Monday, October 21, 2013

Ten Things You Should Know About Southern Oregon (Part 1)

The "3 Ps" of Oregon are Portland, Precipitation & Pinot Noir.

Greg Jones, a climatologist at Southern Oregon University, made the above statement, stating it was a common belief in Oregon. Pinot Noir and Oregon is such a famous combination, a singular identity that is known across the world, elevating the Willamette Valley to being the most recognizable American Viticultural Area (AVA) in Oregon. With over 300 wineries and 610 vineyards, accounting for nearly 75% of Oregon's wine production, the Willamette Valley seems to get almost all of the attention and publicity.

Most consumers probably couldn't identify another Oregon AVA besides Willamette. They might not even realize that there is Oregon wine made outside of the Willamette. However, consumers should learn about the other Oregon's AVAs, especially Southern Oregon, which has much to offer outside of the realm of Pinot Noir.

Recently, I traveled to Oregon, as part of a journalist trip sponsored by the Oregon Wine Board, and was accompanied by two other wine writers, Erin Guenther and Michael Cervin. From Medford to Portland, we visited both Southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley, tasting plenty of wine, meeting numerous wine makers, and enjoying the bounty of local cuisine. It was harvest time at most of the wineries, one of the earliest harvests in years, so it was a great time to visit, to see the wineries in operation. It was also an extremely busy time for the wineries, and my gratitude goes out to all of those who took some of their precious time to meet with us. Though I knew the Southern AVA existed before I journeyed there, my experience with the wines from this region was very limited so I was eager to learn more about this area and to sample the wines they produce.

The Southern Oregon AVA has five sub-AVAs, including Rogue Valley, Umpqua Valley, Red Hill Douglas County, Applegate Valley and Elkton. Though Southern Oregon is generally a warm-climate region, it possesses about 70 microclimates, and includes cool-climate areas. The region has over 65 wineries and 230 vineyards, and its history with wine extends back over 150 years. In fact, Southern Oregon is the locale of several vinous firsts for Oregon, including the first grape vineyards, the first Pinot Noir plantings, and the first commercial winery. Willamette Valley may be more famous, but the importance of Southern Oregon to the wine industry should not be forgotten.

Around 1847, Henderson Luelling, a horticulturist from Indiana (who also spent ten years in Iowa), moved to the Rogue Valley in Oregon and planted the first grapes, as well as numerous other fruits. When he initially departed for the Oregon Territory, he took with him around 700 fruit trees and berry bushes, hoping to eventually plant them in the Oregon soil. That was quite a large burden to transport across half the country and he ended up losing about half of them on route. However, he had enough trees and plants left to successfully plant a number of orchards, including apples, cherries and pears. As there were few other orchards in Oregon at that time, Luelling eventually became wealthy due to his plantings. It is also interesting to know that Luelling's brother, Seth, developed the Bing Cherry.

Luelling and his son-in-law, William Meek, planted the Isabella grape in Oregon, an American hybrid grape that may have been developed in South Carolina in 1816, though there is some disagreement over its actual origin. It is alleged that Leulling and Meek won a medal for one of their Isabella wines at the California State Fair in 1859. That might be the first Oregon wine to win a medal at any wine competition, and it might not have been until 1904 that another Oregon wine would win a competition medal.

In the 1850s, Peter Britt, a Swiss immigrant and photographer, came to the Oregon Territory because of gold fever. Though his primary income was through photography, he tried his hand at mining as well. A man of eclectic interests, he also was intrigued by horticulture and took time to plant orchards, such as pears and peaches, and eventually even grapes. He planted his own vineyards in the Rogue Valley, also eventually establishing, in 1873, the first commercial winery, the Valley View Vineyard, in Jacksonville.

In 1859, Oregon became an official state and took a census the next year, noting that annual wine production was approximately 2,600 gallons, or roughly 1000 cases, though that probably includes both fruit and grape wines. About twenty years later, Peter Britt alone would be producing 1000-3000 gallons of wine, which he sold locally for only 50 cents a gallon. Britt is also responsible for planting over 200 types of grapes, both vinifera and labrusca, in the Rogue Valley, experimenting with their suitability to the region. He might have even been the first person to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon.

Unfortunately, in 1916, Oregon instituted Prohibition, four years prior to the federal ban, and it would last until 1933. In essence, it destroyed the burgeoning wine industry and it would take nearly thirty years after the lifting of Prohibition before the industry started to rebound. In the late 1950s, Richard Sommer, a UC Davis graduate and often referred to as the "Father of Oregon wine," established the HillCrest Vineyard in the Umpqua Valley. In 1961, he planted the first documented Pinot Noir vines in Oregon, releasing his first Pinot Noir wine in 1967. The first Pinot Noir vines wouldn't be planted in the Willamette Valley until 1965. Sommer planted other grapes too, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Gew├╝rztraminer, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Zinfandel. This would herald the start of the modern wine industry in Oregon.

However, the main interest for vineyards and wine production seemed to now center in the Willamette Valley, forged by pioneers such as David Lett, Charles Coury, and Dick Erath, who planted their vineyards in the 1960s. During the 1970s, new vineyards were established in the Rogue Valley though growth was relatively slow. By 1987, there were only 5 wineries and 38 vineyards in the Southern Oregon region though by 2009, there were over 40 wineries, with 113 vineyards.

In 1984, the Umpqua Valley was the first region in Southern Oregon to be declared an AVA. This was the same year that the Willamette Valley was declared an AVA. The Rogue Valley would become an AVA in 1991, though both the Umpqua and Rogue would be subsumed in 2004 under the larger Southern Oregon AVA. The newest sub-AVA in Southern Oregon is Elkton, which was declared in 2013.

My understanding of Southern Oregon has been expanded and enhanced through my visit to this region. At this time, I want to present a list of Ten Things You Should Know About Southern Oregon, to give you a foundation of some important items so that you can better understand this largely under-appreciated region and its wines. I would also recommend that if you travel to Oregon that you should take some time to visit Southern Oregon, and don't just spend all your time in the Willamette Valley.

1) Southern Oregon is breathtaking.
Upon my arrival in Medford, Oregon, and throughout my time in Southern Oregon, I was struck by its natural beauty, the landscape largely dominated by mountains and forests. Majestic mountains, thrusting high into the clouds, and lush wooded areas that seemed to extend to the horizon. It invokes a sense of serenity and wonder, inflaming a passion for nature. And as we drove through the area, we saw plenty of animals being raised, including horses, cows, sheep, goats, llamas and emus. There are also many wild animals in the region, including bears, mountain lions, deer, turkeys and more. We onlu saw some turkeys. You'll feel a real connection to nature in Southern Oregon and that alone makes a visit to this region worthwhile.

2) The Southern Oregon wine industry is still relatively young.
Despite its lengthy history, with several vinous firsts, the modern wine industry in Southern Oregon is still relatively young, especially when compared to the Willamette Valley. There is only a small number of wineries, though some of the wines they are producing are excellent. Talking to a number of wine makers, it seems clear that many are still trying to work out which grapes work best, what type of wines to create, and more. It is a time of experimentation, discovery and learning. There is much potential here and continued growth is probably a given. They have only scratched the surface with their vineyards, and up to another 250,000 acres could possibly be planted. I love the excitement and passion of new wine regions, and I foresee Southern Oregon gaining much respect in the near future.

3) Southern Oregon wineries are small operations.
The 40+ wineries in this region are generally small, many producing less than 5000 cases and those few wineries producing around 20,000 cases feel that they are large, though most others outside the region wouldn't. Because of their small size, it can be difficult to find their wines outside of Oregon. As they lack the cachet of Willamette Valley, these wines are much more of a handsell, and require a large investment of time and effort for marketing and sales by the winery, especially outside of Oregon. Not all wineries can afford that time and effort, so they concentrate their efforts just within the state. In time, if these wineries grow larger, then maybe it would be worthwhile for more of them to market to areas outside off Oregon. So if you want to experience their wines, you generally need to visit the region.

4) There are plenty of passionate wine people in Southern Oregon.
I met such a diversity of people involved in the wine industry Southern Oregon, from enthusiastic young people to older people who also possessed great enthusiasm. A number of them were transplants, from other states or even countries, who sought out Oregon for their wine careers. Others were starting second careers, having retired from a range of other occupations, and a number of them had never worked in wine before. What brought them all to Southern Oregon was a passion for wine. They certainly weren't there to make a fortune, and they generally seemed satisfied to make an adequate living from their wineries. There is a lack of pretension in this region, and there is also a sense of collaboration between the wineries, that they are friends rather than competitors. It is a real pleasure to meet and chat with these fine people.

To Be Continued...

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