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.”