Where do you hang your hat if the hat rack has dozens of knobs? Sometimes it is okay to wear many hats, as long as you wear them well. In the case of Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley this means 70 ish varietals, growing recognition from wine critics, and an important role in the story and reputation of Oregon wine.
Defining the Rogue Valley is no easy task. Locals have their own system for dividing the 70 mile long, 60 mile wide AVA. They use terms like “Upper Rogue,” “Bear Creek,” “West of I – 5,” etc. Here are the facts: The Southern Oregon AVA encompasses the Rogue Valley AVA which in turn encompasses the Applegate Valley AVA. Three mountain ranges converge in the Rogue Valley: the Klamath Mountains, the Coastal Range and the Cascades. The Rogue River creates natural divisions with three tributaries: the Applegate, Illinois, and Bear Creek rivers. Not only does this create amazingly beautiful mountain ranges that loom right outside of tasting rooms and outdoor opportunities like rafting and ziplines, but this topography means the climate can change just a few miles down the road. The consumer is left with a range of wines to choose from, both cool and warm climate varietals.
The question remains, which varietals really stand out? Winemakers are excited about Rhone grapes – Syrah, Grenache, Viognier and Bordeaux grapes – Cabernet Franc, Merlot. But don’t be surprised to find exceptional Gewurztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Malbec, etc. What does well depends on the vineyard locations. Greg Jones Ph.D., professor and research climatologist in the Environmental Science and Policy Program at Southern Oregon University, explains that the region provides conditions where varieties are at their “climatic edge” of ripening. The result, according to Jones, are balanced wines with “varietal character, natural acidity, and reasonable brix levels.”
Mark Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery foresees that Rogue Valley Viognier, still flying a little under the wine radar, has the potential for world class recognition. “The Rogue Valley offers a good price point on Viognier, a sweet spot for ripeness that retains the grape’s complexity, and a style that excludes new oak.” Wisnovsky thinks there is a “sweet spot” for Tempranillo as well and the varietal is causing some excitement. A collaboration among Eric Weisinger of Weisinger Family Winery, Les Martin of Red Lilly Vineyards, Scott Steingraber of Kriselle Cellars, Earl Jones of Abacela, and other vintners has created the Oregon Tempranillo Alliance which includes producers from all over the state. This past January 2016 the first annual Oregon Tempranillo Celebration was held in Ashland. Weisinger explains, “The goal is to begin the conversation about Oregon Tempranillo and discover what there is to discover.”
Most agree that the future of the Rogue Valley will continue to involve wearing many hats, while individual wineries will choose which hats accentuate their best features. This can already be seen with wineries like Quady North specializing in Rhone blends and varietals and Irvine Winery (only 25 miles apart “as the crow flies”) focused on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Whatever the Rogue Valley is up to, it seems to be working. Herb Quady points out, “The wine reviewers are taking notice.” In the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, Best of Class was awarded to Pebblestone Cellars Viognier and Foris Vineyards Pinot Gris. Agate Ridge Vineyard, Dancin Vineyards, Folin Cellars, Foris Vineyards, Pebblestone Cellars, and Red Lilly Vineyards came back with Double Gold medals. Plus a whole slew of gold, silver, and bronze medals were brought home by leading Rogue and Applegate Valley wineries.
Word is out and people are moving in. Be it the long growing season, affordable land, or favorable climate the Rogue Valley is in a period of growth. According to Michael Donovan, Managing Director of Irvine Family Vineyards in Ashland and President of the Southern Oregon Winery Association, the Applegate area of the Rogue Valley is seeing a dramatic expansion of vineyard acreage with more than 600 acres being planted in the last three years. Del Rio Vineyards and Winery has also invested heavily this past year expanding their plantings by over 100 acres. One of the newest to the neighborhood are Ross and Jen Allen, a California couple with farming and vineyard experience. They purchased 2Hawk Vineyard in 2014 and have already made great strides in expanding and replanting. Ross Allen shares, “We fell in love with the Rogue Valley, its beauty, the people, the four seasons. The fruit quality in 2014 and 2015 was excellent.”
It is a long history, at least by New World standards, that has brought the Rogue Valley to this point of self awareness, recognition and growth. In 1873 Peter Britt opened Oregon’s first official winery – Valley View Winery. The Wisnovsky family resurrected the name Valley View and opened the first commercial post prohibition winery in what is now the Rogue Valley. Mark Wisnovsky recalls, “We planted our first grapes in 1972 and people would drive by and laugh. Then they thought it was cute. A while later it became cool and people would buy a bottle to send to their friends. Eventually people would say ‘wow, you got a gold medal.’ It took 20-30 years to change the perception and now people say ‘of course we have a wine industry’ and they recognize the economic impact.”
The Rogue Valley’s impact is not limited to the region. There is a symbiotic relationship with the rest of the Oregon wine industry, particularly Willamette Valley. Weisinger shares, “Oregon is fortunate to have high quality Pinot Noir. When Weisinger Family Winery enters a market that is already familiar with Oregon because of wineries like Rex Hill or Ponzi Vineyards, I am grateful for the doors that have been opened.” The Rogue Valley plays a role in that reputable Pinot Noir. While not the highest produced varietal, Pinot Noir is the most planted grape in the Rogue Valley. Many of the grapes go north into Oregon blends produced in the Willamette Valley. There is at least one instance where the Pinot Noir goes south. Dancin Vineyards is developing a reputation and garnering critical praise for both their estate Pinot Noir from the Rogue Valley and their Pinot Noir sourced from vineyards in Dundee, Newberg, and McMinnville
Joe Dobbes of Wine by Joe has been purchasing Rogue Valley fruit since 1993. “The warmer region was my ace in the hole to deliver quality wine every year and to add complexity through diversity,” explains Dobbes. Dobbes also works with Quail Run Vineyards to offer four single vineyard Rogue Valley wines for the high end Dobbes Family Estate label: Crater View Vineyard Grenache Blanc, Sundown Vineyard Viognier, and Syrah from Fortmiller and Sundown Vineyards. Dobbes shares, “The Syrah are top sellers in my tasting room. It allows me to stand out from the crowd and offer visitors something exciting.” Jorgenson Cellars sources Cabernet Franc from Quady North for several labels and from Quail Run Vineyards for the Clos Rogue Valley Reserve Cabernet Franc.
Thomas Monroe & Kate Norris of Division Winemaking Co. even placed Norris’ 2013 Gamine Syrah sourced from the Applegate Valley on a famous restaurant wine list in Paris.The list could go on.
It is not just a story of the Rogue Valley wine but of the Oregon wine industry. And the tide that lifts ships continues to rise. it is no surprise that visitors would be drawn to the culture (Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Britt Fest), the weather (four seasons and sunshine), and the beauty and outdoor activities afforded by the mountains and rivers. Note the recent praise from Wine Enthusiast which listed the Rogue Valley and Ashland as one of the its Top 10 global wine destinations for 2016.
Weisinger shares that 2015 showed a marked increase in the percentage of Rogue Valley visitors who included wine tasting as part of their tourism. Weisinger points out, “It is hard to find this much diversity in a small area” and those exciting trendy varietals like Pinot Noir, Malbec and Tempranillo? They have a permanent home right here in the Rogue Valley.
This article first appeared in the Oregon Wine Press.