The Umpqua, a Sense of Place

By Nancy Rodriguez, Oregon Valley Verve Magazine

A convergence of three mountain ranges, the Klamath, the Cascades and the Coast Range created this region with a series of interconnecting small mountain ranges and valleys.  A convergence of another kind occurred when in the 1880’s pioneers with a vision and a passion traveled the Applegate Trail to create a “sense of place” in this valley of one hundred valleys. That interconnection led to the new frontier of winemaking and to a success that far exceeds the boundaries of the geographic limits or confines of time. “The fundamental idea of place led to success.”  Earl Jones, Abacela

Standing on the threshold of the future and where the old world meets the new world, in 1961 Richard Sommer established Hillcrest Winery. It is the oldest bonded winery in the state and officially designated the birthplace of Pinot Noir in Oregon. His humble words of “let’s see what works,” were the beginning of the modern day wine industry in Oregon. The Umpqua is the oldest wine producing region in the state. The Oregon Winegrowers Association was established here in 1969 and designated an AVA in 1984. It is home to 23 wineries producing 40 different varietals.  All of the Umpqua winemakers begin their story with the *belief in terroir, a search for the place where the “wine tastes like the growing conditions.” Micro-climate driven the region produces varietals from the cool climate Pinot Noir of the coast range to Tempranillo first planted here in 1995 by Earl and Hilda Jones owners of Abacela. “Listen to the vines, do what the fruit says to do.” Earl Jones

There is a history here of firsts in this valley. The first planting of Pinot Noir at Hillcrest Vineyards, first of Tempranillo in the Pacific Northwest at Abacela, first Grüner Veltliner planted in the United States at Reustle Prayer Rock, the Paul O’Brien Winery, the first urban winery in Roseburg, part of the new wave of winemakers, “Creating something unique and transforming the downtown.” Scott Kelley, Owner Paul O’Brien/ Winemaker.

All on the forefront of the new frontier, defying the odds and following the lead of those who had found their place. “This is the chosen place, the golden moment; it took everyone to get us here.” Dyson DeMara Owner/ Winemaker Hillcrest Winery

The recognition of the region continues to grow with each vintage.  From the awards presented at the Greatest of the Grape, the oldest wine festival in the state and now in its 47th year to the medals bestowed upon the wines of the Umpqua at the recent Oregon Wine Experience 2016 in Jacksonville, to the international attention putting the spotlight on the winemakers and wines of the Umpqua. Giving more credibility to what gives this region the distinction of being one of the top ten wine country destinations is the Somm Camp being hosted by the Reustle Prayer Rock Winery this coming spring. Based on the accolades and awards received for their 2012 Syrah at the Six Nations Wine Challenge held in Sydney Australia in 2015, Reustle Prayer Rock gained the attention of the Somm Journal which has declared the Umpqua an upstart AVA redefining wine in Oregon. The ‘Big Three’, Reustle Prayer Rock, Abacela and Brandborg Winery, each having been named ‘Winery of the Year’ and in total producing 20 different varietals all gold medal winners was the determining factor in bringing the Somm Camp to the Umpqua and which is now open for participation by all wineries in the region. Stephen Reustle’s philosophy and motivation comes from the idea that all will benefit from each success and the identity of this region will be further established as a place producing world class wine. *At a recent seminar hosted by the Southern Oregon Wine Institute on agritourism in Oregon, held in collaboration with the Oregon Wine Board and Travel Oregon, the future of the wine industry was the full agenda. Creating identity for this region which encompasses wineries which in addition to the “Big Three” would include the long established Girardet, Delfino, Spangler, Misty Oaks, Bradley to wineries now making a name for themselves, Paul O’Brien, Season Cellars, TeSoAria, Anindor, Triple Oak Vineyard, to one of the  newer vineyards with a view, Cooper Ridge.  

The prevailing wisdom of the winemakers is that they are collectively “stewards of the land.” With roots in the valley spreading out, the journey continues along the Umpqua Valley Wine Trail and beyond. Perhaps the embodiment of the pioneering spirit as evidenced in the new pioneers is best stated by Terry Brandborg owner and award winning winemaker of the Brandborg Winery, “I feel as if I haven’t arrived yet, always learning, haven’t made the best wine yet.”

* Three mountain ranges colliding would bring together a force from which would emerge the essential elements, climate, terroir and determination to create a “sense of place.”  To borrow from Marc Girardet, owner-winemaker of Girardet, “Taste three times, bottle only once. The power of three.”

Sensational SOMM Camp

by Kevin Breck, Wine Scene Magazine

Recently, 15 sommeliers from Oregon, Washington, California and Colorado arrived in Roseburg to attend the Umpqua Valley 2017 SOMM Camp. Unlike most of the camps that you’ve attended, this camp did not feature lanyard making or s’mores. This camp featured WINE. Lots of wine. Created by The SOMM Journal, SOMM Camps bring certified sommeliers to different winegrowing regions of the world to experience the terroir of the place, and to meet local winemakers and winegrowers. Organized by the “Big Tree:” Abacela Winery, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery, and Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, the event gave the Somms a unique opportunity to meet with scions of the Umpqua Valley wine industry, in particular Earl Jones, Terry Brandborg, and Stephen Reustle.

Over the ensuing four days, campers sipped almost countless wines from nine Umpqua Valley vineyards and wineries, toured much of the region, and enjoyed gourmet meals featuring locally-sourced ingredients. Here are some of the highlights:

Climatologist Greg Jones gave an overview of the region’s unique climate and terroir. Jones explained that Southern Oregon is unique among winegrowing regions in number of varieties that grow here (70), in the length of its growing season (175 days from bud break to harvest) and in its 32° diurnal temperature swings in August and September. Stephen Reustle noted, “Cold nights preserve acidity in the grapes, while hot summer days enhance aromatics in the wine.”

Campers participated in a blind tasting billed, “Umpqua vs. the World,” featuring six blind flights: Gewürztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Albariño, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Tempranillo. Each flight included three wines made by one of the Big Tree; the fourth was a European “sleeper.” Campers had to decide which ones were not made in the Umpqua. Te best score was four out of six.

The Somms also visited the 550 acre Blue Heron Vineyards, the largest vineyard in Douglas County. Vineyard managers Teal and Taylor Stone provided a short explanation of vineyard operations, and gave the sommeliers an opportunity to try their hands at shoot thinning.

Based on their comments, the Somms enjoyed their time in the Umpqua Valley. Mike Pickering, Sommelier for the Marriott Marquis San Diego Marina, has a special connection to Brandborg: he shared a bottle of 2006 Brandborg Pinot Noir with his bride-to-be on their first date. Pickering described his experience, saying “I love visiting ‘under the radar’ regions like Umpqua because there isn’t any pretense; the experience is a lot more welcoming than, say, going to Napa. To really be able to pick the winemaker’s brain about on-site location, terroir, and wine making techniques shows that there is a lot of talent in the area, and I can’t wait to watch the area evolve.”

Shelby Peterson is Wine and Beverage Director at the C Lazy U Dude Ranch in Granby, Colorado. During the summer, she hosts wine tastings every Monday. She plans to share her experience in the Umpqua Valley and will feature as many wines as she can.

Amanda Cannon, Wine Director at Q Restaurant & Bar in Portland, described her experience saying, “Umpqua Valley wine camp exceeded my expectations. I went into the weekend knowing I would have fun and learn a lot, but left feeling connected to the Umpqua Valley. Wineries always treat their guests well, but in this case, we were treated like family. It was amazing to see how the community banded together to share their stories and passion for the region. Te Umpqua Valley has more to offer than wine; it has beautiful scenery, amazing food, and even better people.

The Golden Anniversary of Oregon Pinot Noir

by MJ Daspit, Wine Scene Magazine

This year marks the 50th-anniversary of the first commercially-released vintage of Pinot Noir in Oregon. Only 200 cases were made in the Umpqua Valley’s Richard Sommer from his HillCrest estate grapes harvested in 1967. Of those 200 cases, only one case remains, carefully preserved by present HillCrest owners Dyson and Susan DeMara.

As officially commemorated by Oregon House Resolution 4-A in 2011, Sommer was the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon in 1961. DeMara, who acquired HillCrest from Sommer in 2003, explains that Sommer propagated cuttings obtained in 1959 from Louis Martini’s famous Stanley Ranch, previously known as Talcoa Vineyard, the first vineyard planted in Napa Valley. Two years later, after the vines had rooted, Sommer transplanted them to establish his vineyard. The House Resolution goes on to credit Sommer with being the first in Oregon to use stainless steel tanks for fermentation, an innovation he introduced in 1963, and the first to bottle a commercial Pinot Noir in 1967.

What do we know about the quality of Sommer’s 1967 Pinot Noir? The fruit was not of a specific clone. Clone notation was not in use at that time; rather, different strains of fruit were distinguished by “selection,” a term used to denote plant material sourced from random vines of a great vineyard. “It’s like a bouquet of different flowers versus a single flower,” DeMara explains. Sommer’s fruit was of Stanley Ranch’s highly-prized “Martini” selection.

DeMara relates a story told by the founder of the legendary Oregon wine distributor, Henny-Hinsdale, who dropped into the HillCrest tasting room over Thanksgiving weekend, 2016. “This man is about 75-years-old. He and his wife walk into the tasting room and he says, I’m Mr. Hinsdale. I said, Oh my God, of Henny-Hinsdale? You’re a legend! Hinsdale was the distributor for Sommer, David Lett and Charles Coury as well as for the French house Domaine Drouhin, a prominent Burgundy producer. Hinsdale asked Robert Drouhin if he’d be willing to do a tasting of some new Oregon wines that he repped. So in 1970, Hinsdale had a tasting at his house and all those gentlemen were there. Drouhin said the ’67 Pinot he tasted from HillCrest was the first American Pinot Noir that tasted like Burgundy to him. He said the wine tasted like Monthelie and that’s what made him decide to come to Oregon over California.” Domaine Drouhin Oregon was indeed established in the Dundee Hills in 1987.

DeMara remembers his own first encounter with Sommer’s 1967 Pinot. He came across some bottles a few years back when cleaning-out an old egg barn. Sitting on the tailgate of a pickup truck to taste the wine, DeMara was amazed that it was still very drinkable, still showing some fruit.

So how will HillCrest Pinot Noir show at 50? DeMara plans to open a bottle with a few invited guests this fall at the start of harvest at HillCrest. “I’d like to keep as much of the ’67 vintage as I can for the future. But having said that, I’d also like to commemorate the significance of what Richard Sommer did for Oregon and American wine. We’ll christen the harvest and then have a very special dinner.”

To mark this special anniversary year, the 2017 HillCrest Pinot Noir will have the original label that Sommer’s pioneering 1967 Pinot Noir wore. A charity auction of one of the famous 1967 bottles is also in the works. How much will a connoisseur pay to add such a unique bottle to his collection? That remains to be seen.  As Dyson says, “It’s an amazing thing today to have one of only 12 bottles of the first Oregon Pinot Noir ever commercially produced in Oregon.”

Somm Camp introduces wine professionals to the Umpqua Valley

Emily Hoard, The News-Review

Swirling, sniffing, tasting and enjoying, a group of sommeliers from around the U.S. experienced a variety of wines in the Umpqua Valley during last week’s Somm Camp.

The 2017 Somm Camp, sponsored by The SOMM Journal magazine, brought the wine stewards and Douglas County wineries together to learn what makes vineyards in the Umpqua Valley complex, diverse and unique.

Through vineyard tours, wine tastings, presentations and more, the three-day event offered a variety of activities at several local businesses.

Nanette Rapuzzi, a sommelier at Bacara Resort & Spa in Santa Barbara, California, came to Somm Camp to expand her knowledge of wine in Southern Oregon.

While judging the quality of wines, she looks for complexity, balance and structure.

“The wines are amazing, terroir driven and with age ability potential,” Rapuzzi said of local wines, adding that she loves the region and can’t wait to come back. “I think the Umpqua Valley has so much potential!”

She expressed enthusiasm for the hospitality in the area and said everyone she met made her trip special.

Fellow sommelier Sharon Coombs, the beverage director at Craft Los Angeles, said touring around the Umpqua Valley during Somm Camp allowed her to get a better sense of place and put the whole piece together, from the soil and the landscape to the climate and the people.

“I’m really impressed with the quality of the presentations and how well organized the events are,” Coombs said under a pavilion at Blue Heron Vineyards in Roseburg.

Teal and Taylor Stone of Blue Heron Vineyards held a question-and-answer session about their grape production before leading sommeliers in a shoot-thinning demonstration among the vines.

Another highlight for Coombs was the Umpqua versus the World wine tasting at Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards last Sunday evening. The sommeliers tasted local wines next to highly rated European wines in a blind tasting, and found they could rarely distinguish which were from the Umpqua and which were award-winners from across the world.

Stephen Reustle, owner of Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards in Roseburg, said Somm Camp was a great success.

“The sommeliers were in large part unfamiliar with wineries in the Umpqua Valley, and they were blown away with the quality of wines they experienced here, and also by the beauty of the Umpqua Valley,” Reustle said. “A good majority of them said they’ll be coming back with their spouses to enjoy the area.”

A wine tasting at Abacela Winery on Tuesday afternoon stood out for Reustle. Abacela, Reustle-Prayer Rock and Brandborg Vineyard & Winery each brought wines over 10 years old for the tasting.

Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Winery, said geology, soil type and climate have a profound effect on vineyards, which is why different wines come out of Brandborg to the north, the centrally located Reustle-Prayer Rock and his winery in the southern part of the valley.

“All of us in the valley agree climate is the critical thing,” Jones said, adding that climate permits grapes to grow, thereby determining the length of the growing season.

The key to the Umpqua Valley, he said, is its seven-month growing season that allows the grapes to ripen just before harvest in the fall.

“This climate envelope we enjoy is the only place on the American West Coast that has this climate,” Jones said. “We’re the only ones that are at the right latitude to have the right solar angle to give us a spring, summer and autumn that’s just right to do this.”

Greg Jones, a climatologist and son of Earl and Hilda Jones, presented about the climate framework for producing quality wines in the Umpqua Valley. He explained that different types of grapes grow at different climates and ripen during certain months. Between the three different climate zones and the seven-month growing season in the valley, this area could grow about 73 varietals of grapes.

Terry Brandborg hosted a tasting and dinner at his Elkton-based winery Monday night and told the sommeliers about the history of wine growing in Elkton. In 1972, a man named Ken Thomason planted the first grapes there, reisling, gewurztraminer and pinot noir, which remain the core varieties grown in Elkton today.

Elkton’s climate is largely impacted by maritime influence, as its terrain consists of ancient sea floors that have been uplifted by movement of tectonic plates.

“It was an opportunity to get greater exposure for the Umpqua Valley, promote growth in the industry and bring awareness to wine professionals to the work we’re doing here,” Brandborg said of Somm Camp. “They’ll share their experience with other people and it creates quite a buzz for our region.”

“It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase the Umpqua Valley and the outstanding wines that are being produced in the valley to a group of sommeliers with a sophisticated palate,” added Jean Kurtz, president of the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association. She said Reustle had a big part in making the event possible.

According to Reustle, the success of the Umpqua Valley wine country also benefits the local economy through restaurants, gas stations and hotels.

“We’re hopeful this is the first of many events to bring attention to Douglas County and Umpqua Valley wineries,” Reustle said.

Reporter Emily Hoard can be reached at 541-957-4217 or Or follow her on Twitter @hoard_emily.

Undercover Umpqua, The SOMM Journal


by Christine Havens

THE UMPQUA VALLEY has a streak of wildness to it. Sparsely populated, its towns lie scattered amidst a series of rugged, undulating hills thatched in spikey Douglas fir and black oak. The Umpqua River and its winding tributaries churn and tumble through a network of valleys formed by the collision of three mountain ranges—the Klamath, the Coast Range and the Cascades—before emptying into the Pacific Ocean. In the 1800s, prospectors dredged and panned sandbars of the South Umpqua and the Rogue rivers, in search of matchhead–sized nuggets of gold. It’s this dramatic history and landscape that colors the region, whose wines I had never tasted despite 15 years in the wine industry, most of them spent in the Pacific Northwest. As I would quickly learn on a pre-harvest junket in 2015, the wines from the emerging Southern Oregon AVA are as complex and surprising as the terrain itself.

SOMM Journal


On that cloudless mid-summer day, I found myself squinting into bright afternoon sunlight, listening to winemaker Earl Jones of Abacela Vineyards & Winery as he explained the significance of the Klamath-Coastal fault line that runs through his tidy south-facing vineyard blocks. Looking more like an archeologist than winegrower, clad in khakis and a weathered hat, Jones explained the rationale behind his risky decision to plant Spanish varieties in the Umpqua Valley.

“The story was, only Rioja could grow great Tempranillo,” recounts Jones. “In 1972 Alejandro Fernández, founder of Tinto Pesquera, proved everyone wrong by cultivating Tempranillo in Ribera del Duero. Prior to Pesquera, experts said fine Tempranillo could only be produced in Rioja because no one else had the soil, i.e. terroir. I concluded that Rioja’s three soils and Pesquera’s all being different couldn’t explain their wines’ excellence. But what could? Using readily available Spanish weather data, I noted the Rioja and Ribera climate to be nearly identical and concluded that climate was the terroir factor for Tempranillo. I soon set off to do the same in America. I wanted a hillside location. When we found this spot, I didn’t know it was sitting on a fault line. Having a wide selection of soils was total luck.”

Jones also crafts bone dry Albariños with amped-up acidity that show complexity and restraint. The most recent vintage delivers lemon curd, dried pear, star fruit and white flowers—taught and lean with an arching acid spine and subtle minerality that reads as talc, wet stone and marjoram blossom.

Dubbed the “Hundred Valleys of the Umpqua,” Jones’s property lies in the warmer southern end of the AVA. Evergreens give way to rolling oak savannah, and the site lies within a rain shadow created by the Oregon Coastal Range and portions of the Klamath Mountains, well shielded from the marine air that cools the AVA at its northernmost tip.

The kind of complex faulting found in Umpqua Valley, and particularly in Abacela’s vineyards, produces dramatic variations in soil types over small areas. Earl’s vines dig deep into mixed clay, silt and cobble-sand soils; there are five distinct soil types in all, with heavier more clay-laden soils at lower elevations.


At the same time that Earl Jones started his search for the perfect climate for Tempranillo, Terry Brandborg and his wife, Sue, were living in Northern California. Terry started as a home winemaker and launched his first label in 1986. “I cut my teeth on cool-climate varietals,” he says. “We had long theorized that as climate change progresses and inland viticultural areas warm, we’d still be able to grow the varieties we love thanks to the cooling effects of air from the Pacific Ocean. At that time I was sourcing Pinot from as far north as Anderson Valley, in Mendocino County. We started looking for a site [to purchase] from Central Coast, where I had purchased fruit from Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Maria Valley all the way into Humboldt County.”Brandborg

“We went to the Steamboat conference in 2001, and while on that trip we stopped by Abacela and got to talking with Earl Jones. We hit it off, and Earl recommended that we check out Elkton,” Terry recalled. “I’d had friends from San Francisco that had moved to the Umpqua Valley. We toured the region together when I would come to visit and I got to know Richard Sommers and Scott Henry, and some of the early pioneers.”

“As soon as I drove into Elkton, I turned to Sue and said, ‘This looks right.’ We got home to San Francisco and I started looking at climate data and started calculating it out. I told Sue, ‘This is the bullseye we’ve been looking for.’”

“We didn’t know anyone in Elkton,” he laughs; “it’s got a population of around 170, but we put an offer on the vineyard property where we originally thought we would put up our production facility in 2002. We bought the lot in Elkton. I designed the building. I brought the plans into the town clerk, she looked them over for a minute or two and said, ‘Looks good to me; go get a building permit’—that was it! I like to tell people how hard it was.” Elkton is the only true coastal region within the Umpqua Valley, the burgeoning sub-appellation lies just 36 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, and as in many of the coastal AVAs of California, cool air is funneled in from the ocean and channeled along a gentle grade that facilitates a strong maritime push. “Our own vineyard sits at a 1,000-foot elevation, just 25 miles from the coast. The geography of the Oregon Coastal Mountain Range is composed of layers of ancient seabed stacked up like an accordion. Our soil is quite red—the older a soil gets, the redder it gets; when we dig down, we get into limestone,” says Terry.


Similarly, Stephen Reustle and his wife, Gloria, came to the same conclusion in 2000—that the Umpqua Valley would be the ideal spot for growing the varieties they love. And like Jones and Brandborg, Reustle combed through prospective sites from Temecula to the rolling hills of Walla Walla Valley. “We left the East Coast and moved to San Francisco, which I then used as my base of operations to search for the ideal property to make world class wine. I put money down on 200 acres in the Anderson Valley and was considering another site in Sonoma. On a whim—we were just two weeks from closing—we decided to look at property in Tualatin. I wasn’t impressed, and my wife and I were in a Winnebago at the time. She’s from the Caribbean; it’s not a culture that camps!” The Reustle–Prayer Rock Vineyard Syrah is a wine that conjures freshness, with pitch perfect acidity.

ReustleReustle continues the story: “We were heading back to California in the RV, and I’m on the internet, and I happened to see a little ad in Umpqua Valley for a property with vineyard potential, so I called right away. When we saw the beautiful south-facing slopes on a 15 to 36 percent grade, we fell in love. I decided I can either be a small fish in a big pond, or I can be on the pioneering side trying to get a new AVA more recognition. At the time I bought, there was a new wave of people coming to Southern Oregon to invest.”

Notably, Reustle was the first winery to commercially produce Grüner Veltliner in the U.S., a variety he crafts with a deft hand. This flight, poured alongside a Grüner Veltliner from Pichler-Krutler, in Austria’s granitic Wachau region, was richly perfumed with blanched almonds, mandarin orange, wet pomace, anise, green tea and pear. Aged in concrete eggs, they exhibited textural elegance and a soaring inner tension that crescendoed with a spicy streak of white pepper and mâche. Tasted blind, it was almost impossible to single out the Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau.

Reustle’s Grüners thrive in clay loam and sandy loam soils. His Prayer Rock and Romancing Rock Vineyards are in central Umpqua Valley, midway between the AVA’s cool, marine north and warm Mediterranean south. “If you look at Brandborg, Reustle and Abacela, what you’ll find is three distinct sub-regions in terms of heat units,” explained Reustle. “We’re always told that terroir is all about the soil. In my opinion, the most important characteristic of soil is that it’s well-drained. Beyond this, climate is what determines terroir. Terry’s total heat unit accumulation is equivalent to the coolest sites in the Willamette Valley. We’re in between Terry and Earl, and Earl’s vines receive significantly more heat units annually than we do. The different temperature  zones are the biggest factor.”

We transition from Grüner to Syrah. A pair of 2014 Estate Syrahs and a 2010 face off against a Paul Jaboulet Aîné 2010 Domaine de Thalabert Crozes-Hermitage. The parallels between this smoky Northern Rhône and Reustle’s Syrahs are astonishing. His 2010 Estate Syrah is particularly riveting, with its cascading aromas of black olive,steeped blackberries, serrano ham, graphite and violet pastille. It’s a wine that conjures freshness, with pitch-perfect acidity lending balance and grace to layered black fruit, finely sueded tannins and a cracked black pepper finish.

It’s clear that Reustle’s research and care have paid off; his 2012 Masada Bloc Syrah won first place at the 6 Nations Competition in Sydney, Australia. Since that time, his Syrahs have won Double Gold at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition and Double Platinum awards in other highly competitive wine competitions. Most recently, the winery was named 2017 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

Is it European or is it Umpqua? Umpqua Valley Old World varietals—such as the Brandborg Pinot Noir, Reustle–Prayer Rock Vineyard Syrah and Abacela Tempramillo—left many of our panelists stumped.

Proof In The Tasting
I recently had the chance to catch up with Jones and his wife, Hilda, this time at a blind tasting coordinated by The Somm Journal, held at Portland’s cozy Le Pigeon. A group of wine buyers, beverage directors and somms gathered to see whether they could find the 90-plus-point European wine in each flight of four wines. The warm and cool-climate varieties showcased by Umpqua Valley’s top producers, collectively known as the Big Three—Abacela, Brandborg and Reustle–Prayer Rock Vineyards—perfectly illustrated the range of wine styles the Valley produces. The tasting commenced with an expressive, onion skin–colored flight of Gewurztraminer. (As in Alsace, the umlaut is generally omitted on this varietal name in the Umpqua Valley. —Ed.) Heavily laden with tropical notes of lychee, lemon drop, linden blossom, cinnamon and white pepper, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery’s Gewürztraminers struck a chord with tasters, who for the most part had trouble differentiating them from an Alsatian contender, Domaine Ostertag. In terms of energy—that hard-to-define nervy pulse that courses through weighty, fruit-filled layers—the wines from Umpqua Valley were as poised and imbued with minerally élan as their European counterpart. Terry Brandborg’s Pinot Noirs, tasted with a Gevrey-Chambertin from Louis Boillot hidden in the flight, showed equally well. With a profile more red-fruited than black, offering up tart pie cherries, raspberries, rhubarb compote and baking spice, set against an earthy backdrop; they are as elegant as any of their northern counterparts from the Willamette Valley.

A Rising Tide

For the final flight, Abacela’s inky and opaque Tempranillos radiated warmth and gravitas. Waves of roasted black cherries and plums emerged from over the course of the flight, followed by more ethereal notes of brick dust, dark chocolate shavings, tomato leaf, leather and char. Awash in concentrated black fruit and fine tannins, Abacela’s Tempranillos are wines with substantive energy and power. The outlier in the flight, Bodega Numanthia’s 2011 Numanthia Toro, was mistaken for one of the Tempranillos from the Umpqua Valley. In a group of 20 tasters, all but two thought that the Abacela 2005 Reserve Tempranillo was the European wine.

“Those of us who believe that a rising tide floats all boats, we’ve rolled up our sleeves and we’re trying to bring more attention to the region,” confided Terry Brandborg.

“It’s a funny thing—Sue and I went to the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium where Dr. Jamie Goode discussed climate change and England’s emerging sparkling wine market. He had a slide titled “Diversity is a Horrible Marketing Message.” That isn’t a choice Umpqua Valley growers have—we have embraced diversity, and we have to celebrate it. We’re hoping this tasting sheds light on what we have accomplished.”

Despite the fact that its earliest plantings predate those of the Willamette Valley—Richard Sommer was the first to plant Pinot Noir in Oregon—Umpqua remains eclipsed by its northern sister. I had, after all, moved back to Oregon after an absence of nearly 20 years with the intent of focusing on Willamette Valley’s excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines. Since then, subsequent visits to Umpqua and this tasting have convinced me to broaden my scope. I was struck by the emphasis that all three winemakers placed on climate over soil; all three have crafted varietal wines of great pedigree and finesse. And all the wines featured by The Somm Journal rivaled—and perhaps even transcended—those from some of the celebrated producers in the Old World. Europe does indeed exist in our backyard.

The SOMM Journal, April-May 2017