Southern Oregon: An Emerging, Exciting Wine Destination
by Susan Montgomery
When you think about Oregon wines, what comes to mind first? Is it the Willamette Valley? If so, think again. Think the Rogue Valley, 230 miles south of Willamette around Medford, where you can find some of the best wines in the country—wines that are certainly comparable in quality to the wonderful Willamette wines—not just Pinot Noirs, but also Tempranillos, Chardonnays, Syrahs, Viogniers, Malbecs, Cab Francs and more.
Medford is easily accessible, too, about 30 miles from the California and Oregon border.
The microclimates and varied terrain (high and low, mountains, valleys, deserts and rivers) of this beautiful area are conducive to nurturing a wide range of varietals. While the area was virtually undiscovered a few years ago, it is now emerging on the radar of many wine connoisseurs. At least 150 wineries are currently thriving in the area and more are coming on board all the time. But for visitors, the region is still a very desirable wine destination with its boutique, welcoming, mostly family-run wineries in picturesque settings, and most with reasonable tasting room and wine prices.
Needless to say, as wine lovers and writers, we were thrilled recently to be touring the Medford area where, as guests of Travel Medford, we visited nine wineries in the Rogue Valley. Each one was special and their wines and settings are described in this article, but keep in mind there are many more wonderful wineries to visit. What follows is just a tantalizing sampling of what the Rogue Valley area has to offer.
(on the Bear Creek Wine Trail, Southern Rogue Valley)
Owned by entrepreneurial winemaker, Dan Marca and his wife Cindy, (thus the name Dancin), Dancin offers visitors a lovely patio for relaxation in a lush vineyard setting, where guests can enjoy excellent wines and delicious wood-fired pizzas. The winery focuses on producing outstanding Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. (Note that all the wines are cleverly named after dances.)
We tasted lots of great wines at Dancin, but we were particularly enthralled with a few. The 2013 Capriccio Chardonnay is very special, mellow but still crispy with deep fruity flavors—no wonder Wine Enthusiast made it an Editor’s Choice and rated it an impressive 94. The 2014 Chasse is nicely creamy and full of stone fruit and citrus flavors with a pleasant minerality and a savory long finish. We loved the well-rounded 2012 Septette Pinot Noir’s earthy nose and deep berry tastes. The elegant 2013 Adagio Pinot Noir is bright with ripe fruit aromas and tastes, along with a spicy finish.
Dancin owners believe that wine and food are meant to go together and this belief shines through with the dining experience they offer. Dancin wines all went well with the crisp Caesar salad and crusty pizza we were served. The Dancin kitchen, overseen by Cindy, produces unique and tasty artisan wood-fired pizzas. The crusts are thin and crunchy and the toppings combine surprising flavors. We savored several varieties, including a traditional Margherita with mozzarella, fresh tomatoes and basil, and The Ballet, which was like salad on a pizza with pesto, goat cheese, garlic, sliced tomatoes and fresh arugula. The most unusual was The Harlam Shake, a mac and cheese pizza that was actually scrumptious.
Ledger David Cellars’ stylish, inviting tasting room is conveniently located in the small town of Central Point, just north of Medford, on a busy industrial strip of shops appropriately called the Artisan Corridor. Ledger David is conveniently located between Rogue Creamery with its world famous cheeses and Lillie Belle Farms Chocolates with its delectable chocolates. So I suggest parking your car in one spot and first sampling some cheese before visiting Ledger David for a wine tasting, and then finishing at Lillie Belle for some sweet treats. (For more on these two stops, go to http://www.examiner.com/article/imagine-medford-a-destination-for-everyone)
Owners David Traul and Lena Varner named their winery after their two sons and produce all their wines from their estate vineyards located in nearby Talent. The winery’s signature white wine is Primoris, the only Chenin Blanc grown and produced in the Rogue Valley. Because the vines had to struggle a bit in 2014, this vintage is complex and flavorful but nicely balanced. We first enjoyed its melon aromas followed by tastes of lemon, grapefruit, apple and even caramel. Being a Chenin Blanc fan, I savored this wine and found it to be one of the best of this varietal that I’ve tasted. We also really enjoyed the bright ruby 2012 Sangiovese with its intense fruit flavors. I detected cranberry and cherry overtones and appreciated the nice acidity. My husband relished the 2013 Dark Night, a full-bodied red blend based on Tempranillo, with ripe dark fruit flavors and nice smooth tannins on the finish.
Owned by Herb Quady, well known as a winemaking pioneer who moved from California to Southern Oregon wine country, Quady North has an inviting, cozy tasting room in the heart of downtown Jacksonville, an historic mining town about five miles west of Medford. Our tasting revealed why these outstanding wines keep winning awards.
We recommend: the 2014 Viognier made with grapes grown on a steep incline at a high elevation. The result is stone fruit and citrus flavors in a well-balanced, crisp wine with nice minerality; the well-rounded 2011 Syrah with bold cherry, earthy flavors and a spicy finish; and the 2011 Cabernet Franc that has rich chocolate, deep berry tastes with lingering tannins. As a special treat, our congenial server, Darius, shared Electra, a low-alcohol, effervescent dessert wine made from orange Muscat. We could just imagine what a delicious dessert this would help create when drizzled over ice cream.
Also located in downtown Jacksonville in an historic 1865 building, South Stage Cellars describes itself as having Oregon’s only vineyard-based tasting room, meaning that while not all the wines presented are produced by South Stage, they are all made from grapes grown on South Stage’s 450 acres of grapes. Many premier wineries throughout Oregon source their grapes from these vineyards, particularly from the winery’s Quail Run Vineyard.
The winery’s founders, Don and Traute Moore, were among the early grape growers in the Southern Oregon wine country when they first planted grapes in 1989. Their son, Michael, has now assumed management of Quail Run and has instituted many new approaches to irrigation and staff involvement. Like his innovative parents, Michael is always experimenting and trying to improve the quality of wine produced.
On the day we visited, the tasting room was a busy place with many excited tasters exclaiming over the wine. We enjoyed the creamy 2012 Chardonnay with its tropical fruit aromas and flavors; the 2010 Alchemy, a bold red blend with smoky tastes of deep dark berries; and a crisp refreshing 2010 Sauvignon Blanc that tasted just like bright, ripe grapes with a lingering grapefruit taste on the palate.
(on the Bear Creek Wine Trail, Southern Rogue Valley)
At Pebblestone Cellars, we stepped over the threshold of a charming little red house and felt like we were the welcomed guests of our gracious hosts, the owners, Pat and Dick Ellis, who started making wine in 2004 and opened their tasting room in 2010.
All their wines are made from grapes from Ellis Vineyards, located in an ancient riverbed full of pebblestones that keep the soil well drained.
Pebblestone’s wines have won many awards. For instance the 2014 Viognier won Best of Show in the white wine category at the 2015 Oregon Wine Experience and we could see why. We were first greeted with its lovely floral aromas followed by richly textured melon and pear flavors and a smooth, dry finish. The silky 2010 Merlot, which had been aged for 18 months in French Oak, was another favorite because of its bold cherry tastes and subtle tannins. Also we liked the dark berry tastes of the 2011 Cab Franc with its hints of spice and mellow finish.
It is obvious the owners have impressive expertise but also deep passion that goes into producing their wines. They say their main focus is producing wines that are enjoyed and appreciated by their guests.
(Upper Rogue Wine Trail)
Owner and winemaker, Scott Steingraber, welcomed us to his classy, spacious tasting room overlooking the surrounding valley and mountains. He has been making wine since 2008 and the tasting room was established in 2012. Most of the grapes are sourced from the family’s 25 acres of grapes on Buxton Ranch, perfectly located right next to the Rogue River.
We loved the brilliant ruby red 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon with deep cherry and berry flavors. The gold medal awarded to this Cab at the 2015 Oregon Wine Experience was well deserved. The 2012 Di’tani, also an award-winning wine, is a rich blend of the winery’s outstanding red grapes—Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Tempranillo and Malbec. I could imagine its earthy, fruity, spicy flavors as a great match with chili or spaghetti sauce. Another award-winner, the 2014 Viognier is full of orange, vanilla and honey tastes and was pleasantly mellow on the palate.
Kriselle Cellars also has a kitchen, headed by Scott’s wife Krisell (yes, without the “e”), and we were served a wonderful lunch along with nicely paired wines. The kitchen can provide fresh, creative dishes for special events or wine pairings. We savored the tasty curried chicken salad sandwich and rich pumpkin bisque. The setting on the winery’s patio with breath-taking views of the estate also enhanced every delicioius bite and sip.
(Upper Rogue Wine Trail)
We were greeted at Agate Ridge Vineyard by enthusiastic Ashley Cates, whose mother, Kim Kinderman is the owner and general manager of the 13-acre winery founded by Ashley’s visionary grandfather. Ashley, who is the winery’s marketing manager, exuded a contagious passion about her family’s winery. The tasting room, in a nicely restored 1910 farmhouse, created a comfortable ambiance that enhanced our wine tasting experience.
The 2012 Sauvignon Blanc offered us an inviting floral nose and surprising but nice musty flavors of herbs and berries on the palate with subtle acidity. The 2011 Petit Syrah is complex and rich with spicy, dark cherry tastes and a creamy texture. But the earthy, well-structured 2012 Pinot Noir was my favorite Agate wine with bold ripe cherry tastes and hints of fresh grass and flowers.
I could easily imagine whiling away a few hours sipping such good wines in this pleasant setting.
(Upper Rogue Wine Trail)
Established in 1997, Del Rio’s vineyard, with more than 300 acres planted, is the largest single vineyard in Southern Oregon and has been nurtured by four generations of the same family. The cheerful, rustic tasting room is located in an historic building that in the mid 1860s was once home to the Rock Point Hotel.
The 2013 Pinot Gris has refreshing and complex fruit tastes of peach and pear with hints of vanilla. The floral, elegant 2013 Viognier was my favorite of the Del Rio wines with a complex combination of licorice and stone fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel. The rich 2013 Merlot has blackberry aromas and tastes smoky and earthy with hints of vanilla. These were all enjoyable wines and we also admired the picturesque, surrounding vineyards.
(Upper Rogue Wine Trail)
Folin Cellars is a family-owned and operated winery that was established in 2004. We enjoyed Folin’s stylish, airy tasting room (which opened in 2009) and were thrilled to have personable Rob Folin serving us and describing his wines, all made from 100 percent estate grown grapes.
The dry, crisp 2014 Viognier had intense and pleasant stone fruit flavors with a surprising hint of crunchy caramel corn. The 2014 mellow Grenache Rose has a lovely pale ruby color and tastes like deliciously ripe strawberries and raspberries. The 2012 Misceo is a lively blend of Grenache, Syrah and Mouvedre with deep cherry and blackberry tastes and also a smoky, grassy overtone that made it unique. I could imagine savoring this wine with a juicy rare steak.
It is also interesting to note that all Folin wines are sealed with the innovative Vino Seal Closure to ensure, as the winery's website points out, that all the wines retain the flavors that the winemaker intended.
The wineries we visited in the Rogue Valley were not just excellent because of their wines but also because of their hospitable approach to greeting and serving visitors. In every case, we felt like we were special, appreciated guests, and we noted that other visitors in the tasting rooms seemed to feel the same way. It’s hard to imagine what else you could want in a wine destination: outstanding, interesting wines; beautiful, relaxing settings; and knowledgeable, welcoming tasting room hosts. Next time you think about visiting a West Coast wine region, think beyond Napa and Willamette. Think about the wonderful Rogue Valley.
Photos taken by Todd Montgomery.