Many Rogue Valley residents have no concern that the area is known less for its wine than it could be. Perhaps they prefer to keep the region from becoming a Napa-style wine theme park. On the other hand, emerging from the shadows as a region far from a major city, some southern Oregon wineries are earning high ratings and getting press attention from major wine publications. Many are offering novel grape varietals and from vineyard-to-bottle, are setting new standards for viticultural stewardship and sustainability. Some are taking steps towards courting a loyal following of eco-friendly tourists while maintaining the patronage of locals who value the many advantages of sipping wines crafted close to home.
Wineries are doubling efforts to attract visitors during what many owners hope is the end of “The Great Recession,” having guests’ “staycations” include The Britt Festival in Jacksonville, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and of course a swing through the Applegate, Bear Creek, and Illinois valleys to taste some of our region’s wine.
My introduction to Oregon wine was around noon on a spring weekend in 2001. I was with a friend attempting to taste at Valley View Winery after a previous try when the gate and winery were closed. This time the gate was open, so we drove down towards the winery that housed the tasting room at the time. I met Mark Wisnovsky, a member of the family that owns the winery.
Wisnovsky, the president of Valley View, told me that at the time they didn’t have an employee to work the tasting room. I told him his problem was solved, and he hired us soon after.
Since then, I’ve seen the wine industry in southern Oregon bear ever more fruit. There are now wine dinners any given week throughout the region, pairing the distinct food of the area to its wines. There are courses at Southern Oregon University (SOU) on wine chemistry and winemaking classes at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, located in the heart of the Umpqua Valley, southern Oregon’s northern winemaking tier. Also, a renowned SOU climatology professor Greg Jones is researching the effects of climate change on grape production the world over.
In addition to unusual grape varietals, sustainability and climate change, other buzzwords have emerged during the last decade in the wine industry: carbon footprint, Biodynamics, custom crush, and the not-so-new concept of supporting one’s “ocal economy” included.
Grafting and Winecrafting
According to Wisnovsky from Valley View, “After 30 years of growing grapes and making wine, it’s refreshing and surprising that our most popular red and white we didn’t even produce ten years ago.” When I worked at Valley View, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were quite popular. Today, their most popular red and white wines are Tempranillo and Viognier, respectively.
In the vineyard, perhaps the most powerful force for transformation—enabling wineries like Valley View to grow Tempranillo and Viognier on pre-existing vines—has been the agricultural practice of vine grafting. Instead of having to start from newly planted vines, grafting allows a new varietal to be planted on existing rootstock. For example, on abundant standing Merlot vines, a vineyard could graft a more profitable grape such as Grenache or Syrah.
A few years ago, on a volunteer-reporting assignment for Jefferson Public Radio, I covered Applegate Uncorked, a wine-tasting event in the Applegate Valley. I interviewed Ted Warrick, one of the owners of Wooldridge Creek Winery, about the process of grafting. He explained the procedure and noted that, “even if you were going back to the same varietal, it’s not a bad idea because it revitalizes the plant.” Moreover, Warrick said, “You have an existing pump (root) system, and by cutting the trunk off at a foot and a half and putting in new grafts, you have all the energy that’s focused onto those little cuttings.” Fast forward to 2009, Tempranillo from grafted vines has been one of Wooldridge’s offerings since the summer. Though the Tempranillo grape is native to Spain, Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Winery, located in the Umpqua Valley, is credited with bringing Tempranillo to southern Oregon, pioneering its planting in spring of 1995.
Sustainability: From Vineyard to Vessel
Many wineries have found their niche in the sustainability movement, some more willingly than others. Sustainable practices come in many forms. I first tasted Cowhorn Vineyard and Gardens’ wine while interviewing owners Bill and Barbara Steele for JPR. They implement biodynamic agricultural practices, a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, and animals as a self-nourishing system. Asked about what makes their operation unique, Bill Steele said, “First, you will see incredible biodiversity—we have not only grapes, we have asparagus, cherries, hazelnuts, and artichokes.” Steele added, “An important goal is to minimize the inputs, so we have animals which create manure, manure creates compost, and compost is put on various crops in the field.” As a result, fertility in the form of manure or chemical fertilizer doesn’t get trucked in from outside, which lowers the use of fossil fuels and thus the carbon footprint.
Cowhorn has also teamed up with the Ashland Food Co-op to recover and recycle used corks with the help of a Corvallis-based outfit that processes them into wine packaging materials. Another company that Cowhorn has begun to collaborate with takes used bottles and turns the bottoms into tumblers and the necks of bottles into stemmed goblets. In the field, Cowhorn and other wineries in our region are employing techniques intended to add fertility, attract pollinators, and control disease and pests. Efforts continue throughout our region. Brian Gruber, manager of Troon vineyard, one of the original vineyards in the Applegate Valley, explained their method of following organic principles and creating a sustainable farming environment, “We leave alternating rows untilled for the intent of attracting beneficial insects.” Gruber added, “We use cover cropping in all rows for managing soil erosion and nourishing the vines with nitrogen-fixing legumes.”
In addition to cultivation techniques, Chris Hubert, vineyard manager for Quail Run Vineyards, emphasized their use of more efficient drip irrigation on the vines. Hubert says, “The amount of water that farms around here get for water rights is based on growing something like a crop of alfalfa, which uses a tremendous amount of water—we use very little water compared to what our water rights are.” He added, “You don’t get the erosion you would have from flood irrigation or even sprinklers.”
While admitting minimal use of synthetic herbicides, Hubert also mentioned that Quail Run’s approximately 300 acres of vineyards comply with Low Input Viticulture and Enology, Inc. (LIVE) practices. Though not as stringent as organic or Biodynamic certification, many producers in the northwest wine industry view LIVE’s attention to pest management, wildlife conservation, irrigation, and other farm practices, including a living wage for workers, as a step in the right direction. Other regional vineyards and wineries with LIVE certification include RoxyAnn, Pheasant Hill Vineyard/Trium Wines, and Wooldridge Creek among others.
Linda Donovan, formerly Cowhorn’s winemaker, has started an urban winery in downtown Medford called Pallet Wine Company. I visited there in mid-September as the finishing touches were being put on the building so she could begin crushing grapes for her customers.
Though we didn’t discuss her winemaking style, we did talk about her business model, which is quite different from most area wineries. A major part of Donovan’s business is taking grapes from assorted vineyards and making wine for those that don’t have their own winery. Donovan says, “We offer a service to growers who may have wanted to build a winery by now but might wait a couple of years to establish a brand and then build.”
Pallet’s so-called “custom crush” turn-key operation allows the vineyard or client to specify what they want made from their grapes. The customer can spell out percentages of specific varietals in a blend, whether they want the wine filtered, what type of barrel they wish to use, if any, and how long they want the wine aged before bottling and labeling.
Donovan and I spoke a bit about the urban renewal she hopes for in her neighborhood, between Third and Main, on Fir Street in Medford’s rejuvenated railroad district. Referring to Portland’s upscale Pearl District, Donovan hopes her downtown business area will eventually be known as the “Pallet District.” Hush-hush, the potential future Medford food co-op is rumored to have checked out buildings in the area as well. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll see a Rogue Valley light rail stop there some day. All aboard! Next stop Rogue Creamery in Central Point for some wine and cheese.
Though Donovan believes in field and winery Biodynamic and organic practices, her initial effort towards sustainability centers on working out of a standing structure, the Cooley-Neff building, a 21,000 sq ft historic lumber warehouse which she retrofitted, keeping much of the old wood and metal plates so she could build her tasting room with recovered and recycled building materials.
Donovan is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for her winery. LEED encompasses a range of eco-friendly building strategies, including, but not limited to energy conservation, interior air quality standards, permeable pavement, and the use of non-toxic and recycled building materials.
Timing is Everything
Michael Donovan, no relation to Linda Donovan, is managing director at RoxyAnn Winery. When asked about the recent economic downturn, he pointed out that “Almost every winery has experienced a decrease in sales to fine dining restaurants and bottle shops, but that’s not the majority of our sales.” Donovan added, “The majority are direct to consumer, mostly through our tasting room, to our wine club, and a small portion direct to consumer via email and direct shipping.”
Pallet Wine, Linda Donovan’s startup, had undertaken construction during the downturn, and capitalized on what the wine world might call economic “bottle shock.” The economic climate thus far has worked to her advantage. “We were able to find a great building at a reasonable price and the labor to get the construction done in two months, which in other years might have taken over a year to get completed,” said Donovan, “and the City of Medford worked so well with us—they checked in to see what they could do and understood our time crunch.” That is, the crunch before the crush. If her building wasn’t completed by September, then she’d have missed her first crush and be sitting on costly real estate and equipment, waiting for 2010 to make her first vintage.
There’s a well-worn expression: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When it comes to grapes, this hasn’t entirely been the case in southern Oregon.
Many southern Oregon growers sell grapes to upstate producers. Through this symbiotic relationship, growers benefit from a larger market for their fruit, while upstate wineries get access to warm-weather varietals that traditionally haven’t grown in the cooler Willamette Valley, thus broadening their range beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and a few other varietals to which they’ve been climatically limited.
Some other southern Oregon growers truck grapes north, have their wine made there, and then bring it back down to sell through southern Oregon tasting rooms and retailers. Aside from the carbon footprint of fruit going up the freeway and bottled wine coming back down, (and possibly going back up again through a distributor) other factors may, in the future, change this practice. Still, wine is getting shipped and trucked all over the world from as far away as Chile, Australia, South Africa, and India with a sizable carbon footprint.
While some scoff at climate change, judging by the number of conferences around the world dedicated to the potential effects of global warming on grape production, the wine industry isn’t taking any chances. On the ground, harvests are changing. Varieties that couldn’t ripen in the traditionally far wetter Willamette Valley climate—such as Syrah—now are.
According to Greg Jones, SOU professor and research climatologist who specializes in viticulture, a given grape’s tolerance for temperature variations is limited, “Each variety has what is called a ‘climate niche’ or in other words its baseline climate range that provides for the most optimum growth, production, and especially quality.” Jones adds, “This climate niche varies by variety, with some being roughly 2 degrees Celsius and others up to about 4 degrees Celsius or so.”
Outside of southern Oregon, there are 800 lb gorillas in two directions. To the south are Napa, Sonoma, and the other California growing regions, while the Willamette, Columbia Valley, and Washington sit to the north. Proponents of southern Oregon grape-growing widely agree that quality is the most important ingredient for sustainable production here at home, but the business climate and the climate itself will continue to have major voices in the decades ahead.
A Panel of Experts
I recently had the good fortune of having dinner with an “ad hoc” panel of wine experts, friends Cheryl Garvey, Ron Stringfield, and Eric Weisinger, all veterans of the wine industry. Garvey is the wine steward at Shop n’ Kart in Ashland. Stringfield is southern Oregon sales representative for Galaxy Wine Company. Weisinger is a winemaking consultant, and former winemaker for Weisinger’s of Ashland, a winery his father John still owns. Eric spends half the year in the southern hemisphere, making wine in New Zealand and Australia and hosts a blog called “The Traveling Winemaker.”
In our conversation, Weisinger pointed out that “Winemaking benefits from experience, and anytime a winemaker can get out of the home region and experience winemaking, vineyard management, and other aspects elsewhere, it will work to their advantage.” He added, “You can’t quantify the value of getting out and working in other regions.”
Ron Stringfield, a hobby winemaker who has tended to and made wine from numerous regional vineyards, emphasized that wine is highly dependent on geology—the subterranean climate. “To maximize varietal character and make more expressive wines, better attention must be paid to site selection and soil type,” says Stringfield. Fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, for example, have traditionally grown in gravelly soils, while arguably the world’s best Syrah grows in granitic ones. Site selection speaks to “terroir,” the characteristic sense of place exhibited by minerality, earthy notes, and subtle aromatic differences in long-established growing regions and renowned wines.
Cheryl Garvey emphasized that vineyards must be put on a higher pedestal than trophy tasting rooms. “Of course they are important,” she says, “but when the tasting room is prettier than the wines, what’s the point?” Garvey adds, “That may help the winery, but it doesn’t help the region.”
Though Stringfield, Garvey, and Weisinger had their own personal critiques of southern Oregon wines, they also noted some favorites. They all liked Cowhorn’s Rhone-style blend, Spiral 36. This wine combines Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier grapes. Garvey recommended some of Trium’s and Pebblestone’s current releases as well.
Trying to get a last word on southern Oregon wine, I made my way to Andy Phillips at the Winchester Inn wine bar in Ashland. I coincidentally ran into Eric Weisinger there, and we tasted a few wines he made from southern Oregon fruit, including some grown in Sam’s Valley. Phillips has some of his own regional favorites, though he concurred with high marks for Cowhorn’s Spiral 36. In no particular order, Andy also recommended RoxyAnn 2007 Viognier, Eden Vale 2003 Tempranillo, and Soloro’s “Two Sisters” 2005 Syrah, which got special praise. Phillips liked Weisinger’s 2007 reserve Chardonnay, (made by Chanda Miller) and the wines of Folin Cellars and Cliff Creek.
Stringfield and Phillips envision areas of White City and Sam’s Valley rising on the regional winemaking horizon. The soil conditions—or rock conditions—are right there for bringing another dimension to the region’s viticultural palette. In fact, Phillips believes we’re starting to see signs of terroir and proper varietal plantings in certain sites. He also sees great potential for blending wines from the various soil types in different parts of the Rogue Valley and southern Oregon. “The one who gains access to all these sub-regions for blending purposes will show what this region’s potential truly offers,” said Phillips. Few will argue that tasting wine is a singularly individual experience.
The Jefferson Public Radio wine tasting is a wonderful opportunity for savoring and judging for oneself many diverse and impressive wines that the region has to offer—and a step for sustainability on multiple fronts. This year marks the 29th Annual JPR Wine Tasting & Silent Auction at the Ashland Springs Hotel. Tickets are available now at Chateaulin Selections in Ashland and at Adam’s Deli in Medford and at www.ijpr.org and at (877) 646-4TIX.
Michael Altman is a clinical nutritionist who teaches at Southern Oregon University and the College of the Siskiyous. A resident of Ashland, he also is a hobby winemaker.
– Michael Altman