Mountains on Their Minds

By Karl Klooster

Marks Ridge would appear to be Oregon’s newest winery. At least for the moment. Having christened their tasting room during the first week of December 2008, owners Jay and Janet Westly are up and running.

The couple call themselves “accidental vintners.” They operated a prosperous millwork and cabinetry business in Southern California for 30 years before coming to Oregon. Finally, after the kids were grown, they decided to make a total lifestyle change.

As with many other wine lovers, the mystique of Wine Country captivated them. Weeklong wanderings around Northern California’s Sonoma and Napa regions, in particular the Russian River Valley, whetted their appetite for more, and more often.

But it was a European vacation that proved to be the decisive persuader. From Bordeaux and the Loire Valley in France to Germany’s Rheingau region, they drank in Old World pastoral pleasures both literally and figuratively.

When you follow up sampling freshly harvested grapes at the world-renowned Chateau Margaux with floating lazily down the Rhine River, the immersion is too seductive to resist.

Still, at that point in time, the Westlys didn’t yet have in mind working but rather simply living in a rural setting, preferably with a view and reasonably close proximity to wineries. High-rent districts weren’t in their budget, so some creative looking was required.

The process took several years. Southern Oregon came on their radar early. They even considered a property with a vineyard but decided against it. Too much work, they concluded.

Expanding their search, they went north into the Willamette Valley and even ventured briefly to eastern Washington before concluding its dry climate didn’t suit their sensibilities.

In the end, they wound up a bit off the beaten track in the foothills of the Cascade Range, four miles north of Sweet Home. The retreat they found on Marks Ridge and the nearby Linn County community of 9,000 inhabitants seemed to be a perfect fit.

However, the mountaintop property did come with a vineyard—a nearly 30-year-old one at an elevation of 1,200 feet—planted to Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer.

Given the sweeping view and the convenience of being close to relatives of Jay’s, who live in Stayton and Scio, the couple made a key decision: They wanted to be there, and taking care of their newly adopted vines would have to be part of the deal.

After moving to their new home in October 2005, both Jay and Janet enrolled in the management program at Chemeketa Community College’s Northwest Viticulture Center in Salem. As they were just beginning to gain a good grasp of the basics, their decision to become winegrowers and the reality of having to deal with it rapidly converged. The grapes from an outstanding Oregon harvest were ready to pick.

Almost literally applying the next day what they were learning from courses in viticulture and enology on the previous one, the couple brought in the 2006 harvest with the bonus of putting some wine in bottle.

Accolades from friends and associates for that first enological effort encouraged them to fully focus their energies into moving forward.

The previous owner, who had planted the vineyard, left behind a rundown building originally intended for his own winery. Putting their carpentry expertise to good use, the Westlys got it ready in time for the 2007 harvest.

A distinct advantage for Marks Ridge are those 17 acres of mature vines. It’s a built-in all-estate base that would be the envy of many other wineries. Even though Jay admitted the vineyard initially needed some TLC, it’s now healthy and producing well.

“We’re a region one, for sure,” he said. “But with only cool-climate varieties and low yields, that should be just fine. Besides, at our high elevation, we don’t have either early or late frost problems.”

They did, however, encounter a bit of powdery mildew in 2007, which was dealt with. Like everything else here, vineyard care is entirely hands-on, done by the owners with the help of friends. Total production from the vintage amounted to about 1,000 cases.

Of the 17 acres, nine are planted to Pinot Noir, four to Riesling and four to Gewürztraminer. Janet said that her husband, a graduate in chemistry from UCLA, is absolutely meticulous in his winemaking.

Jay particularly likes the Burgundian earthiness and cherry/berry character of their Pinot. He vinifies the Riesling dry, which he feels showcases the fruit, and retains about 2 1/2 percent residual sugar in the Gewürz to soften the spicy impression.

As with just about everyone else in Oregon, the Westlys can’t speak highly enough about the quality in 2008. In just their second commercial year, it presents a great opportunity for them to really get the Marks Ridge label underway.

Given the current economy, however, they’re keeping it simple. “Local area people have been wonderfully supportive,” Jay said. “Our goal is to make this a destination spot. Our winery directional signs will be up within the next couple of months.

It appears as if the Westly’s quest for a bucolic enclave to call their own is one a lot of others will be delighted they decided to share. With 60 feet of windows, a patio and picnic area that maximize the view, visitors should be enticed to sit, sip and stay awhile. 

Marks Ridge Winery

Location: 29255 Berlin Rd., Sweet Home, Oregon
Hours: Sat.–Sun., noon to 6 p.m.
Information: 541-367-3292,

Web Design and Web Development by Buildable