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Great Northwest Wine: Oregon vintner Stoller rescues museum and waterpark

By Eric Degerman Great Northwest Wine

DAYTON, Oregon – It might seem as though Bill Stoller wears a big “S” on his chest much of the time, but the Oregon vintner prefers to take more of a Clark Kent role.

That became more difficult this spring. On April 14, Stoller officially took on a Superman persona in Yamhill County and the city of McMinnville when he purchased 285 acres surrounding the Evergreen International Aviation and Space Museum – home of the iconic Spruce Goose airplane – and the Wings & Waves Waterpark.

“It was the worst-kept secret in the county,” said Wayne Marschall, president and CFO of Stoller Group, which oversees Bill Stoller’s companies, including Stoller Family Estate. “He didn’t want his name out there that he was working on this, but it had leaked out over the course of several months.”

Terms were not disclosed, but the news was welcome after the museum and adjacent waterpark survived four bankruptcies in the past five years. Everyone involved can thank Stoller, who graduated in 1969 from nearby Dayton High School and is now the museum’s landlord.

“Bill is a 200-year vision guy,” Marschall said. “He wants it to continue with the vision that Del Smith had when he started it.”

Smith, who opened the museum in 1991, died in 2014 at age 84, but the founder of Evergreen International Aviation in McMinnville left a trail of bankruptcy for his museum. The recent acquisition provides good news for a community and industry hit hard by the economic downturn surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic.

The tasting room has been closed since March 16, but not even the culinary director at Stoller Family Estate has been furloughed as staffing remains at 100%, said Gary Mortensen, president of Stoller Wine Group, which spans four brands with a total production of about 120,000 cases.

“That says a lot about Bill Stoller and his philosophy,” Mortensen said.

The economic engine that sparked Stoller’s success is his Express Employment Professionals, the second-largest privately held staffing company in the world with more than 800 offices in three countries, including one in Spokane.

His life’s work to help thousands of people find a job has allowed him to transform the turkey farm he grew up on into one of the West Coast’s top wineries, renovate the fieldhouses at both colleges he played basketball for – Lower Columbia College in Longview and Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon – and breathe more life into historic downtown Dayton.

“The goal is to continue to build out Dayton Square in a way that’s very much representative of what’s happened with the downtown square in Sonoma, a mix of retail, restaurants and a hotel site,” Marschall said. “It’s a vision that he’s had for some time, and while it’s a business opportunity, it’s very much philanthropic, akin to the Evergreen Aviation and Space Museum.”

Providing a spark to the concept was Marschall, a board member of the museum since 2014. That was 15 years after one of the most famous airplanes in the world, designed by Howard Hughes and Henry J. Kaiser, arrived in Oregon wine country.

“I first saw the Spruce Goose in Long Beach in the 1980s when I was living in California,” Marschall said. “Once I saw it again here, I was hooked along with the other aircraft like the SR-71 Blackbird that also pull you in, especially if you are an aviation buff and history buff.”

This year, the pandemic prompted the museum to cancel Sip McMinnville, a festival for wine lovers that takes over the space museum and raises funds for St. James School in McMinnville.

“That’s a significant moneymaker for the museum,” Marschall said. “It’s well-attended and a very high-profile event, so it was a significant loss to the community.”

Meanwhile, Stoller will be making upgrades to the popular waterpark, and Marschall said Stoller plans to explore bringing additional family-friendly lodging near the Evergreen complex.

“There was a lapse of local ownership after Del died,” Marschall said. “These were people who were not wed to the county or the community, but now there’s a resurgence of interest.”

Stoller wine has been helping to raise funds for the museum for years. There’s a special Spruce Goose Pinot Noir, made at Stoller, which is sold at the museum for $30 and helps support its programs.

Mortensen and his team look forward to building upon the natural synergy that will develop along the 10-minute drive between the museum, the waterpark, downtown Dayton and the Stoller Family Estate tasting room that has received USA Today 10Best Readers’ Choice Awards for the past two years.

“The museum draws 125,000 to 150,000 people a year,” Mortensen said. “That’s a pretty compelling figure, and it means a lot of local jobs. Now there’s a huge potential for marketing the museum, creating more corporate stakeholders and education-based partnerships engaging K-12 and the college systems. There’s so much potential.”

And Stoller’s winemaking team, led by Melissa Burr, also stands to benefit from the transaction because it included a decade-old pinot noir vineyard near the waterpark.

Here are three wines produced by Stoller Wine Group that our panels have tasted in recent months.

Stoller Family Estate 2018 Chardonnay, Dundee Hills, $28: Burr, Ben Howe and Kate Payne-Brown get to pick from the largest chardonnay vineyard in Oregon’s Dundee Hills for this unoaked example that’s beautifully lemony and offers complexity.

Inviting aromas of Sprite, powdered sugar and fresh-cut celery lead to delicious flavors of papaya, pineapple and Granny Smith apple with a finish of dried apricots. Its chablis-like finish with lingering acidity makes it ideal for the dining table.

Chehalem Winery 2017 Pinot Noir, Chehalem Mountains, $30: This wine hadn’t been in barrel long when Katie Santora moved into the lead winemaking role after Stoller took over full ownership from Chehalem founder Harry Peterson-Nedry.

Santora’s flagship bottling of pinot noir remains all estate with Wind Ridge and Ridgecrest taking the lead and joining for a bright purple fruit theme from start to finish. Aromas and flavors of blueberry, plum and pomegranate are joined by chai spices backed by Bing cherry juice and a nibble of Western serviceberry.

Canned Oregon NV Pink Bubbles, Oregon $6: Stoller’s canned wine project combined the thirst for sparkling wines and rosé to create Pink Bubbles. The gorgeous light pink color sets the stage for a stunning sparkling rosé made with pinot noir, pinot gris and a splash of riesling.

It’s no blush, and the mousse nicely brings the aromas of strawberry-rhubarb pie and Hermiston watermelon to life in the mouth. There is a lovely creaminess to the mouth feel backed by a bone-dry finish that’s akin to pink strawberry and red currant.

Eric Degerman and Andy Perdue operate Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at

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