This past summer, I spent a wonderful week in Oregon with a handful of other writers and the fine people of the Oregon Wine Board. We started in the southwestern-most part of the state and gradually made our way up to Portland over the course of the week. We visited wineries, ate incredible food, witnessed the majestic countryside, and drank more than our fair share of wonderful wines.
Last week, I wrote an article about my trip to the State of Oregon with the Oregon Wine Board. We started in the southwest corner of the state and the first day we focused on Burgundian and Bordeaux varieties in the state. Day Two (Tuesday) started at the Riverside Inn along the Rogue River in sleepy Grant’s Pass, Oregon.
It was another full day ahead, first stopping at Abacela Vineyards & Winery for a tour of the vineyards and exploring Iberian varieties grown in Southern Oregon. There we met Andrew Wenzl (winemaker at Abacela), Rachael Martin (owner and winemaker at Red Lily Vineyards), Eric Weisinger (winemaker, Weisinger Family Winery), and Scott Steingraber (owner and winemaker at Kriselle Cellars).
After the tour, we headed to the winery for a walk around tasting with the aforementioned wineries. I was able to taste several outstanding wines, and these were a couple that stood out:
2013 Weisinger Tempranillo Rogue Valley: Retail $42. 2000 cases. All sold direct. The first commercial vintage of Tempranillo was in 1988, so the Weisingers clearly have a handle on the variety. Lovely red fruit with brilliant acidity and a minerality you don’t always find in Tempranillo. Very well done. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2004 Red Lily Tempranillo Rogue Valley: Retail $35 (for newer vintages). 500 cases. 3500 cases total production for the winery. Rachael, the owner and winemaker studied criminal law and wanted to be a basil farmer but her dad talked her into growing grapes instead. Aged 50% in oak (mostly French, a touch of American). Red fruit with a dusty smokiness that is impressive. Fresh and young on the palate with depth and spice and plenty of tannic backbone left. Whoa. Holy Cow. Outstanding. 93-95 Points.
2009 Kriselle Tempranillo Rogue Valley: Retail $35 (newer vintages). 90% Tempranillo, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. 30 months in oak. Really big and luscious fruit. But still mouth-puckering tannin. Needs a ton of time, but fantastic. Outstanding. 90-92 Points.
2013 Kriselle Estate Tempranillo Rogue Valley: Retail $55. 100% Tempranillo. Smokey on the nose. Pretty reserved on the palate but the finish? Holy cow. Perhaps the best finish this far. Outstanding. 91-93 Points.
During the walk around tasting, I also probed a bit (as I tend to do) about a few of the problems facing the region. The first, and perhaps the most obvious, is a sense of identity. Many wine regions in the country (and around the world) are associated with one, or maybe to specific varieties: Napa Cabernet, German Riesling, Australian Shiraz, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc. That is certainly an over-simplification, but there are over 70 varieties grown in Southern Oregon and marketing the region as one with a “variety of varieties” is perhaps too nebulous for the wine consumer to grasp.
The second issue that might be inhibiting the region from making a larger splash nationally is also one of its greatest strengths: over 90% of Oregon wineries are family owned and 75% of all Oregon wineries produce less than 4,000 cases. With production that small, it can be tough to get any sort of distribution given the three-tier system that certainly benefits larger producers. Clearly, as many of the producers already realized, Southern Oregon wineries, out of necessity, need to focus on direct to consumer sales. This can also be quite challenging, however, given the myriad state laws and regulations.
Reluctantly, we loaded back into the van and left the bucolic Abacela Vineyards and Winery, heading up just a few miles north to TeSóAria Vineyard and Winery for lunch, and yes, several more wines, this time with a focus on emerging varieties in Southern Oregon.