Umpqua’s New Wave
AVA builds on success with pool of young talent
This new generation of producers is helping steer the ship with no indication of docking any time soon. They are setting their course on a voyage of discovery, helping shape the Umpqua by putting their own messages into bottles.
When one succeeds, everyone benefits. Terry Brandborg, one of the area’s most prominent winemakers, concurs, “A rising tide floats all boats.”
The adage is true, especially for new waves of producers who have the privilege of experimenting on the firm foundation that is the Umpqua Valley.
A young, energetic woman who embodies the spirit of New World wine, Paige Cook graduated from the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College with a solid knowledge of winemaking and a “rules out the window” confidence.
Her philosophy? Take traditions and make them work in a novel way.
Raised in Roseburg, she feels a commitment to tell the story of the Umpqua, the birthplace of Oregon’s modern wine industry. Yet the wine scene here is evolving, and she would like to be a part of the change.
Transferring all the passion she possessed as an entrepreneur devoted to promoting a snowboard company, she is now building her own wine brand, La Belle Noir. She and her partner, David Sischo, processed their 2014 vintage — 9 tons — with help from friend and mentor Andrew Wenzl, Abacela’s winemaker.
She credits Wenzl with helping her develop her style, yet Cook’s winemaking reflects her personal ideals: “Create your own way; be successful by following your own path and not the one everyone is taking.” To that end, she’s specializing in sparkling.
Cook describes herself as a plant nerd, collector of flowers and an urban forager who pays attention to what is around her in the natural world. This forms the core of her approach to winemaking: environmentally friendly, organic farming in the vineyard and the utilization of reusable bottles. Cook is besotted with ideas, and her search now is for a space that fits her style.
With roots firmly in the valley, she wants to reach beyond the Umpqua in discovering who responds to her style of wine. Bringing it full circle with the words of Richard Sommer, “Let’s see what works.”
Andrew Wenzl began his journey through wine country from the Pacific Coast Trail. At a soul-searching crossroads on the rugged route, he had an epiphany about the direction to take on his life’s path: wine.
His first steps in the industry took him to King Estate in his hometown of Eugene, and then onto Silvan Ridge in 2002, eventually leading him to Abacela in 2003.
Earl Jones, founder/winemaker of Abacela, took him on a tour of the vineyards; Wenzl was impressed. He started as cellar master, working his way to assistant winemaker in 2005, and finally, winemaker in 2008. He’s now been with Abacela for 15 years — one-third of his life.
He explains his success with grace and humility, “There is truth to learn in the vineyard, at the root is the farming.”
Abacela wines have won many awards and helped put the Umpqua Valley on the wine map of the world. Pioneers in their own right, Earl and Hilda Jones brought Tempranillo to the Valley, which is fast becoming the area’s signature varietal.
Although a part of the Abacela family, Wenzl’s own ancestry has a winemaking legacy dating back 400 years in Austria. He combines the best of New World style with the traditions of his heritage in the stunning backdrop of the Umpqua.
A defining moment happened for Marc in 1994 when he chose to enter the family business; Girardet Vineyards & Winery was established in 1971 by his parents, Philippe and Bonnie Girardet.
Marc grew up in the vineyard. He remembers sitting at the kitchen table with his parents talking tasting notes and sampling barrels with Patricia Green. He learned about the styles of wine, different winegrapes, what makes a good wine, and the general “whys” and “why nots” of the industry.
In 1999, he became the winemaker of Girardet — at that time, the youngest winemaker in Oregon. His father allowed him to lead, and their relationship evolved into an equal partnership. His commitment has been to take what his parents started and expand it to another level.
He describes his father as a rule breaker, and his first wines emulated those of Philippe. He had traveled throughout Europe with his father visiting vineyards. He says it was an eye-opening experience.
Marc took what he learned and brought it home, expanding the types of varietals grown at Girardet. He began carving out his own niche, flavor profile and style, reflecting the elegance of Old World wines while infusing New World ideas into his winemaking.
Marc has brought greater recognition to Girardet and the Umpqua as evidenced by the number of awards. After surviving a plane crash in 2013 — his Touch Down Red pays homage to the incident — his priorities shifted.
Marc noted, “The goal is not to chase medals; believe in yourself, and the medals will come later.”
On a warm summer day, a motley crew known as the “Vine Punks” works under the sun in the vineyard of Jessica Applegate. Its location is in view of Mount Yoncalla, the site of the original vineyard planted 139 years ago by Jessica’s ancestor, Jesse Applegate, a pioneer and visionary now passing along his legacy of Oregon winemaking to a branch on his own family tree.
The kitchen of the historic Applegate House is filled with antiques; the shelves are lined with culinary gadgets of another era, evidence of long use and many meals. As we begin to gather the dishes needed to serve lunch, Jessica tells me about her vines.
On the northern edge of the Umpqua Valley — between the sub-AVAs of Red Hill Douglas County and Elkton Oregon — Jessica has planted three acres on a south-facing slope behind the historic house, an inspiration for its name, Applegate House Vineyard.
Her vision for the new vineyard — firmly rooted in the past — was a long time in the planning. She visited many sites and was inspired by Abacela’s success with Spanish varietals. In 2014, she planted Albariño as well as Pinot Noir.
Upon meeting Nathan Wood, also in the industry, Jessica decided to keep the smaller scale of the vineyard, managing it using Biodynamic principles and regionally sourced products.
“We do the best we can to be stewards of the land for future generations; with a nod to our ancestors, [we are] leaving our own imprint,” said Jessica. “We know where we live.”
Richard Sommer, Oregon winemaking pioneer and founder of HillCrest Winery, is a distant cousin of the Applegate family. The interwoven connections add to the ancestral pull, with roots running deep like a vine.
Morning in the Umpqua Valley drifts into afternoon while Nathan Wood, with his band of merry workers, answers the ringing of the lunch bell, the same one used in the 1850s to gather sheep herders for the midday meal. The crew walks from the vineyard, out of the sun and sits at the long table set under the shade of trees. It is laden with the lunch prepared by Jessica Applegate’s mother, Shannon Applegate.
A cool breeze swirls about, gently and quietly dispersing the scent of nearby lavender like the conversation now underway. As the plates are passed, piled high with homemade bounty, the talk is of terroir, one of Wood’s favorite topics.
He is also from a family with a winemaking heritage. He made the migration from California to Oregon after hitchhiking around the country. Wood arrived in Elkton on July 4, 2009. In the spirit of independence, he is a self-described “Vine Punk” — “It’s how I roll,” he said.
Wood always wanted to be a winemaker, and, at age 21, he became an assistant winemaker for the Reynolds Family of Napa. His winemaking philosophy involves a minimalist, hands-off approach.
“Wine begins in the vineyard,” Wood said. “Let the fruit show itself in the wine, and the wine [will] express the place.”
In his case, the “place” is Elkton.
Following Wood’s arrival in Elkton, he met Terry Brandborg, owner/winemaker of Brandborg Winery, during the 2009 harvest. Following in the footsteps of his grandfather, who started one of the first vineyard management businesses — circa 1945 — in the Napa area, Wood established Elkton Vineyard Management.
A driven individual, he’s turning heads in the Umpqua, “making it his way for the long run” with the help of his dedicated punky crew.
Nancy Rodriguez is a freelance writer; she resides in Oakland, Oregon, in the Umpqua Valley.