Valley. Give it a slight chill to mute some of the sharpness, and enjoy the polished plum and cherry fruit. There are hints of a classic Rioja style, lacking (perhaps) only more time in big neutral casks. 50 cases; 13.5%; $35 (Rogue Valley) 90/100


Pagigan is made by and for Ashland’s 2Hawk Winery. It began as a separate designate and is now its own label.

Padigan 2022 Viognier – Fans of Viognier will want a few bottles of this new release from Padigan. A relatively late harvest gave the grapes extra hang time, the wine enhanced aromatics and the palate both density and detail. This is a tight, focused wine, packed with citrus and stone fruits, sappy acids and peppery spices. Aged on the lees in stainless steel, it was released this past November. Drink now through the rest of the decade. 131 cases; 14.1%; $26 (Rogue Valley) 91/100

Padigan 2021 Kiley’s Blend – Two thirds Syrah, 30% Grenache and a splash of Viognier are in the mix here. If any further proof that Rhône grapes have found a home in the Rogue Valley, this would make a good case for it. Sharp, spicy, tart, fruity and crystal clear, this is a wine to drink while the youth and freshness are front and center. The fruit is a showcase for berry jam, with highlights of fresh thyme. 149 cases; 14.1%; $34 (Rogue Valley) 91/100

St. Innocent

The winery sent examples of their 2019, 2020, 2021 and 2022 wines. Some are past release, some have not yet been released. Most of the 2020s have been decommissioned so to speak except for the 2020 Shea which will be offered to club members. Across the portfolio the Shea and Momtazi Pinots are the standouts in all vintages.

St. Innocent 2019 Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir – Good texture, depth and detail, as always with this biodynamic site. A clever weave of earth, herb, stem and root, it’s balanced throughout and lingers gracefully. 1248 cases; 13.5%; $55 (McMinnville) 91/100

St. Innocent 2021 Momtazi Vineyard Pinot Noir – Consistent with my notes on the 2019, this fine-textured wine is elegant and expressive. Brambly wild berries, red currants, clean earth, mixed herbs and light threads of iron, coffee and chocolate hold your interest through a lingering finish. 1071 cases; 13.5%; $60 (McMinnville) 92/100 (Proposed release date April 2025)

St. Innocent 2019 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir – This is already showing some burnished edges and the softer, lightly raised flavors of mature wine. Drinking well now, it strikes me as more elegant and lighter than most Shea designates, although the heavy tannins kick in thru the finish. The ’20 has fared better than most other ‘20s, with clear blackberry fruit and light coffee framing. 1275 cases; 13.5%; $75 (Yamhill-Carlton) 90/100 (for both vintages)

St. Innocent 2021 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir –This shows the usually muscular Shea fruit in a more elegant mode, with a jumble of blackberries, currant, pomegranate and a deep core of mocha. The wine gathers strength in the back of the palate – a good indication of future development and ageability. Nuanced notes of sassafras, sandalwood and almond pastry bring more and more depth to the finish. 1094 cases; 13.5%; $80 (Yamhill-Carlton) 92/100 (Proposed release date April 2025)


Wilridge is a well-established winery with more recently-established, biodynamically-certified vineyards in the Naches Heights AVA. There is a lot of experimentation with unusual varieties such as Zweigelt and Touriga Nacional. The Barbera and Sagrantino are standouts. The website does not yet list wines from the 2019 vintage so no prices are noted.

Wilridge 2019 Barbera – Barbera seems to do better in the Pacific Northwest than either Nebbiolo or Sangiovese, which are also given a try at various sites as far south as the Rogue Valley and as far north as here in the eastern foothills of the Cascade Mountains. This wine has medium concentration and juicy tomato, red berry and red currant fruit. Moderate acids through a mild finish. No technical information was provided. 90/100

Wilridge 2019 Sagrantino – A tannic red grape from central Italy, this should please a lot of folks who want a big, broad, chocolatey burger wine. Look no farther – the tannins are smooth and the palate supple, the cherry fruit accented with touches of milk chocolate. The wine glides through the palate with nary a misstep. No technical information was provided. 91/100

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 (davepaul5.com) Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine, paulgregutt.substack.com, and in the Waitsburg Times.


  1. Interesting article. There are many wineries in this same position. Take us for example. Linganore Winecellars was founded in 1976 by my parents and the second generation now operates it. We are transitioning to the 3rd generation now as we are looking to retire some day. It is sort of scary to know that 98% of family business around the world do not make it to third generation. Also the laws about estate transfer are not very promising for businesses of scale.


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