Discovering Southern Oregon wine country

Wine Press NorthwestDecember 20, 2012 

Though still in the shadow of the Willamette Valley, Southern Oregon is becoming a force in the wine industry.

The region, which stretches from south of Cottage Grove to the California border, is Oregon's oldest wine-producing area. Grapes were planted here in the mid-1800s, and Oregon's first winery opened in 1873. More than 150 vineyards and nearly 100 wineries have sprung up in Southern Oregon, most in the past decade.

And while Pinot Noir is the No. 1 grape in Southern Oregon, it doesn't dominate like it does up north in the Willamette. Rather, it stands alongside Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Gris, Syrah, Chardonnay and Tempranillo -- providing an interesting diversity for winemakers and visitors alike.

In the next several pages, we will take you on a tour of Southern Oregon, exploring the Umpqua and Rogue valleys and their fascinating subregions.

Umpqua Valley

It is not the easiest appellation to pronounce and it's not Oregon's most well-known, but the Umpqua Valley ranks as one of the Pacific Northwest's most historic, diverse and forgiving wine regions.

And it's no coincidence that this portion of Southern Oregon has attracted some of the United States' most talented winemakers.

At the north end, award-winning Pinot Noir and Gewüerztraminer is produced from cool-climate vineyards in Elkton with an elevation of 121 feet. About 45 minutes to the south, the big and spicy Spanish grape Tempranillo has earned worldwide acclaim in Roseburg. In between are vines planted at 1,308 feet.

It's a future only the Doerner and Von Pessl families could have imagined when they planted vitis vinifera in the Umpqua Valley in the late 1800s.

"Both were German immigrants who worked in California for Beringer," said Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute. "The Doerners stuck with it much longer."

The Doerners continued to sell wine into the 1960s, and Adolph Doerner helped Richard Sommer plant the first vines at HillCrest, the Roseburg winery widely credited with producing Oregon's first bottle of Pinot Noir in 1967. The federal government designated the Umpqua Valley American Viticultural Area in 1984, making it one of the oldest in the Pacific Northwest.

"(Sommer) was familiar with the area because he had an uncle in Medford who grew pears, and prunes also were successful in the Umpqua," Lake said. "If apples, pears and prunes do well in a temperate climate, it's a good indicator that wine grapes can succeed, too."

Most California winemakers passed Sommer on their way to the Willamette Valley, but in 2002, Terry Brandborg left the shipyards of San Francisco to create Brandborg Vineyard & Winery in tiny Elkton, pop. 200. He and his wife, Sue, are pushing the envelope to ripen Pinot Noir at his vineyard, and yet he's emerged as one of the Northwest's top winemakers.

"Our climate is distinctively different, and that's why we're here," he said.

Four tasting rooms give Elkton the most wineries per capita in the Northwest, perhaps in the country, and Tomaselli’s Pastry Mill & Café tempts winesters to stop for breakfast, linger for lunch and stay for dinner.

There’s talk around town of a brew pub and an artisan cheese shop coming in. It all makes for a stark contrast in this fishing and hunting community — about halfway between Eugene and the coastal town of Reedsport — where flannel meets fleece.

“Sue and I like to joke that we’re centrally located,” Brandborg said. “And when I mentioned at an Umpqua Valley wine growers meeting that we are definitely out there, I got a big round of laughter.”

And yet Southern Oregon University climatology professor Greg Jones has made a case for Elkton’s uniqueness. His petition sailed through the commenting period without debate, and the federal government has indicated Elkton could be designated as its own AVA as soon as this spring.

It will be the Umpqua Valley’s second sub-appellation. Red Hill Douglas County, a 5,500-acre AVA, was created in 2005. It features volcanic red Jory soil and also stands apart in the Northwest as a single-vineyard AVA — Red Hill Vineyard.

One of the Northwest’s best-kept secrets is that some of the most popular Pinot Noir made in Oregon includes a juicy and fruity infusion from the Umpqua Valley. Brandborg crafts Pinot Noir for a North Willamette Valley winery using Umpqua Valley grapes. Duck Pond Cellars in Dundee recently made a huge investment in the Umpqua, planting 275 acres of Pinot Noir near Sutherlin. The Fries family named it Coles Valley Vineyard.

“Pinot Noir ripens there about two weeks earlier than it does in the Willamette Valley,” winemaker Greg Fries said. “We’re wanting more consistent quality year-in and year-out in our blends, and land in the Umpqua is more affordable than it is in the Willamette Valley. People are looking for more color intensity and more strawberry flavors, and I had a buyer who wanted the fruit before I even began to try to sell it.”

Fries also found a friendly attitude in Douglas County, starting with government officials. And during planting, he borrowed equipment from neighboring Henry Estate — creator of the Scott Henry trellis system that’s been adopted throughout the world.

Coles Valley Vineyard ranked as the largest in the valley until Roseburg sawmill owner Hal Westbrook began planting Blue Heron Vineyards nearby.

“He brought Bill Henri from Napa, who came up and developed 330 acres, with 100-150 more acres in the coming year,” Lake said.

That grew the Umpqua Valley to 60 vineyards and more than 1,100 acres. Arguably, the most fascinating and famous plantings in the Umpqua are the Fault Line Vineyards — the 77-acre estate site of Abacela.

“Earl Jones has this great ambition to do something that hadn’t been done before,” Lake said. “I wish we had a few more people in the valley with that kind of ambition to make more wines like his.”

Jones gave up his practice in Florida as a dermatologist and in 1994 moved his young family to plant a vineyard just west of the safari animal park in Winston. Abacela became the seventh winery in the Umpqua Valley. There now are 25, and Jones has enjoyed success with at least that many grape varieties.

“When we got here, folks were producing primarily Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet and a little bit of Riesling,” Jones said. “I told the other wineries I wasn’t going to be threatening them by growing the same varietals they were. And they looked at me like I was nuts.”

Last year, the Jones family created their Vine & Wine Center at Abacela to best showcase the production of their 10,000-case operation.

“We have more people coming to Abacela from a distance, Tempranillo aficionados, and we needed to have a better place to accommodate them,” said Jones, whose daughter Hanna designed the center. “It captures the Northwest feel, combines it with a Mediterranean openness and reaches out to the vineyard. We’re just about the wines and the vines. There’s nothing else for sale other than wine.”

Among the fascinating grapes Umpqua Valley winemakers are producing as single-variety bottlings are Albariño (Spain) and Tannat (Basque) by Abacela, Grüner Veltliner (Austria) by Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Legrein (Italy) by Brandborg and Petite Sirah (Rhône) by Spangler Vineyards.

International acclaim by those talented winemakers with Umpqua Valley fruit continues to help Roseburg use wine-related tourism to diversify an economy historically chained to logging. And in 2008, Umpqua Community College created the Southern Oregon Wine Institute, a program modeled after Washington’s Walla Walla Community College.

“We’ve had a very intimate connection with their program from the start,” Lake said. “Their president came here and extolled the virtues of its viticulture and enology program and the impact it had on the economy in Walla Walla. That story was sung loudly by supporters in our community. If we have even half their success, we should be doing very well.”

Outfitters now incorporate regional wines with their outdoor adventures, and there is hope that downtown Roseburg can become a culinary and lodging destination akin to Walla Walla. The influx of restaurants supporting Umpqua Valley wineries includes Alexander’s Greek Cuisine, Blackbird Bar & Grill, Brix 527 and Dino’s Ristorante. A few minutes outside of town are relaxing experiences at the C.H. Bailey House and the guest cottage at Delfino Vineyards.

“We’re breaking through with the winemaking and the grape growing, but we’re still working on the hospitality,” Lake said. “Lots of people are passing Roseburg as they go up and down I-5. If you want people to come visit, they need a place to stay and feel good about. Once you have a good place for them to stay, they will tell their friends.

“Now if we could get someone to come in and build a Marcus Whitman Hotel or an Allison Inn downtown along the Umpqua River for us, we’d be on our way,” Lake chuckled.

Rogue Valley

For years, Foris Vineyards has made a blend called “Fly-Over Red.”

The reason behind the name is that Southern Oregon has long been overlooked by wine lovers in San Francisco, Portland and Seattle.

No longer is it quite so easy to ignore the Rogue Valley, thanks to phenomenal growth in the past decade in all areas: viticulture, winemaking and tourism.

Tim Woodhead, marketing director for Bridgeview Vineyard & Winery in Cave Junction, Ore., has seen the region change for most of the last two decades.

“When I started 18 years ago, there were just a handful of vineyards,” he said. “But everyone could see the place was ready to explode. The climate was right, and property values were more realistic.”

In the mid-1990s, Jim Bernau, CEO of Willamette Valley Vineyards, and Joe Dobbes, his winemaker at the time, created a label called Griffin Creek that uses Rogue Valley grapes.

“Joe really saw an opportunity in grapes grown in the Rogue,” Bernau said. “The first wine was a 1996 Merlot, and it performed very well.”

Woodhead said the Griffin Creek label was a benefit to other wineries in the Rogue because it helped wine lovers recognize the quality of the region and allowed winemakers to get better prices for their wines.

Not long after that, Del Rio Vineyards was planted near the town of Gold Hill, along Interstate 5 about halfway between Grants Pass and Medford. In short order, wineries in the Willamette Valley were purchasing warm-climate grapes such as Syrah from grower Rob Wallace and his 185 acres. Now, more than two dozen wineries from “up north” bring in Del Rio grapes.

Greg Jones, a professor at Southern Oregon University, has focused his area of study on Southern Oregon, conducting experiments and tracking data for much of the past decade. Jones divides the Rogue into four distinct regions: the Illinois Valley, the Applegate Valley, the Bear Creek Valley and the Valley of the Rogue. Each, he contends, is different and produces distinctly different grapes.

Gus Janeway, owner and winemaker for Velocity Cellars in Ashland agrees. When he was winemaker at Paschal Winery near Talent and RoxyAnn Winery in Medford, he had the opportunity to work with grapes from throughout the Rogue Valley. He learned the Applegate and Illinois valleys, which are in the south and southwest corners of the region, have shorter growing seasons but greater heat spikes, while the Bear Creek Valley near Ashland was steadier and more predictable.

“It confirmed my suspicions that grapes grown under more moderate conditions but with a longer growing season fit my style,” Janeway said. “It equates to a more dependable ripening curve. I have more confidence in late-season varieties such as Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Viognier, even in difficult vintages such as 2011.”

René Eichmann, co-owner with his parents and winemaker for Bridgeview, has a lot of experience in the Illinois and Applegate valleys, where two of his vineyards are. Eichmann, 54, moved to Oregon from West Germany in 1980 when he was 21 and has been Bridgeview’s winemaker since 1986.

The family’s estate vineyard is in the Illinois Valley, just eight miles from the California border. Its 120 acres are planted to Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Muscat — varieties one might find in the cooler Willamette Valley. Meanwhile, Eichmann’s Applegate Valley vineyard less than an hour away has Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Tempranillo, Viognier, Chardonnay, Riesling and Syrah — which sounds a lot like varieties found in arid Eastern Washington.

That so many different kinds of grapes can be grown so close together is one reason Eichmann loves the region.

“Southern Oregon is much more like the diversity of Eastern Washington,” he said. “It’s one of the qualities that make our region that much more interesting.”

The diversity also presents its challenges, Eichmann said.

“Here, you have hills to combat,” he said, “winding roads going up and down with lots of nooks and crannies. Every pocket has its own little microclimate.”

For example, growers in the Illinois Valley face the threat of frost annually, while those in the Applegate rarely do. That, Eichmann said, dictates what he grows in each region.

According to Jones, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are the top two varieties in the Rogue Valley, followed closely by Pinot Noir, Syrah and Pinot Gris, a real mix of warm- and cool-climate grapes.

Eichmann and Janeway aren’t sure the Applegate is the best place to grow Cabernet Sauvignon because the region is cooler than the Valley of the Rogue and Bear Creek.

“It’s a late-season ripener that can be challenging,” Janeway said. “The Applegate has a lot of Cab planted, and there are a lot of brave winemakers who can pull it off year after year.”

Both winemakers have a lot of hope for the future of the region based on what they’ve seen develop in the past decade.

“Tourism for us is a seasonal thing,” Eichmann said. “We don’t have the population down here, so we have to fuel the rest through tourism.”

Wine, he said, has become a bigger part of the tourism scene, which for decades has been dominated by rafting, fishing and hiking. The development of more restaurants and nicer tasting rooms along with events such as Ashland’s Oregon Shakespeare Festival have drawn more wine lovers.

Bridgeview opened a tasting room in the Applegate Valley in 2000 to get its wines closer to the population centers of Medford and Ashland, and that has paid off.

Janeway thinks the Applegate Valley in particular has done a great job fueling more tourism for Jacksonville.

“The Applegate wineries work well together,” he said. “When people want to go wine tasting in this region, they go to the Applegate. It’s more compact, with more wineries closer together.”

He said wine lovers will come across everything from fully outfitted tasting rooms on down to tiny “shack-teaux.”

“It’s a lot of fun,” Janeway said. “Ten years ago, you’d have been hard pressed to spend a half-day tasting in the Applegate. The Bear Creek Valley has a little catching up to do in that respect,” he added.

It has gotten to the point, he believes, that wine touring in the Rogue Valley has become something to do by itself, not in addition to rafting or watching Shakespeare.

“We’ve gone from being an afterthought to a destination.”

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