2017 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year: Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyard

ROSEBURG, Ore. — If Stephen Reustle hadn’t gone out for a jog one day, all of us would have been denied the opportunity to taste some of the best wines ever produced in the Pacific Northwest.

Reustle, owner and winemaker for Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards in Southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, was a CPA looking to make a career change. One day, he was checking out a property in Oregon when he decided to go for a jog.

What he saw caused him to call his wife, Gloria, leading to the decision to make their home near Roseburg. Here he would go on to craft some of the finest wines anywhere.

In the past few vintages, it has become increasingly apparent that Reustle is simply making the best wines in the Northwest – and in some cases, the world.

For example:

• His Reserve Syrah won double gold at the American Fine Wine Competition in January. That’s the 53rd time one of his Syrahs has scored gold or better at a major competition.

• He won five double gold medals in January’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. It’s the largest judging of American wines in the world.

• In December, he combined for 10 Platinum and Double Platinum awards from Wine Press Northwest in its annual Best of the Best competition.

• In spring 2016, he won best dessert wine at the Dan Berger International Wine Competition in California.

• He won five gold medals or better at last year’s Savor NW competition in Oregon.

• Most impressively of all, he won Best New World Syrah at the 2015 Six Nations Wine Challenge, beating out stellar Syrahs from California and Australia.

Since launching his winery in 2004, Reustle has steadily proven he can excel with seemingly any variety. He now stands amid an elite group of winemakers who are the best in the country.

For these and many other reasons, Wine Press Northwest is naming Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards its 2017 Pacific Northwest Winery of the Year.

Reustle was born and raised in Philadelphia. After graduating from Rutgers University, he lived an hour’s drive outside of Manhattan, where he spent many years as a certified public accountant and later as owner of a marketing company. When he decided to leave the East Coast rat race, he was far too young to retire, so he and Gloria decided to see what their second act in life would be.

Reustle always loved wine, in particular the Riojas of Spain, an approachable Tempranillo-based red wine.

“That was the only wine I could afford in my 20s,” he said. “I could afford great Tempranillos for $6 or $7.”

Unsure where life would lead them, the couple moved to California, where Reustle studied winemaking and began trying to figure out where he would land.

“My wife gave me permission to start a whole new career,” he said. “I always loved farming, so she agreed to us coming out to California, and we lived there for one year.”

Reustle is a studious guy, and he set out to investigate the best places to plant a vineyard where he could accomplish what he wanted. His search stretched from Temecula in Southern California’s Riverside County all the way to Walla Walla, Wash.

Reustle was committed to cool-climate viticulture and winemaking.

“If you get your site planted properly with the right varieties in the right place, and you do proper hygiene in the winery, then you’ll make very good wine,” he said.

Sounds simple enough.

He nearly purchased 200 acres in the Anderson Valley, a gorgeous wine-producing region in Mendocino County just north of Sonoma County. But his due diligence behooved a visit to Oregon, so he checked out the Umpqua Valley. Then he went for the run that changed his life.

“I was jogging by a stream, and as I was jogging, I saw a mom and a dad playing with their kids and laughing and having a good time,” he said. “As I’m running, I’m saying, ‘This is a really great place to raise a family.’ I went about 100 yards and saw a really old man and a really old woman sitting on a bench looking at the Umpqua River, holding each other’s hands, and I said, ‘This is a really great place to grow old.’ I ran back to the hotel, I called my wife, who was in California, and I said, ‘Honey, I think we gotta do this.’ “

In 2001, they bought 200 acres in the Umpqua Valley and began to plant grapes, much of it on 14 acres of hillsides.

Reustle and his family are devoutly and proudly Christian. At the top of his vineyard is a rock about the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. When Reustle began planting his vineyard, he would take his young son, Walter, then 4, with him to the top of the vineyard.

“I used to put him up on the rock and we’d look at this vista and I would say, ‘Walter, Daddy’s going to pray.’ Then I’d say, ‘It’s your turn to pray.’

“One day, I came up to the rock and rather than stop and pray, I turned around to walk back, and he grabbed me by the arm– and he has these big, brown eyes – and he says, ‘Daddy, we didn’t pray at the rock.’ As soon as he said that, I said, ‘Prayer Rock.’ So we named the winery Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyard.”

Early on, Reustle turned to Southern Oregon University climatologist Greg Jones, who now is one of the wine world’s leading climate researchers.

“I had him come out and do a climatology study on my site and show me what the heat units were,” Reustle said. “He got me intrigued by an Australian author, Dr. Gladstone, who wrote a book called Viticulture and the Environment. I just have read through that five times. It’s so rich in giving you information on what to plant on your site.

“It was very important for me to plant the right vines on the right rootstock in the right place on our particular site,” he added. “So we took our time and planted a variety of grape varieties.”

In fact, Reustle used various resources to figure out what to plant on every slope of his estate. The results: beautiful fruit and beautiful wines.

One of Reustle’s most famous wines is Syrah, of which he makes no fewer than three styles.

“I really thought it was going to be all about Pinot Noir because I’m passionate about Pinot Noir,” he said with an easy laugh. “I did some studies on what clones work well in the northern Rhône Valley. I planted four clones of Syrah and what I wasn’t afraid to do was pick early, when the acids are still there and you develop those cracked black pepper components.

“Whereas Australian Syrahs and some California Syrahs tend to be that big, rich, jammy, over-alcoholic Syrah, I wanted more of a French/Rhône style,” Reustle continued. “We’re in a cool climate, and I think with our warm days and cool nights, we can retain that acidity and make wonderful wines. So the cracked black pepper component stayed, and you get the gaminess to it that makes it really nice.”

In his wildest dreams, Reustle never figured to become the American king of Grüner Veltliner, the famous Austrian white wine. But he planted the first Grüner in the United States and now makes four separate bottlings each year – and is considering a sparkling.

That all started on a motorcycle trip through Austria a few years ago. He was at a high-end restaurant and asked the waiter to select a great white and a great red.

“He brought me a Grüner and a Blaüfrankisch (Lemberger),” Reustle said. “I tried the Grüner, and I was blown away. When I got back to the United States, I looked to see who was making Grüner, and it was nobody. So we planted it in 2003.”

Reustle likens Grüner to Riesling in that it lends itself stylistically to being either bone dry, a little off-dry or even sparkling. It’s a flexible grape. So he decided to make four styles. The first is a lean, traditional style he refers to as his “Estate Grüner.” The second is a reserve that has a trace of residual sugar to give it fullness. His third, Smaragd, is made in the style of the highest designation in Austria. His fourth style will be released in 2018 and will be called Dolium. It was made in a concrete tank.

“I can tell you it’s going to knock your socks off,” he said enthusiastically.

A sparkling Grüner? He’s tracked down a version being made in Michigan that he hopes to one day emulate.

Reustle has gotten back around to producing a couple of styles of Pinot Noir – his first love that brought him to Oregon some 15 years ago. He said growing Pinot Noir in the Umpqua Valley is not all that unusual.

“I think it’s a mistake for people to think about the Umpqua Valley as being a warm region,” Reustle said. “It really isn’t. Terry Brandborg is making some great cool-climate Pinot Noirs and Gewürztraminers. The Umpqua Valley is really divided into three areas: You have that hot area where Earl (Jones of Abacela) is. We’re in the mid-part, and Terry (Brandborg) is in the north toward the coast. I think the Umpqua makes wonderful Pinot Noirs. You have to be on the right site.”

Based on all the awards and accolades Reustle has earned since his first vintage more than 15 years ago, it’s safe to say he made the right decision to come to Oregon. And it’s all to our benefit.