This Portlander’s side hustle in wine making has grown into a business in its own right
“Can you do this in addition to your day job?” That’s the perennial question Tyler Magyar asks himself when deciding how many grapes to order for next year’s harvest. Magyar, owner of local natural wine producer Monument (which is rosé “Jenny” came out on top of Portland Monthly review of 10 local Oregon rosés) also works full-time as a wine buyer for international grocer Pearl District foods of the world.
In today’s market of side business, the gig economy and DIY. . . everything, wine may seem too closed an industry to introduce itself as a passion project. You need the funds—the generational wealth; wine is expensive and sophisticated, made by people in draped white linen with moccasins and perpetually wet hair, right?
“Well, I’m wearing a blue linen shirt today,” jokes Magyar.
Magyar grew up not in a Burgundy vineyard or Napa Valley estate, but on the Jersey Shore, where it seemed like half the town took the train to work on Wall Street. “I grew up in shops,” he says. Seeing her father, a chocolatier, working all night making bunnies on Easter Eve, Magyar has learned how much joy there is in sharing a passion with customers. (“It was to make money, of course, but he like this.”)
Culturally, wine has never had the social entry bar for Magyar that some place on it; instead, he simply sees it as a specialty product, like his father’s chocolates or candles from the shop or bread from a favorite bakery. “If your entry point is, ‘this guy really likes something — he’s made space for a thing,’ you can give up the pretense a bit,” he says.
As a teenager, he translated the feeling into the world he coveted: record stores and video libraries, envying the unequaled weight of twenty-somethings who embodied magazines like twirl and NME. He yearned to break up an island community of obsessives – to be the one to recommend Fugazi. “High fidelity, the video store . . . all that,” he said. (He would like to be John Cusack, but says he’s probably more Jack Black.)
Friends describe Magyar as “an eccentric”. “Tyler is possibly one of the most passionate people I know,” says Lisa Nguyen, who runs natural wine bottle store Ardor in southeast Portland. She says he’s like a theater geek—extremely serious.
Before making wine, Magyar spent most of his time “soaking up knowledge,” becoming a version of the record store clerk. He moved to New York after high school to study “Arts and Contexts” at The New School, while working in the cellar of a wine store, stealing minor sips wherever he could. “The middle school major was: Being Interesting at a Dinner Party,” he says. A one-year internship at Food and wine attended school, but this professional trajectory ended with the financial crisis of 2008.
On a whim, he took a job as a nanny in Paris and ‘hidden’ from living expenses in New York for a few years, while learning about the laid-back wine culture in France.
After his au pair stint, back in New York, back in the wine shops, Magyar started seeing Oregon wines at accessible prices from producers like Fausse Piste and Bow & Arrow. “Labels that screamed something other than ‘I’m chic’ or ‘I’m affordable’; they had personality and courage,” he says. It was here that he first saw the wine through the lens of a professional appreciator: “They reminded me of the wines in France that were sold by the equivalent of a punk rock salesman at the record store, that movie nerd at Blockbuster, my dad making chocolates . . . ”
Scott Frank, the winemaker behind Bow & Arrow, now a friend of Magyar, says they share that language of metaphor. “It’s so easy; if music shaped your life when you were young – informed how you dressed and who you hung out with and was the emotional core of your teenage existence. . . . I know exactly what he means when he says the “Fugazi of wine”. It’s all creepy. . . it’s killer without filler, you know? »
Regardless of his feelings about who was allowed to enjoy wine – drinking it, selling it and talking about it – when a friend mentioned the concept of making wine in Magyar, he was full of culturally imposed doubts: “I don’t don’t have the money; I’m not that serious; I can’t jump over this barrier to entry; and I’m not a white tablecloth type!
His first harvest was with Andy Young, owner of The Marigny winery in the Willamette Valley. Almost instantly, the rush of the process took hold of him. Young had moved into town for the season to make wine at a space in Sellwood. “What’s a slight chord of ‘odo two days a week. . . or something like that’ turned into him helping me every day throughout the 2017 harvest,” says Young. Magyar would quit his day job at night, bike 45 minutes down the Springwater Corridor to the winery, make wine all night, then cycle back to town with a corkscrew between his fingers (“just in case someone would try to attack me”), take a nap under his boss’s desk and start again.
The following year, Young lent him a small space to experiment with a batch of wine. Its third year of winemaking, 2018, was Monument’s first commercial production. The feeling of dream-fever grew worse: each year its production increased and all of a sudden, without quitting his day job, Magyar had a cellar.
“And then you cash in the 401k from your last job and it all gets a little more real . . . then the harvest starts again,” he says. Now the days of working around the clock and the dangerous midnight bike rides are behind him, sort of. His operation still has its quirks. As one, merchantor winemaker who buys grapes instead of growing them, Magyar’s system involves renting Penske trucks and tents, sleeping on vines, and helping with the 10-12 tonne to harvest. Which of course is just the beginning of the demanding process of preparing and crushing the grapes.
“My space feels like a warehouse because it’s a warehouse,” Magyar explains. He works in the same space in Sellwood that Young invited him to years ago (“between the Goodwill dumpsters and the Acropolis strip club”). He shares warehouse, forklift and grape processing equipment with local wineries Flat Brim and Fausse Piste, the same label that sparked his imagination across the country a decade ago. He jokes about the “native yeasts” of the space, the terroir of the warehouse they took over from a property management company, where the belongings of evicted tenants once lay.
Monument produces exclusively natural wines, a term rich in connotations, but which simply means that they are made without additional yeast to start fermentation. Instead, crushed, pesticide-free grapes ferment via “wild” yeasts – which is naturally in the air. Magyar calls them “goblins”. Sulfur is the only addition that helps stabilize wine as it travels and ages.
Anything that comes in contact with orange and skin is undoubtedly enjoying a fashionable vogue of ignorance (“bring us what’s funkiest!”), but Magyar is most interested in politics of the process, valuing the security it promises to the farmers it works with. Monument’s goal is to make accessible natural wines, “wines pleasant enough for your mother-in-law to enjoy. But with the aesthetics and the feel, the reality and the liveliness of these wines that I’ve been selling for so long,” says Magyar.
Monument’s 2021 vintage, 750 cases of wine made from 20,000 pounds of fruit, cost Magyar half the wages of his daily labor to produce. A small production compared to other growers, but multiple tray trucks of grapes dwarf most people’s hobby closets. (Bow & Arrow, on the other hand, produces just over 5,000 cases per season, the threshold Frank says allows him to still have his hands on things.) Despite limited numbers, Magyar wines are distributed in all over Oregon, New York, Chicago, Washington DC and as far as South Korea.
Scale of course is a necessity for running a business. So is the hustle and bustle of making your way through an industry. But both Frank and Young are won over by the quality of Magyar wines. “The good ones put their personality into this bottle somehow. I was always looking for Tyler’s exuberance and personality to find a way in wine. And they did. says Frank.
“The hardest part is capturing people’s imaginations, creating something that’s just different enough to stand on its own,” adds Young.
Magyar is unsure if he will ever make it only make wine, but he struggles to know what career he is working in. “And then I have this side job,” he laughs before half-heartedly correcting himself: “It’s not a extra workit’s a career I have.”