Buying South in the North
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By Janet Eastman/photography by Andrea Johnson
A woman is settled into a high-back leather chair at the Enoteca Wine Bar in Corvallis. She’s sipping, for the first time, a Maple Ranch Pinot Noir from Foris Vineyards. In Salem, patrons at Grand Vines wine bar and shop are hearing about Girardet’s Baco Noir. In Portland, Cork wine shop owner Darryl Joannides is talking up the virtues of Velocity Red.
Foris. Girardet. Velocity Cellars. If the names of these wineries don’t sound familiar to you, it’s probably because you live north of the Douglas-Lane County line, the invisible division between Northern and Southern Oregon. Until recently, few wines produced in the South’s Rogue and Umpqua valleys were sold beyond their boundaries.
“Ump what? Where’s the Umpqua Valley?” Pat Spangler heard repeatedly when he poured his Spangler Vineyard’s Cabernet Sauvignon in the Portland and Salem areas five years ago. “The discussion was always, ‘Who are you? What do you do?’”
Those questions are understandable considering about 80 percent of Oregon’s wineries – not to mention its population -- are in the north, and that more than half of its wine production is Pinot Noir, says Spangler, the recent past president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association. But with improved quality and quantity, wines from the southern valleys are making their way north. “They get something different from us,” Spangler says as more wine bars and shops are becoming receptive to the south’s range of varietals and styles.
Smaller southern wineries are witnessing the inroads made by their large-producing neighbors. Troon Vineyard, Folin Cellars and Cliff Creek Cellars opened tasting rooms in Carlton to strut their southern stuff. RoxyAnn Winery started a distribution company to serve the Portland area. There, its Northwest Wine Brokers’ warehouse is stocked with labels that rarely found their way onto the areas’ wine lists in the past but are in 200 places today. And many owners of wine bars and wine shops in the top half of the state are now genuinely excited about telling their customers about the full slate of the state’s offerings.
Some resistance, of course, remains. Many southern winery owners shake their heads “no” when asked if their label is available a few hundred miles from their tasting rooms. At issue: Southern Oregon wines have been faulted for inconsistency. Other problems include artisanal producers who don’t make enough for wide distribution. Small-to-medium producers hoping for more accounts say they get buried in big distributors’ price books. Or, if they’re representing themselves, they say it is hard to build relationships with wine bar and shop owners during infrequent trade shows and trips north. Welcome to the usual problems of doing business in Southern Oregon.
If you’re looking for southern wines in the north, your selection may be limited. Liner & Elsen Wine Merchants in Portland offers more than 2,000 wines with only a fraction from Southern Oregon, notably J. Scott Cellars, Rocky Knoll and RoxyAnn.
Herb Quady of Quady North in the Applegate Valley has seen his wine praised in national media and competitions. But he can quickly tick off the northern shops and bars that stock his wine: Sundance Wine Cellars/Oregon Wine Merchants in Eugene and The Cellar on 10th in Astoria. In Portland? “It's a little harder,” he says. “We're still trying to get them to warm up to us.” He says his wine is in Whole Foods Market, New Seasons Market and Oregon Wines on Broadway, but, he laments, “I didn't see a lot of other Southern Oregon wines there.”
Despite these obstacles, some retailers in the upper part of the state are cheerleaders for southies.
Gary Kneski of Thirst Wine Bar in Portland hosts a monthly tasting of Southern Oregon wines and says the reaction is a little bit of shock and awe. “Most folks are impressed that Southern Oregon can produce a Cabernet Sauvignon with depth and structure,” says Kneski, who works hard to offer an ever-revolving list of 25 or more wines by the glass and over 60 wines by the bottle. “In many cases, folks do not know that Southern Oregon wines exist, as most of the press has been focused on the Willamette Valley.”
Thirst customer Jim Voytko says he and his wife Beverly are well-traveled “experimentalists” when it comes to wine. The Portland couple knew of southern stalwarts Valley View Winery and RoxyAnn, but regular visits to Thirst introduced them and other tasters to Abacela Grenache and Vintner’s Blend, Cowhorn Syrah, HillCrest Heydon Road Cabernet Sauvignon, Troon Rosé, Del Rio Viognier and higher-end wines made by Willamette Valley producers with grapes grown in the southern part of the state. “While I love Pinot (Noir) to death, no wine lover wants to be a one-trick pony,” Voytko admits.
Kneski and his Thirst partner Leslie Palmer say they have contacted Jacksonville Vineyard and John Michael Champagne Cellars in the Applegate Valley to inquire about distribution in Portland. “We love the wines from Agate Ridge Vineyard but they aren’t in distribution here (that we know of),” adds Palmer.
Hope Kramer of Urban Decanter Wine Collection and Bar in Forest Grove also uses the “L” word when waxing enthusiastic about wines to the south. “We love to have a break from Pinot Noir every once in awhile, but we also love to show off all that Oregon has to offer and Southern Oregon offers a great variety of big reds,” she says.
Her shop carries large Southern Oregon producers, including some mentioned above and Weisinger’s of Ashland. On May 21, there will be a tasting by EdenVale Winery and on May 28, flights from Palotai Winery, “a new one to us,” Kramer says.
Sundance Wine Cellars/Oregon Wine Merchants currently sells wine from 20 different southern wineries, from relatively new Julianna Vineyards to award-laden Misty Oaks Vineyard. “Our customers who try to consciously buy locally produced food and wine are really appreciating the breadth that Southern Oregon adds to the mix of Oregon wine,” says Boris Wiedenfeld, Sundance’s general manager.
Widening the geographic net also helps round out the wine offerings at Alu Wine Bar in Portland since it limits itself to wines produced from biodynamic, organic and sustainable vineyards. Making the list are south-based Cowhorn Vineyard, Heydon Road, HillCrest, Quady North and Wooldridge Creek Winery.
“I've been a huge fan of Southern Oregon wines since my first sip of the 2000 Reserve Tempranillo from Abacela,” says Alu’s Jeff Vejr, recalling stops on a trip to Napa in 2002. “The memory of that wine stuck with me as I was tasting many of California's ‘finest.’”
Barb Kralj of Enoteca Wine Bar says pours by the glass help get the word out in Corvallis. “Many of the people who come to our Wednesday night wine tastings make their own wine or are students who want to learn more about wine,” she says, “so the questions to the winemakers are fantastic. The winemakers get to talk in-depth with customers who then walk out of here with arms full of bottles of wine. Even though the students at the university may not be able to buy a bottle, they get to taste it.”
Echoing others who say that their mission is to offer a full range of Oregon wines, Kralj adds: “We got lucky with Southern Oregon wines because they’re brilliant.”
Janet Eastman writes for national publications and covers Southern Oregon wine for Examiner.com. Her work can be seen at www.janeteastman.com