Grades & Grapes
January 27, 2015
- Robert M Reynolds
Andrew Beckham B.A. ’98, M.A.T. ’01 balances teaching with winemaking.
The vessels stand a little under four feet tall, measure some 20 inches in diameter, and vary in shade from brick orange to burnt sienna. They are heavy and functional, but they are also beautiful. Some follow the slender, conical lines of classical amphorae; others are more bulbous, like inverted teardrops, inspired by the kvevri that have been used in the country of Georgia for millennia. Most hold 60 to 90 gallons of wine, some as much as 200.
The amphorae are the creation of Andrew Beckham B.A. ’98, M.A.T. ’01, a powerfully built, effusive potter whose casual demeanor belies a fierce work ethic. Beckham makes the pinot noir inside the vessels too, from grapes that he and his wife, Annedria, grow at their property in the Chehalem Mountains, southwest of Portland.
For each vessel, Beckham requires 300 pounds of clay. He tackles the project in sections, building the amphorae 6 inches at a time, coiling and lifting the clay in stages on a heavy-duty pottery wheel until the amphora emerges. Each vessel takes roughly two weeks to shape, a month to dry, and 40 hours to fire in a custom-built kiln.
Beckham’s terra-cotta amphorae have drawn coverage from the likes of Forbes, Wine & Spirits, Wines & Vines, and the Oregonian, but they—and indeed the entire winemaking endeavor—are largely a side project. His true calling is teaching ceramics full time to 400 students each year at Beaverton High School.
“I’m a really busy person when I’m in production mode,” Beckham says. During the harvest season, he starts his day at the winery as early as 3:30 a.m., teaches for eight hours, and then returns to winemaking until late at night. Once the wine is finished, he spends his mornings and evenings in the studio, building the amphorae. His summers are devoted to viticulture.
But as busy as his life has become, Beckham remains dedicated to teaching. “I love sharing my passion,” he says. “All I need to do is hook one or two kids a year, and I am content. I feel like I’ve made an impact.”
Beckham’s path to teaching was an indirect one. He says he struggled in high school. “Ceramics and band were the two courses that got me through,” he says. “I was a student who needed a lot of activity during the day. I needed to be producing a product… something tangible.”
Beckham continued to study ceramics at Lewis & Clark, where he completed a double major in studio art and history. (His father, Stephen Dow Beckham, Pamplin Professor Emeritus of History, was his advisor.) After college, he moved to Park City, Utah, to ski and make art. After teaching a weekend workshop on pottery for the Kimball Art Center, he got the teaching bug. “I discovered that I love sharing my passion with other people,” he says.
After working five years as a studio manager and ceramics teacher at the center, he returned to Lewis & Clark in 2000 to earn his M.A.T. He began teaching art at Beaverton High School the following year and soon transitioned to teaching ceramics full time.
Beckham says he likes teaching ceramics because it “levels and equalizes things.”
“The kid who’s never experienced any success can sit down next to the student who’s always found school easy and outshine him,” he says.
Michael Daellenbach, a junior at Lewis & Clark who took classes from Beckham at Beaverton High School, says Beckham is skilled at adapting to students’ needs.
“I heard a lot of people in my ceramics class say, ‘I would drop out of school, but this class means a lot to me, so I’m staying,’” Daellenbach says. “He’s really good at meeting people where they are.”
Making wine in amphorae turned out to be a natural progression from Beckham’s art. Since his first experience with ceramics in high school, he has been fascinated with large forms. At Lewis & Clark, he could fill a kiln with just a few of his large vessels, much to the annoyance of his instructor, Associate Professor of Art Ted Vogel.
“Ted would look at me and say, ‘Andrew, why in the world are you making these gigantic vessels?’” Beckham says.
He continued to scale up his work until 2004, when he and Annedria bought their hilltop property and started planting grapes. “I just stopped doing ceramics,” he says. “I lost my focus. I really had to spend my energy farming and planting in order to make wine.” The couple’s hard work paid off, and five years later, in 2009, they launched Beckham Estate Vineyard.
Beckham’s ceramics work stayed on hold until 2012, when Annedria showed him an article about Italian winemaker Elisabetta Foradori, who ferments and ages wines in clay. “I looked at pictures of her amphorae and I said, ‘Shoot, I could make those,’” Beckham says.
After trying his hand at throwing a pair of large, heavy amphorae, Beckham worked with a chemist to develop a strong, food-safe terra-cotta formula.
Initially, the clay was too basic and pulled all the acidity from the wine. As he moved forward, Beckham neutralized the pH by washing the amphorae in an acid solution and went on making more and larger vessels. He is now aging his second vintage of terracotta-fermented wine and is enjoying the results.
Beckham plans to keep producing the terra-cotta vessels—mostly for his own use for now, though winemakers are clamoring to buy them—but he doesn’t see himself leaving the classroom anytime soon.
“Economically, teaching doesn’t pencil out as well as this might, if we were completely focused on amphorae production,” he says. “But I can’t give up teaching. I love it.”
Ben Waterhouse B.A. ’06 is a freelance writer and editor and communications coordinator for Oregon Humanities. He lives in Portland.