Guests relax in the sun at Brooks Winery in the Eola-Amity Hills. ##Photo provided
Abacela’s popular Friday Night Wine & Pizza continues to attract guests to the Roseburg estate. ##Photo provided

Outside the Box

Loyal patrons react to “new normal”

By Paul Omundson

Beyond the distance barriers, plastic protective panels and masks required for coronavirus protection, many wineries are finding additional methods to safely accommodate guests during the pandemic while still delivering the memorable experiences for which Oregon wine country is known.

As the crowds return — in carefully reduced, manageable numbers — many wineries have opted for outdoors, artfully placing customers and serving stations in safe and scenery-rich configurations.

Who better to comment on this “new normal” of wine country than some of the most avid, educated and astute wine observers around? Wine club members. For this story, I’ve chosen two popular wineries: Abacela Winery in Umpqua Valley and Brooks Winery in the Eola-Amity Hills. Both have active, eager members, numbering 1,500 and 2,000 respectively.

Abacela, where owners Earl and Hilda Jones first introduced Tempranillo to Oregon, is in the midst of celebrating its 25th birthday. Since May, events have centered on the couple’s coveted Spanish varietal and a host of others native to the Rioja and Ribera del Duero areas.  A popular visitor draw continues to be Friday Night Wine & Pizza, the latter prepared in Spanish Horno ovens and served outside the tasting room on the 463-acre estate — 76 acres are devoted to growing Spanish varieties, some not likely to be found except in their Spanish homeland.

At Brooks, the Adirondack chairs — now spaced six feet apart — remain the go-to spot for visitors, who rave about the stunning views, including Mount Hood to the north and Mount Jefferson to the south. The mastermind behind all the details at the Amity tasting room is Janie Brooks Heuck, managing director and sister to founder Jimi Brooks, who unexpectedly died in 2004.

Guests also rave about the gourmet fare of tasting room chef Norma Buchholz, who’s fashioned quite a reputation since joining Brooks in 2018. With dishes from octopus to fried Brussels sprouts, the menu focuses on perfect pairings showcasing any one of Brooks’ 18 Pinot Noirs and 20 Rieslings.

This summer, Heuck has hosted summer backyard barbecues, Saturday brunches, concerts (small), chef’s cooking classes, along with sips and pairings — literally in vineyard rows. Each event is conducted safely under virus guidelines. Fans who loved Brooks before are back again.

Club members weigh in

Brooks Winery

“I’ve always been a fan of single-vineyard Pinot Noir, and Brooks makes a great one,” said Kendra Lindell, a McMinnville native who admitted it took moving temporarily to New Zealand to spark her love of wine. “What was really impressive about Janie (Brooks Heuck) was her asking us club members our opinions and concerns when it was time to reopen. She listened to us.”

 “My four adult children and I are all ardent wine club fans,” said Mark Chong, a retired health consultant who belongs to a long list of clubs. “But we always come back here. We can be outdoors at a picnic table, watch the chickens, enjoy our food and drink, and still be a good distance from other people. I appreciate the attentiveness to safety,” he added. “Eating and drinking areas are spaced out well with a lot of thought going into distancing. And there are subtle barriers in the way tables and umbrellas are set up to keep distance and add to your party’s privacy.”

Thomas Boyden, a retired physician, has a dire but likely accurate prediction: “I know everyone thinks that, at some point, masks will come off, but that’s not going to happen, especially for people who work at wineries and restaurants. It’s a safety feature that’s not going away.” He compared the situation to seat belts becoming mandatory in 1968. “At first, people resisted wearing seat belts, but common sense finally took over.”

Back to wines, he and wife Linda are attracted to wineries with a range of varieties, such as Brooks’ distinctive line-up of Rieslings. He appreciates the unknown and unexpected, too, such as Brooks’ Melon de Bourgogne, a white grape native to the Loire Valley of France. “Having experiences like that is why we go wineries,” he added.

Abacela Winery

You won’t find Umpqua Dairy co-owner Steve Feldkamp picking up wines at the supermarket. “I need to go the winery and try the wine first and ideally talk to the people who made it and find out about it. Once I know a wine and where it was made, I have no problem buying online,” he added, giving at least a half-hearted vote to e-commerce. “We’ve gotten to know Earl and Hilda over the years and have developed a nice relationship. They really know their wines, and it’s fun listening to Earl talk in person about different attributes of wine, the climate, geography and how it all comes together in the bottle.

“I think just about everybody in Douglas County enjoys Abacela for Friday Night Wine and Pizza,” Feldkamp continued. “It’s an unpretentious, fun time. And you get great Spanish wines. That’s a big appeal.”

“To me, the compelling thing at Abacela is the amazing story Earl and Hilda have to tell,” said Mike Brinkley, a retired pharmacist and wine club member since 2006 along with wife Rosemary. “The story is really compelling and ties together everything about the winery,” added Rosemary. “Two prominent scientists in academia leave that world for a passionate search to seek out the perfect place to grow Tempranillo outside of Spain. And they find it here in Roseburg. That’s an amazing story,” she added.

Every Friday, without fail, Mike and Rosemary attend Abacela’s popular Friday night bash. “This is why wineries and restaurants should work together more. They’re missing a big opportunity if they don’t,” Mike said.

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