Sparkling Future for High Desert

By John Gottberg

It’s official: The vintners of Central Oregon are WACKO.

The formation of the Winegrowers Association of Central Oregon—a region not hitherto noted for its vineyards—may signal a new era for sparkling wines. Certainly, that’s the belief of Doug Maragas, owner of the Culver-based Maragas Winery (with his wife, Gina) and the motivational force behind the new association.

“We added the ‘K’ because some people do think we’re ‘wacko,’” Maragas said. “But we’re on the ground floor for tremendous growth. We want to attract people who are making some seriously good wines, and make this area between Terrebonne and Madras into a world-class winegrowing area.”

A former trial attorney from Toledo, Ohio—and the grandson of a winemaker from the Grecian island of Crete—Maragas established his winery in Bend in 1999. Initially, he produced only Zinfandel, Pinot Blanc and Muscat varietals with grapes from California’s Mendocino County. But in 2005, he purchased the Culver property, 27 miles north of Bend on U.S. Highway 97, and in 2007 he planted his first grapes. On Sept. 19, he’s inviting the public to join in his first “grape stomp,” an event that he hopes will become annual.

“The soil here is perfect for sparkling wines,” he said. “The sandy loam drains really well into volcanic tuff, especially on our gradual south-facing slope. In this high-desert climate, there is an enormous diurnal temperature shift in summer, from 85 degrees down to 45 degrees at night. That adds to the quality of the wine grape.

“At our elevation of 2,800 feet, photons from the sun are much more intense than in the Willamette Valley. Our climate here is much drier, of course, but we can control our water through irrigation. With a higher latitude than California, our days are longer in summer … so although we have a shorter growing season, we have rapid maturation of our grapes.”

Maragas said Central Oregon grapes ripen approximately a month earlier than in these other regions. “By picking in September as opposed to October, we avoid the very real problem of an early frost,” he said. “It makes sense for us to do sparkling, economically as well as to alleviate stress.”

Maragas said he currently has 35 different varietals planted on his 2½ acres. The sweet Muscat grape predominates, but he said Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are also doing well. “We’re still in the experimental stage,” he said. “We’ll focus on what does best.”

The winery produced 2,000 cases of wine in 2008 and expects to increase to 2,300 in 2009. These include the signature Legal Zin; a reserve Zinfandel that is blended with Petite Sirah; a Bordeaux-style Cabernet-Merlot blend known only as “M”; a barrel-fermented Chardonnay; a light, German-style Pinot Gris called Pinot Riche, and the winery’s Kool Kat Muscat dessert wine.

Within 10 years, Maragas said, he hopes to produce around 18,000 cases. “Our big model is direct sales and local distribution,” he said. “We have our wines in 60 restaurants, nearly all of them in Central Oregon. And it would please me to an incalculable degree to be able to source grapes here and not have to go to California.”

His goal, Maragas said, is systematic development … something that has up to now been difficult. “We’ve experienced out-of-control crazy growth,” he said. “We are currently more than 25 percent over last year’s gross sales. That’s great, but we’d rather be thought of as elegant, casual, chic. I see us as a smaller-scale winery that is classy to the fullest extent.”

Part of the winery’s recent growth issues, Maragas said, stemmed from a legal matter that forced him to briefly return to the profession he thought he left 10 years ago. “There was no way we could operate at full capacity until this was resolved,” he said. “Had I not been a lawyer, it would have been over for us. How ironic that this was exactly what I used to do!”

Jefferson County welcomed the Maragas family in 2005, issuing a commercial permit when they purchased the old farm that is now the winery. But soon after the Maragases began building new facilities in 2006, the county informed them that the permitting process had not been done “appropriately” … and that they were operating illegally. A citation was issued in 2007, and trials in circuit and administrative court followed.

“I’ve had enough experience with governments to know that sometimes they make mistakes,” Maragas said. “That wasn’t due process, for them to try to take it back. The constitution guarantees you’ll get a hearing, especially if it affects your livelihood. This would have been a terrible case for them.”

Eventually, Maragas said, the county acknowledged the positive economic effect that a wine-growing business could bring to economically oppressed Jefferson County and the entire Madras area. “This is good for the land and good for property values,” Maragas said. “The underlying question became: Why wouldn’t you want this?”

Call him “wacko” if you will, but Doug Maragas could turn out to be a visionary. 

John Gottberg writes about restaurants and travel for The Bulletin, Bend’s daily newspaper. Raised in Eugene, he returned to Oregon five years ago after three decades of chasing grapes around the world.

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