Upscale on the Umpqua

By Karl Klooster

Winery owner Terry Brandborg and a number of his Umpqua Valley colleagues wish to take exception when it’s said that northern Willamette Valley AVAs are the only places in Oregon capable of growing great Pinot Noir grapes.

But they are well aware the only way to effectively challenge what they consider to be a common misconception is with what goes in the bottle. Brandborg’s award-winning Pinots, from his estate vineyard just west of Elkton, top the list of those leading the way.

Brandborg and his wife, Sue, didn’t find their way to the riverside village—population: 250—by accident. He had begun making garagiste wines in San Francisco during the early 1980s and went commercial with his Brandborg label on a small scale in 1986.

“I was invited to attend Steamboat in 1993,” he said, referring to the annual wine-and-dine retreat in the Cascade foothills east of Roseburg, an exclusive event coveted by Oregon winery owners and winemakers.

“That was the turning point for me. The people were really interesting and enjoyable. My wine stood up well, and it gave me the confidence to continue moving forward.”

Terry met Sue at a tasting in Jackson Hole, Wyo., on Memorial Day weekend 1998. The two immediately hit it off and began corresponding by letter. She moved to California in 1999 where they made plans for their future together.

The newlywed couple agreed that growing and making wine would be an integral part of that future. Wasting little time in pursuing their plans, they set out that very summer on a quest to find a place that felt just right.

Their travels took them to Southern Oregon, where he had fished the North Umpqua River since the mid-1970s. Adding to the allure was the fact that close friends of his had moved to Sutherlin in the early 1980s.

“Growing Pinot Noir was our first priority,” Brandborg said. “But finding property we could afford that had the right conditions; there was the real challenge.”

It was a two-year task, culminating in a visit to Elkton in July 2001. The place did, indeed, feel right to them. Upon further investigation they discovered that Pinot Noir has been successfully grown in the area since 1972.

Returning just two weeks later, they found a mountainside site three miles southwest of Elkton. Located just 25 miles from the Coast at elevations from 750 to 1,000 feet; it contained well-drained clay and sandy loam soils with southerly exposures and the potential for up to 50 acres of plantings.

The combination of conditions couldn’t have been more ideal for cool-climate grape growing.

The Brandborgs snapped up the property, moved to Elkton and began building their winery.

“We planned it to accommodate an annual production of 10,000 cases,” he said. “That will easily handle our 50-acre vineyard when it’s completely planted.

But they’re not yet to that level of estate production. In the interim, they’re doing custom crush. The first harvest in 2002 saw 2,500 cases made. In 2008, the total was 15,000 cases—9,000 under the Brandborg label and 6,000 for other clients.

At the time, there were no lodging facilities in Elkton, so they incorporated two bedrooms and a full bath into the winery for overnight guests. Since then, a charming B&B has opened up on the north bank of the Umpqua River, just a couple of blocks away.

The Brandborgs also brought a bit of culture to the tiny town. Musical performances at the winery draw visitors to Elkton who had never heard of this out-of-the-way place. To the pleasant surprise of locals, it’s created a mini-boom of sorts.

Not surprisingly, what has pleased Terry and Sue most is the accolades for their wines. And it’s not only their Pinots that have earned praise and positive press, but also their Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Syrah and Pinot Gris.

The 2007 Gewürztraminer, sourced from neighboring Bradley Vineyard, garnered a double-gold at the recently held 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Their Riesling and Pinot Gris won silver on the same stage, a few years back. And the 2006 Love Puppets Pinot Noir made the Chronicle’s top 100 list of 2008, not to mention a “Highly Recommended” rating from our own Oregon Wine Press.

Previous Pinots have taken “Best Red” at Greatest of the Grape and gold at the World of Wine Competition. And the Syrah took a Northwest Wine Summit gold. Pretty impressive for a winery that’s only released wines from six vintages.

Like many small Oregon producers, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery is an intensely personal operation. That individualistic touch extends from the owners’ hands-on involvement to the story behind proprietary names.

The above-mentioned Love Puppets and Ferris Wheel—their estate vineyard—exemplify the true partnership shared by the Brandborgs in their business as well as their private lives.

The names stem from a little refrigerator magnet Sue sent to Terry when their relationship was still in the courting stage. It depicted two Raggedy Ann-style dolls on a ferris wheel holding hands. The caption read “Love Puppets.” Enough said. 


Brandborg Vineyard & Winery
Location: 345 First St., Elkton
Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., daily
Information: 541-584-2870 •

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