Southern Oregon Renaissance
The home of Oregon wine sees new growth and attention…
Modern Oregon wine began here. In 1961, on a gently sloping plateau northwest of Roseburg, Richard Sommer planted Oregon’s first modern-era wine grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Chardonnay, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir.* Yes, the state’s famous Pinot Noir wines actually got their start in southern Oregon when Sommer’s Hillcrest Vineyard released its 1967 vintage.
Since then, however, the ongoing hoopla for Oregon’s wine has ineluctably shifted to the Willamette Valley and Pinot Noir, leaving southern Oregon sometimes feeling a second cousin in the state’s wine family. One winery in the region even has a label called “Fly Over Red,” ostensibly a swipe at all the wine writers who fly over southern Oregon in order to get to the Willamette Valley to write about “Oregon wine.”
But southern Oregon is upping its game—and fame. No longer Oregon’s “other” wine country, the state’s largest warm-climate growing region has come into its own thanks to new vineyards, new wineries, and renewed spirit of innovation that are reigniting the region’s wine culture by producing top-notch wines that can compete with the best from anywhere.
“As confidant as I am about southern Oregon’s ability to grow great grapes,” says Mark Wisnovsky, whose family has been making wine at Valley View Winery since 1976, “I don’t know if I would have been able to foresee how far we’ve come in the last 10 years. The region has probably doubled its production—twice over—in that period, and wine quality just keeps improving.”
Key to the recent rise of southern Oregon has been an influx of steadfast individuals bringing to the region both a commitment to quality winegrowing and the wherewithal to succeed over time.
“Southern Oregon is definitely benefiting by getting more experienced people in terms of knowledge and years of experience in viticulture and enology,” says Michael Donovan, a southern Oregon wine industry veteran and managing director of RoxyAnn Winery near Medford. “Six years ago we had 23 wineries and today we have around 70.”
Earl and Hilda Jones are examples of this trend. In the mid 1990s they settled in Roseburg after a careful study of climate data convinced them it was the best place in North America to grow Tempranillo, a Spanish grape that had never been grown in Oregon—or hardly anywhere else in the New World. Paying rigorous attention to site selection, vineyard management, and winemaking quality, their Abacela winery quickly became emblematic of the region’s winemaking renaissance and helped attract new interest and investment to the area.
Following in their footsteps, people like Pat and Loree Spangler arrived to rename and revitalize a pioneering area winery, and are today making an impressive variety of top-quality wines under the Spangler Vineyards label.
Terry and Sue Brandborg, of Brandborg Vineyard and Winery, came from California to the town of Elkton, planted a vineyard near the Umpqua River, and are making Pinot Noir from southern Oregon every bit as good as their colleagues in the Willamette Valley.
Kara Olmo and Greg Paneitz brought degrees in viticulture and enology, plus work experience in wine and hospitality, to the Applegate Valley when they partnered with Ted and Mary Warrick to create Wooldridge Creek Vineyards. Across the way, the Martin family purchased Troon Vineyard, a foundational area winery, and under the guidance of Chris Martin have dramatically expanded the range, quality, and production of wines.
Herb Quady, the scion of California’s winemaking Quady family, set up shop in the Applegate Valley, making head-turning wines under his Quady North brand, as well as for Troon Vineyard.
Bill and Barbara Steele fled Wall Street for southern Oregon and established Cowhorn, one of the country’s leading biodynamic vineyards, wineries, and farms.
Stephen and Gloria Reustle are yet another example. They moved from New York City to the Umpqua Valley in 2001 and began making wine from their estate Prayer Rock Vineyards. Applying both capital investment and viticultural insight, Reustle follows in the footsteps of southern Oregon innovation by being the first winery in the country to commercially produce a Grüner Veltliner wine—now more regularly made by a handful of Willamette Valley wineries.“New varieties bring attention, interest, and excitement to the region,” says Stephen Reustle. “Soil and climate are really the two most important inputs for making world-class wine, and we have the growing heat and soil variety to successfully ripen many different varieties—as long as they are properly managed to your site.”
Historically, a lot of southern Oregon grapes were planted without much research and treated as just another crop; success was often more a matter of good fortune than viticultural planning. That began to change with the establishment of new vineyards planted with the latest viticultural knowledge, most notably the large-scale Del Rio Vineyards outside of Medford, in the early 2000s.
Building a firm viticultural foundation has become a regional priority.
“Research is vital to our future,” points out Abacela’s Earl Jones. “The establishment of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College and their viticulture and enology program means we have a local resource for trained viticulturalists, winemakers, and wine marketers that will help the industry here grow with increased quality.”
Even with all the forward progress, southern Oregon still faces interesting challenges and opportunities.
Rob Folin, of Folin Cellars, is excited by the sense of winemaking freedom he finds in southern Oregon. “We’re not held back by tradition as much as the Willamette Valley,” he says (and Folin has plenty of winemaking experience in the Willamette Valley). “There’s no set style down here; winemakers have free range to do what they want—there’s an attitude of ‘Okay, let’s try that out!’”
Such diversity can also be a drawback. “Finding the right varietals that work for this area has been a real challenge,” says Chris Martin of Troon Vineyards. Many of the earliest successful grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir—were already identified strongly with other places, and the quality of the southern Oregon versions were only occasionally competitive. Yet the newer grapes in the region—Tempranillo, Grüner Veltliner, Malbec, and others—don’t yet have sufficient production volumes or market following to become a signature variety for southern Oregon.
But does the region need to have a single variety to achieve out-of-region market success, and if so, what would it be?
“Put a dozen southern Oregon winemakers in a room and you’ll get a dozen different answers,” says Ruth Garvin of Cliff Creek Cellars. Some say the Rhône varieties are key to the region’s future; others champion Malbec, some Cabernet Franc, many agree on Viognier and Tempranillo.
“The interesting challenge for southern Oregon,” says Donovan, “is that we have the climate to do so many grapes really well. We need to distinguish ourselves on what we do best, and ‘variety’ may be exactly what we do best.”“As diverse as we all are in our winegrowing and winemaking, we still need to work together as a region to get our wine quality as consistent as possible, and to improve our branding and identity,” points out Garvin.
And even when all of those things are working well, there is still the challenge that southern Oregon wineries simply aren’t located near a significant population center: Medford is a five-hour drive from Portland and a six-hour drive from San Francisco. “As more people discover we make great wines, they are motivated to come visit southern Oregon,” says Wisnovsky. “And when they realize we have Crater Lake, fishing on the Umpqua River, whitewater rafting on the Rogue, the Britt Music Festival, Ashland’s Shakespeare Festival, and everything else, suddenly southern Oregon doesn’t seem all that far away.
”Ultimately, it is wine lovers who will determine the region’s future by voting with their pocketbooks. If the number of new vineyard plantings and winery developments, coupled with the rise in wine sales from southern Oregon, are any measure, they are already voting in droves in favor of the region.
*Southern Oregon’s wine history, however, goes much further back, including grape plantings by Jessie Applegate in 1876, and vinifera plantings and sophisticated winemaking by Steve and John Von Pessl, and Adam Doerner beginning in the 1880s.
by Cole Danehower
From the September/October issue of Northwest Palate Magazine
Photo credit: Del Rio Vineyards by Andrea Johnson