The wine cave at Reustle-Prayer Rock is set for a special SOMM camp dinner. ##Photo by Andrew Calvert


Umpqua Valley hosts 16 sommeliers

By Nancy Rodriguez

The 2017 SOMM Camp, sponsored by SOMM Journal, April 30–May 2, represented an unparalleled opportunity for Umpqua Valley wineries, hosting 16 sommeliers with backgrounds and experience as extensive as the wine they had come to taste.


The tour began at Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards. Owners Stephen and Gloria Reustle welcomed the group alongside Abacela and Brandborg wineries. All with the distinction of being named Wine Press Northwest “Winery of the Year,” the Umpqua’s “Big Three” established the high caliber of wines being presented over the coming days. As the wine was poured, the room quieted, modulating conversation to a low murmur. The periodic clinking of glasses signaled the start of this tour with Reustle-Prayer Rock 2014 Riesling, Brandborg 2015 Sauvignon Blanc and Abacela 2016 Grenache Rosé.   

Greg Jones, professor of Environmental Science and Policy at Southern Oregon University, delivered a perfectly orchestrated presentation on climatology and viticulture. The son of Abacela’s Earl Jones, Greg is a renowned climatologist, considered one of the 100 most-influential people in the U.S. wine industry. He explained to the rapt audience how climate makes this AVA unique, segueing into a blind tasting challenge: Umpqua vs. the world. The mixed results introduced their first lesson in “what the wines of the Umpqua can do.”

The following wine dinner inside Reustle-Prayer Rock’s wine cave offered the somms the winery’s best, including a vertical flight of Grüner Veltliner, the 2008 Riesling and a vertical of Syrah, featuring the “Best Syrah” from the 2015 Six Nations Wine Challenge. Winery chef Jake Sewell paired the wines with a meticulously planned menu.


A respite from rain with clear blue skies, the weather behaved during the somms’ visit to Blue Heron Vineyard, the largest in the valley at 550 acres. On the bus, they delighted in witnessing the beginning of bud break. The destination was an open pavilion on the banks of the North Umpqua River. Taylor and Teal Stone, managers of the family-owned business, explained vineyard management, varietal choices, along with the difficulties and rewards of the work. Using the Scott Henry trellis system, the vines offer a glimpse into Oregon’s greater contributions.

The rained returned as the group left for lunch at Cooper Ridge Vineyards, where panoramic views impressed, showing breathtaking Callahan Ridge. Owner Robin and Lesa Ray sampled their wines alongside Girardet and The Cellars of Southern Oregon Wine Institute (SOWI).

Before lunch began, Marc Girardet poured his family’s 2015 Riesling and 2014 Bush Vine Sangiovese. Somms also tasted SOWI’s 2012 Chardonnay and 2012 Malbec. Again, the juxtaposition of legacy and new wave allowed the group tastes from one of the oldest wineries in Oregon and from one of the newest.

Cooper Ridge’s wines were presented with the meal. The winery’s 2015 Riesling, 2013 Syrah and Merrill-Ann Red Blend, all crafted by winemaker Charlie Kidd, perfectly complemented the exquisite food prepared by local chef Diane Clerihue.

The day continued with a tour stop inside the Elkton AVA, home to Brandborg Vineyard and Winery, producer of the “coolest cool-climate varietals.” With their customary charm, Sue and Terry Brandborg welcomed the somms with a taste of the couple’s 2016 Scarlet Cuvée Rosé of Pinot Noir and 2014 Bench Land Pinot Noir.

During a pre-dinner discussion, the sommeliers participated in what some might consider a master class on clones led by winemakers Terry Brandborg, Stephen Reustle and Earl Jones. In the casual setting, the somms tasted barrel samples illustrating clonal differences with each winemaker presenting his signature wines: Brandborg Pinot Noir, Abacela Tempranillo and Reustle-Prayer Rock Syrah. 

The following wine dinner, hosted inside Brandborg’s barrel room, felt festive, with lights strung above and John Coltrane drifting through conversations. Sue poured the wines with each, prepared by herself and her team. Terry entertained with stories behind the wines as well as his philosophy on winemaking. Wines during the dinner included 2015 Pinot Gris, 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, 2015 and 2010 of the Fleur de Lis White Pinot Noir, 2012 Bradley Pinot Noir and 2013 Ferris Wheel Pinot Noir. To conclude the evening on a sweet note, the somms sipped 2014 “Treats” Riesling and 2013 Pinot Harbor dessert-style Pinot Noir.


 On the final day, the sommeliers trekked to Abacela Vineyards & Winery. Upon arrival, they were greeted by owner Earl Jones and winemaker Andrew Wenzl, who led the group on a tour of the winery. Earl then led them on a geologic journey through eons, explaining how both geology and climate affect the wines. The lesson continued to the top of a hill overlooking the site of the nation’s first Tempranillo, a winner of many awards. “Strive for the best grape; do not compete with a lesser quality,” Earl advised.

A return to the bus took the sommeliers on a ride forward into present time for a tasting and lunch at SOWI, providing an opportunity to taste wines from several other wineries representing the Umpqua. The owners and winemakers from Delfino, Misty Oaks and Spangler vineyards were present to pour their wares and answer questions.

Circling back to Abacela, the group returned for dinner with Earl and Hilda Jones. Before being seated, they gathered on the terrace for a glass of the immensely popular 2015 Grenache Rosé. Somms mingled, chatting about of the previous days’ experiences in the Umpqua.

Centered on the Spanish varietals that have made Abacela famous and truly put Umpqua on the map, the dinner, made by Chef Tina Hamilton, started with the 2014 Garnacha, 2014 Tinta Amarela, 2014 Graciano, 2012 Reserve Malbec, 2013 Reserve Tempranillo and 2005 Paramour, the winery’s finest offering. The meal concluded with a 2015 Blanco Dulce and 2007 Vintage Port, creating a final great impression on the sommeliers of exactly what the Umpqua Valley has to offer.

The evening ended with “a toast to the splendor of the Umpqua and we will carry the word forth.”

Nancy Rodriguez is a freelance writer; she resides in Oakland, Oregon, in the Umpqua Valley.

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