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This Veteran-Owned Winery Serves Community Through Viticulture

Oregon’s Dauntless Wine Company offers a path for veterans to step off the battlefield and onto the vineyard

L.M. Archer By November 8, 2021
photo of Marine Ben Martin, co-founder of Dauntless Wine Co. and Dauntless Veterans Foundation in Oregon's Willamette Valley
Marine Ben Martin, co-founder of Dauntless Wine Co. and Dauntless Veterans Foundation in Oregon's Willamette Valley. Photo courtesy of Ben Martin.

Ancient Rome routinely awarded retiring soldiers land grants in conquered territories. Many planted vineyards. It turns out, tilling fields is good for the soul.

“Getting out there in the soil and working it has many therapeutic benefits to it that are beginning to emerge,” says former active duty Marine Ben Martin, co-founder of Dauntless Wine Cø. and Dauntless Veteran Foundation in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, adding he believes a lot of veterans, particularly combat veterans, are programmed to have a “very destructive mindset, to destroy with impunity, and they’re not really deprogrammed out of that when they get out.”

Consequently, vets often suffer higher rates of suicide, homelessness, and drug addiction as they struggle to re-enter society.

Martin’s team at the veteran-owned winery and foundation offers returning soldiers an opportunity to reset that battlefield mindset through agriculture.

Proof of concept

A chance encounter sparked Martin’s idea to create the veteran-owned winery. After ending his 2004-2005 tours in Iraq, the Oregonian returned home, attended college in Portland, and established a successful career in brand management. 

However, transition to civilian life proved challenging. While at school, Martin met other veterans also struggling to find their place in society. All shared a similar loss of connection, community, and purpose formerly enjoyed in the military.  

“A lot of people getting out of the military feel like they’ve lost that purpose, and that group of friends that were there for you. And I felt that as well,” says Matt Blankenship, DVF Secretary, who met Martin in 2006. “Until I met Ben, and some of these other folks, I didn’t feel like I had a place, or a home,” or a group of people with whom he belonged.

“I work at Nike, and though there’s quite a few veterans there, it’s not the same. It’s very different. It’s also corporate America,” adds Ken Fritts, DVF Director of Programs. “But from what I’ve experienced with Ben, and the veterans that are associated with Dauntless Wine Company — because it’s a veteran-operated and owned company, the camaraderie is very strong in that community.” 

In 2008, Martin met an American veteran of the French Foreign Legion who had been rebuffed by the U.S. Veterans Administration. “The VA wouldn’t help him because it didn’t recognize his service,” says Martin. From the legionnaire, Martin learned about Domaine du Capitaine Danjou in Provence, a vineyard chateau offering French Foreign Legion retirees a place to live and work.

“Hey, we’re in premium wine country,” recalls Martin. “Why not try to do something like this here? The proof of concept is already established.” 

But the idea fell by the wayside, overshadowed by Martin’s busy career. 

photo of Ben Martin and Carrie Martin

Marine Ben Martin (pictured here with Carrie Martin) co-founded the veteran-operated and owned company, Dauntless Wine Cø. and Dauntless Veterans Foundation. Photo courtesy of Ben Martin.

Building community

Fate intervened again in 2012, when Martin helped launch a veteran rehabilitation permaculture project using agriculture as an alternative post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury treatment. The project proved successful.

Encouraged, Martin launched Dauntless Wine Cø. in 2014 with two other Iraq War combat veterans, Ryan Mills and Paul Warmbier, with funds from a Farmer Veteran Coalition grant. Headquartered in northern Willamette Valley, the veteran-owned and operated winery serves the veteran community through agriculture, mentorship, and charitable contributions. New to wine, they nonetheless proved themselves naturals.

Dauntless Wine Cø. crushed its first harvest in 2015, using purchased grapes and borrowed facilities. At the same time, Mills and Martin enrolled in Chemeketa Community College Wine Studies, where Martin graduated in 2018. 

Today, the winery produces 500 to 1000 cases of Pinot Noir (starts at $35), Pinot Gris ($25), and Chardonnay ($30) annually from veteran-grown fruit, with plans for expansion. In 2020, the winery secured Department of Agriculture funding to purchase a 6.5 acre site near Gaston, Oregon for a future 3.5 acre vineyard planted to Pinot Noir and Syrah, and 2,000 case production facility. 

Additionally, the team seeks to serve a broader community. “We want people to learn how to become farmers,” explains Blankenship, “Because the farmers are aging out as they get older, and they’re moving on, and not a lot of people are coming in.”

Veteran farmers also offer solutions to food insecurity in their own communities. “If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that inventory reliance is very fragile,” says Martin. “We dealt with a shock to the system. And so, I think small-scale agriculture is going to be extremely important in the future because of this very thing.”

Beyond agricultural training and employment, Dauntless Wine Cø. partners with veteran mentoring groups like Veterati, health services like Returning Veterans Project, and farmer education and grant programs like Farmer Veteran Coalition to offer further assistance.

“For veterans to feel whole again, they need to reconnect with the life cycle. And I don’t think there’s any better life cycle than the agricultural one.”

Full circle

Their dedication to service also inspired the formation of Dauntless Veteran Foundation, a nonprofit offering agricultural-focused vets fellowship, scholarship, and therapy rehabilitation programs. Founded in 2021, the organization hosts its first virtual fundraiser in November 2021. Monies raised will fund scholarships to local agricultural and winery programs like those at Chemeketa. 

The first time I went to Chemeketa, I got to go check out the student vineyard,” says DVF Executive Director Major Leanne Babcock, a second-year wine program student, Dauntless winery employee, and Air Force Reservist currently deployed in Kuwait. “It was just like looking out at one of those movies where they have the drone shots coming in, and you can see all the grapes on the vines, and they’re preparing to be harvested … The smell, the sensory, the visuals, I was thinking, ‘Okay, I could do this, this is something that I find peaceful, and calming.’”

Ultimately, Martin draws parallels between the Dauntless Wine Cø. mission, and that of the Japanese samurai culture. “The samurai was the artisan, the doctor, the historian, the philosopher, because they believed that for a warrior to be able to take a life, they had to know what life is,” he says. “And so the samurai had to know the full circle of life … I feel like with modern-day culture, we maybe have forgotten that to some extent. For veterans to feel whole again, they need to reconnect with the life cycle. And I don’t think there’s any better life cycle than the agricultural one.”