After a drastic change in career, Michael Claypool decided to go from digital developer to urban winemaker. And his winery, Clay Pigeon, is anything but abstract. With a location on Southeast Oak and Sandy, you might accidentally miss the somewhat clandestine-felt warehouse – accommodating not only Michael’s barrels but his wife and business ally, Sasha Davies’, cheese-centric restaurant, Cyril’s.
Upon completing the prestigious Wine & Spirit Education Trust training in New York, Michael and Sasha moved westward to pursue a life of wine and cheese (a seemingly too-good-to-be-true kind of pairing). Since its opening in 2011, Clay Pigeon has developed a welcoming rapport with Portland through their wine and cheese clubs and bottle barter system with brewer comrades Basecamp.
What prompted this new chapter in your life?
It kind of started back when Sasha had a career change when we were living back in New York. She had been doing product management in investment banking, but decided she didn’t want to do that anymore and began to figuring out what was next. When she decided and found an internship in cheese, I decided to do whatever I’ve always been interested in – wine.
So I started to take classes more professionally. I studied in New York with a group called WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust). If someone says they are a master of wine, they’ve gone through WSET. I took classes with them, but to continue building knowledge I also took a position at a wine shop in the East Village. That led me to the opportunity to be a sommelier at a high-end restaurant, which then lead to the chance to make wine out in Sonoma.
Why did you decide winemaker over viticulturist?
I really liked the winemaking side. It was kind of a nice mix of art and science, and there’s also a tangible thing you’re making. All my life I had worked in digital strategy and web development. Those are very abstract things you’re dealing with. So I liked the idea of the make side.
I had heard from another winemaker when I was first getting into wine, you can make wine in jugs but at a certain point that’s not going to help you become a real winemaker. You have to make at least a barrel. So we moved out here to Portland, and once we found our house the first thing I did was buy a thousand pounds of grapes. We hand-crushed and de-stemmed in the garage and made a barrel. We pressed and aged it as well, and we did that for a couple of years. In Oregon, you can actually get a license to make wine out of your garage. So that’s exactly what we did.
We went from the seventy cases (three barrels) that we did in our garage, to five hundred cases the next year when we found what is now Clay Pigeon Winery.
Have you always enjoyed that kind of hands-on work?
I’m not much of a tinkerer but my college degree is in performance studies, which is performance of everything but plays. I was basically an actor, director – so from that standpoint, sure, creative process is very key. But I never fixed cars or motorcycles or anything like that when I was younger. I’ve just always been involved in things that are more cerebral.
How have you and your wife found partnership together in your new careers?
In 2006 we took four months and drove around the United States interviewing cheesemakers and did a podcast. So we visited thirty-five or forty cheese makers around the country. Spent a couple days on the farm/would work with them. I would mic them up and auto-record and take photos, and we would post about it. Then she wound up using it as a foundation for her book. She’s now written two books on cheese.
What pushed you and your wife to start your own restaurant and winery?
It was naivety. They are pretty nutty businesses, but in some ways a restaurant is like theater every night. It’s kind of this show that goes on. I remember Gabe Rucker from Le Pigeon said this once, “The bar is the best seat. It used to be that you would go to dinner and a show. But now dinner is the show”. I truly believe that. People look for that kind of theater when they go to dinner now. We always joke that every night you’re throwing a party but you don’t know who’s going to show up. That can be unnerving and annoying, and other times it’s fun. So I think there’s definitely a performative aspect of that.
Even in winemaking, it’s that process. Asking yourself, wait – how did I do that again? You only get one chance, and if you do it wrong you’re screwed. Wine is a high wire act. You can always adjust and play around, but there’s really about two months when it’s really on. You hope that ninety percent of the decisions are made and that they’re the right ones. Often you won’t know for quite a few months after.
What tastes do you like in your wines?
I like wines where the primary fruit and the secondary flavor are crossing. So it has that fruit taste, but it’s not the main thing. It’s not bursting with fruit. Underneath you can still get things like cedar. With our Syrah, I want a little bit of that funk and earth with the blueberry and blackberry. I want the Pinot to have a bit more mushrooms and earth notes – it kind of sounds a little weird, but, dead. It allows things like mushrooms and broths to come through. It becomes really difficult to pair when that fruity flavor becomes too big.
What’s a creative way you engage yourself within the community?
Cheese Club and a Wine Flight Club – once a month we basically do a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) event. What we do for Cheese Club is initiate on a crowdfunding site, and get people to buy in for a pound of cheese and then come to the party. So it’s a way to sell off a fresh wheel. You can decide to come and pick up your cheese, or you can come to the party that’s held in accordance with the buy-in and even bring a guest. So a lot of people will come in and get to try it with a beer and wine pairing. Then, we cook with it. Afterwards you get to leave with your pound. It’s a fun little thing we do every month, and it’s given us the chance to get to know people like Ward Cunningham. He and his wife will come in for these events every month.
We found when we moved here that people don’t really like “classes”, those weren’t really selling. But once we started calling it a pick-up party it worked. We’ve been doing it for about three years, and it works every time. It’s kind of like a sweet little club. We even vote on the next cheese we’re going to do as a collective.
How have you been collaborating in the community?
We’ve been talking with our friends at Biwa to maybe every Thursday we could have a kitchen take over during the summer, where they would be the featured guest and cook for people on the patio. It would be a chance for everyone to be together. I like finding ways to have businesses complement each other. For us, it’s just about finding people with the right vibe. Do they kind of get what’s going on? Is it complimentary? It has to feel genuine.
Who is your support-system?
We’re a part of the PDX Urban Wineries group. There are twelve urban wineries that are a part of the group. We get together and share and taste and talk openly about our wines, our processes. I joined them as soon as we were moving into this space. It just made total sense. Now I have a community that I can call on, even if it’s just more one-on-one. I think one of the biggest things for us was coming new to the city.
I think outside of that community, I definitely rely on my wife. Her pallet is really honed and I turn to her when I need honest feedback on something. She will pick up things my pallet doesn’t. So it’s really good to have that honest observation.
How do you feel Portland has received Clay Pigeon?
I think majority of the people are very excited. Portland is very unique, even more than other cities, in that they kind of want to understand what you do and how you do it. Not just be presented with the façade of a maker culture. They want authentication. People really love having access to their brewers, winemakers, coffee people…we offer that kind of relationship here. I think even west coast cities more so than east coast cities have the need to be more in tune with that. So I feel that this works really well with the other maker cultures people have embraced here.
What does it mean to you, to be a Portland Creative?
Portland is unique in its approach and breadth of this culture. You know when we first opened up, people used to say that we must be experts in wine and cheese coming from New York. In the end, we’re really just big enthusiasts. We’re just really excited to share and get people about it, in a facilitator way with Cheese Club and Wine Flight Club. We like doing those kinds of things to get people excited and together. In some ways it’s much more to a point to get people around a table. Communing. Sharing.
I think like any place it can just take time to build the community aspect. We were two New Yorkers that decided to open to their own place – it might not go over well. I think on the whole, people were a little cautious. But now we’re building with the community. You just have to be consistent. From the producers we now know, and the other wineries, and even brewers, we’re now growing with Portland. I just want the group together, chatting, helping each other when you need it. Keep your head down. Do good stuff. And let people find you.
Join the Clay Pigeon conversation, drink and visit the winery here!