Passion for Spanish wine drives Abacela owner

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a little Iberian blood coursing through the veins of Abacela Winery founder Earl and Hilda Jones.

It’s the only way I can explain why someone would leave successful and rewarding medical careers to grow Spanish wine grapes and make Spanish wines … in Oregon.

Winemaking is a mixture of art and science, and that suits Earl Jones, who was a researcher in immunology for many, many years.

“As a researcher, I traveled frequently to Europe,” he said. And he fell in love with Spanish food and Tempranillo wine while traveling in Spain. “Spanish food isn’t highly spicy, but I found that their wines go well with spicy food. Spicy foods work well with Tempranillo,” he said.

Passion for food and wine is one thing, but switching careers? What prompted him to pull up his family roots from Pensacola, Florida, and leave his career to become a winemaker and grape grower in Oregon?

Earl, Hilda & Rastus

Earl, Hilda & Rastus

Hilda was working at the time as a medical technologist.

“Everyone’s entitled to a mid-life crisis,” Jones said laughing as I interviewed him at the Oregon Tempranillo Celebration a few weeks ago in Ashland.

Some people buy expensive cars. Jones became a winemaker. Hilda became a viticulturist.

Jones said he knew at the time that Tempranillo was being grown in California, but it was blended with other grapes in what he described as “jug wine.” But he wasn’t deterred.

In 1989, Earl and his wife, Hilda, decided to pursue their new dream of creating a little piece of Iberia in America and began their quest to find a suitable site to grow Spanish grape varieties and make Spanish wines.

Earl and his wife returned to Spain to learn what quality factors contributed to fine Tempranillo from the Rioja and Ribera Del Duoro regions, regarded as the regions that made the best Tempranillo in Spain. Many claimed it was a combination of soil and winemaker, but the Joneses discovered something else. They were able to obtain detailed climate records from the Spanish government and learned that Ribera Del Duero and Rioja shared the same short growing season characterized by a dry, hot summer.

Armed with this information, they began searching for a region in America that would match the climate in the top Tempranillo producing regions in Spain. Their son, Greg Jones, a graduate student of atmospheric sciences at the time, was able to obtain airport weather data from cities across America and help them analyze it. This allowed them to zero in on Southern Oregon and the Umpqua Valley in particular.

“I remember going up in a plane with a pilot, and when I saw that hillside, I knew that’s the piece of land that I wanted,” Jones said. The piece of land was a south-facing rocky hillside south of Roseburg.

Abacela's Cobblestone Hill Vineyard

Abacela’s Cobblestone Hill Vineyard

When they bought the land in 1992 and moved out west in 1994, they had no idea what their outcome would be. They were scientists with no winemaking experience who left secure careers with their families in tow.

When asked how he came up with the name for his winery, Jones said he stumbled on it during a research trip to Spain, when he went to a library in Bilbao. There, he picked up what he thought was an atlas, and the word “abacelar” in the index caught his eye. The word means “to plant a grape vine,” and its third-person conjugation “abacela” means “he/she/they plant a vine.”

In 1995, they planted the first vines, and in 1996, they had their first harvest and made their first wines.

Now, 20 years later, their winery, Abacela, is widely regarded as a world class maker of Tempranillo as well as other Spanish varieties.

Just like winemaking is a combination of art and science, the establishment and success of Abacela Winery was a combination of hard work and a bit of good fortune for the Joneses.

By Victor Panichkul