EIEIO & Co. is a one-man operation with wines so good and scarce, people are reluctant to tip their friends to them. Jay McDonald is the one man and his wines are worth the extra effort needed to track down.
History: McDonald moved from New York City to Carlton, Oregon in 1993. Burned out on a high-powered job that involved what McDonald cryptically describes as “structuring financial obligations,” the wine world looked peaceful and inviting.
In 1995 McDonald opened a retail wine store inside the old Carlton State & Savings Bank. While he sold other people’s wines, McDonald worked on learning how to make his own. In 2003 EIEIO & Co. was founded as a bonded winery. McDonald’s early wines were made as a negociant, with the assistance of other winemakers.
McDonald made his first wines without assistance in 2007. They garnered attention for their Cuvee “E,” “I,” and “O” names. “The letters stood for everyday, in-between and over-priced,” McDonald said.
What is EIEIO & Co. best known for?: Pinot noir and chardonnay made from grape clusters and nothing else. McDonald’s attention to detail is legendary, as noted by the “Everything is Important” sign on his winery wall.
Biggest failure or success: “Spending three years trying to nationally distribute Oregon wines was a huge mistake. The company was called Pinot Only, and I represented a bunch of Oregon producers. It was impossible,” McDonald said.
What you don’t know: McDonald made wines under two different label names, Bourgeois and Herschel, before settling on EIEIO & Co. The Herschel pinot noir featured perhaps the world’s first and last all-brown label. His family’s suggestion to go with EIEIO was a good one.
If you visit McDonald’s farm, you are likely to encounter a plethora of orange-bellied newts. Or is it a congress? The jury is out on what to call a mess of newts.
Biggest “inspiration”: “Having an expense account in New York City in the 1980s taught me more about wine and its inspiring qualities than anything else,” McDonald said.
Innovation: The secret to the 2019 EIEIO & Co. “X” Chardonnay, besides excellent fruit, is McDonald’s use of special cigar-shaped wine barrels made in France.
While the oak wine barrels you see across the Willamette Valley typically hold 225-228 liters, the elongated cigar barrels used by McDonald for the “X” hold 300 liters. The longer, narrower oak barrels were designed to maximize contact between the wine and deposits of dead yeast cells and other particulate matter known as lees.
According to McDonald, the extra lees contact gives the “X” added weight and complexity. I tasted the 2019 vintage the other night, and it is worth every penny of its $75 price tag. It is definitely a wine built to age.
Key insight: McDonald thinks Willamette Valley chardonnay is as good as any on the planet. His assessment includes Burgundy, where it should be noted that chardonnay purchases can require a payday loan.
A “must try” current release: The 2018 EIEIO Cuvee E Pinot Noir is a powerhouse of fruit and structure that over-delivers for $45 a bottle.
“It makes a big impact, but it is totally in balance. This wine will probably last for 30 years,” McDonald said.
Where to buy: McDonald makes 2,200-2,500 cases each year that he sells in Oregon, California, Iowa, Colorado, Arkansas and Texas. A good portion of McDonald’s business involves direct-to-consumer sales. “I ship my wines wherever it is legal,” McDonald said.
Whether it is the wine, the winery name, or some combination thereof, it should be noted that EIEIO wines have a fanatical following in Iowa.
If you want to buy EIEIO wines in Oregon, your best bets are Tabula Rasa and Park & Main in Carlton. Two of McDonald’s best retail accounts nationally are Vintage Wine Merchants in San Jose, California, and The Austin Wine Merchant in Austin, Texas.
You will not find EIEIO wines in any grocery stores unless you are in Iowa City, Iowa. That’s where you will find McDonald’s wines at the wildly popular Bread Garden Market.
If you have travel plans, McDonald has wines placed in numerous restaurants around the country. His favorite restaurant and wine bar partners include Barley Swine and Odd Duck in Austin, Texas, Backstreet Cafe in Houston, Texas and Vintage Wine Bar in San Jose, California.
If your travel plans include Japan, EIEIO wines are served by the glass and bottle at the jet-setting Tokyo American Club.