Pallet to Palate

Visit Medford's City Center Wine District

Linda Donovan and her pup, Shamrock.##Photo BY David Gibb Photography
City Center Wine District’s newly planted bioswale.##Photo BY M. Steffan Photography
The freshly painted Cooley-Neff building. ##Photo BY David Gibb Photography
Pallet Wine Company, tanks and team.##Photo BY M. Steffan Photography

By Paula Bandy

City Center Wine District encompasses an entire block in downtown Medford and home to three distinctive wine businesses: Pallet Wine Company, The Urban Cork, and The District Wine Bar, opening soon. Consider Pallet Wine Company as the backbone of the operation, situated at one end of the block, huge, glistening wine tanks— located within the storage facility— occupy the other side.

The Backbone

During spring 2009, after months of passing by an aged, vacant building whose last tenant departed 10 years before, Linda Donovan finally decided to investigate. As she inserted the key in the old-fashioned lock of the historic Cooley-Neff warehouse, Donovan couldn’t know she was entering her future. Stepping through the heavy door under the arched Spanish Colonial Revival-style entrance, she noticed sturdy, well-worn stairs with old-growth Douglas fir wainscoting-clad walls.

She recalls, “Once inside, I fell in love.” Donovan saw an exciting blank canvas on the fringe of Medford’s Historic District - needing extensive renovation to become the winery of her dreams.

Reimagining the original 24,000-sq.-ft. building required visualization, resourcefulness, carefully planned use of space, patience and stamina. Her goal: retain much of the original style and historic ambiance while incorporating modern winery standards.

Respecting as much of the property and its history as possible required removal of floors, including most of the first floor, new stairs, crush pad and ramp. An old freight elevator was demolished; broken windows replaced while high transom windows admitting streams of natural light were installed. The Pallet Wine Company winery also needed updated, specialized electricity.

During the complex plumbing updates, Donovan learned her building once was part of “Fruit Alley.” Southern Oregon, dotted with apple and pear orchards, used Fruit Alley as the main route for “processing pears down the pipes.” Grapes have since proven to go down well, too.

Many discovered objects are repurposed elsewhere. The actual history remains, just in a different location. Some found items, like the copy of a 1950’s Playboy Magazine, soup and pineapple tins, a box of Wrigley chewing gum, and a large cardboard cut-out girl selling cigars now reside near the winery lab.

Donovan was directly involved during the renovation: plumbing, laying tile, driving the forklift and placement of the tanks, and anything else that needed to be done. The result? The juxtaposition of new and old, modern and historical, time-honored materials and contemporary technologies. She succeeded in showcasing a striking sensitivity for the building’s history and original features. Consider the almost ethereal use of natural lighting. Donovan crafted the naturally humid, cool basement space into a barrel room, while retaining an overall sense of continuity in the building.

The first grapes arrived only days after the building was “wine ready” and Pallet Wine Company began the first custom crush service in southern Oregon. Less than a year later, Donovan added full bottling service. Today, Pallet Wine Company produces around 100,000 gallons annually, the largest custom crush operation in the region. The business offers full-service custom winemaking, private labels, storage, laboratory services, hosting wine education classes and special events. Recently, there was a beautiful wedding reception in the barrel room.

The long-vacant building now smells of wine and old wood.

The Woman Behind It

Who is Linda Donovan, the woman behind this city block of a project? A graduate of UC Davis’ Fermentation Science with an emphasis in enology, Donovan says, “In college, few women were graduating in my field.” Early in her career, she met a woman who drove large trucks of grapes to be processed. Donovan admired the rare women she met in wine, “blown away by their strength.” Always cognizant of what she wanted, Donovan has never looked back, only forward.

Inspired by some old wineries she had visited, Donovan began working in Napa. Eventually moving to southern Oregon, she worked in the Umpqua Valley as a consultant with Agate Ridge when they built their winery and was Cowhorn Vineyard’s first winemaker. Deep down, Donovan always knew she wanted her own winery.

Her presence reminds me of European women winemakers. A fierceness beneath the softness, a deep passion, and an authentic kindness that emanates as a confidence in who she is and what she does. She walks her talk when she says, “Be able to pivot when you need to.”

And pivot she has. In 2014, after Pallet Wine Company outgrew the renovated Cooley-Neff warehouse, Donovan bought the building next door. The additional space results in a larger winery and The Urban Cork tasting room.

Visitors can choose from over 150 wines to sample, all created by Pallet Wine Company, some available only in the tasting room. The space has large windows with lots of natural light while movable wooden toy people play perched on the galvanized steel tabletops. Caramel-colored cork flooring adds warmth, and the cabinets and bar are made from Douglas Fir floorboards removed during the Cooley-Neff warehouse renovation. Contemporary, with an open, spacious ambiance, The Urban Cork features charcuterie boards, live music, special events and is available as a rental venue. In the coming year, Donovan has plans for a roof garden.

Donovan explains, “One of my goals in winemaking is silky smooth, distinctive, balanced, and to really let the vineyard and varietal express itself. I’m not blending in 15% of another varietal and not declaring it on the label. I want my varietals to be pure.” She works exclusively with natural yeasts and bacteria, no artificial colors or tastes. “I don’t add any of the things people (can) add to their wines— thickeners, sterilants— I’m low intervention and very traditional in a sense. That’s how wines are made in France and Italy. I don’t want or need to use ‘high tech’ American chemicals or yeasts.”

The City Center Wine District

In 2016, Donovan devised an expanded business plan and bought the rest of the block. However, by 2020, the winery was busting at the seams, overflowing with grapes. Another pivot was needed. With a new building and tanks, she brought everything again under one roof and increased wine production by 300 tons.
The District Wine Bar, opening this fall, will be an upscale destination, allowing her business to move in another direction. The wine bar will present a new brand labels and two innovative, blended wines; The District White and The District Red.

The District White is a blend of multi-vintages— the best of the best— fresh and delicate on a sleek frame. Mouthwatering flavors of soft lemon drop, melon, vanilla, with a silky, tropical cream texture, tickled with a touch of lychee and a kiss of oak, it’s sure to be a summertime favorite.

A blend of primarily Tempranillo and Malbec, with some Merlot, The District Red is sanguine red with deep purplish-brown undertones. Aromas of dark fruit, leather and tobacco tantalize the nose. Smoldering, jammy notes, layered with woody spice, cardamom and black olive, create a full-bodied, earthy wine with smoothly balanced tannins. There’s an aura of mystery, one that remains after the sensory finish of cedar and tobacco.

The interior design of The District Wine Bar is white marble, plants, and large glass doors opening to the walkway and green spaces. “Not pretentious, it still has an industrial feel central to the block,” says Donovan. A bioswale, also known as a rain garden, built to capture rainwater runoff, was recently seeded with willows, aspens and flowers with bench seating. The wine bar features glass garage doors opening to a patio and grassy area with a view of the dazzling winescape mural.

Donovan has planned an outdoor concert venue for the future. In the meantime, a wrought iron fence surrounds the entire City Center Wine District block. The creatively designed space feels like an homage to the beauty of the old, of historic traditions, modern creativity and a truly artisanal craft.

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