Exploring the Diverse Wines of the Rogue Valley
Seeking out unusual wine regions for their great diversity seems to be high on the must-do lists for today’s sommeliers. At least, the hard working SOMMS. Makes sense because discovering new wines and/new regions pretty much validates their jobs. Recently the head of sommselect.com singled out the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA for its success with Pinot Noir and Syrah among others. He ended by praising Santa Cruz as “one of the few regions anywhere in the world hospitable to such a diverse range of varieties.”
Really? Now that “diverse range of varieties” phrase struck a chord. Coincidentally over the last 2 years, I’ve been interested in the same subject. Well, as much as I enjoy wines from Santa Cruz, there are other regions working with a far wider range of varieties that make Santa Cruz seem normal.
Santa Clara County, for example, has all of the mainstays, all of the Rhones, and, thanks to Guglielmo, some unusual Italian varieties. An even wider range of varieties was encountered during my visit to the Okanagan Valley. Not just a few remaining hybrids, but there’s an exciting diversity there including many obscure vinifera grapes like Chasselas and Pinot Auxerrois, both made into impressive wines.
What also ties these two regions together is neither has what could be called a signature wine. A wine that consumers automatically equate with that place, like Napa Cabs or Amador Zins.
So this lack of a signature wine leads us to another region where winemakers actually seem to enjoy working with a diverse range of varieties: the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. Because it has so little in common with the Willamette Valley, winemakers get a little touchy if you refer to it as “The other Oregon” wine region.
Yes, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown here, but so too are Cabernet, Zinfandel along with Spanish, Italian, and the full range of French grapes. And one or two Portuguese.
How Do you Define Diverse?
In the Rogue Valley, it is common to grow a dozen or more varieties within a small estate. Established in 2004, Quady North has 15 acres under vine and grows 12 different varieties. Most are Rhone grapes, but it also farms Cabernet and Cabernet Franc. On its 40 acre estate vineyards, Schmidt Family Vineyards in Applegate Valley grows 14 varieties, and produces 6,700 cases a year. It also makes 25 different wines in a given year.
Its neighbor, Wooldridge Creek, one of the oldest wineries, has 56 acres planted to twelve varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Viognier, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Tempranillo. And a similar wild assortment is seen in many, many other wineries across the entire Rogue Valley. The Weisinger Family, on the eastern edge in Ashland is said to specialize in Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Rhone and Bordeaux varietals, as well as proprietary blends. Quite diverse for a 3,000 case annual output.
But are these wineries growing a dozen or more varieties like the proverbial jack of all trades, master of none? It seems crazy for small vineyards to grow grapes from Bordeaux and Burgundy, along with the Rhones. Then add a few from Spain and Italy and it seems way beyond normal.
At Belle Fiore Winery, where 56 acres are planted to such a wide mix which includes many unusual Italian varieties, the owners have identified what they call “16 micro-blocks” based upon soil types and elevation. Two-Hawks’ winemaker, Kiley Evans, has singled out several blocks based on soil types led by a Darow Series of wine grown in one predominant soil. So the soils and sites are indeed diverse.
NOT THE WILLAMETTE VALLEY
Taking its name from the Rogue River, the Rogue Valley wine region wears that rogue title well. Approved as an AVA in 1991, the Rogue Valley is the southernmost growing wine region of Oregon and the Valley is 70 miles wide by 60 miles long. The area runs from Ashland in the southeast through the north and south sides of Medford and stretches to Grants Pass in the west.
Today, this high elevation (1,000-2,300 foot level) generally mountainous growing area is home to 100 wineries. While most of these wineries started after 2000, the Rogue Valley is Oregon’s oldest wine region, with first vineyards planted in the 1850s. And it is home to the State’s first operating winery opened in 1873.
Vineyards have been expanding recently and now cover around 5,000 acres, growing no fewer than 70 varieties. Yes, from Albarino to Zinfandel, the roster includes the obligatory Chardonnay and Cabernet and, no surprise, Pinot Noir. But with vineyards planted at different elevations with different aspects, the Rogue is no Willamette.
Because most of today’s vineyards were developed after 2000, many wines, Rhones, Spanish, or Italian, are likely made from relatively new vines. Typically, vineyards are densely planted and organically grown with “sustainable” a popular theme.
Dancin is one of a handful on wineries making a Pinot Noir, but as owner Dan Marca explains,
“ Our site was created for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with its north, northeast facing aspect, 1800 foot average elevation and shade occurring beginning at 5:45pm (depending on the Block) throughout the growing season. We are finding that we can produce delicious Pinot Noir with great flavors and balance at alcohol levels in the mid to upper 12’s to the very low 13’s. Our wide diurnal swings allow for flavors and ripeness to occur during the day with acids retained during the overnight hours. We can see daytime highs to overnight lows vary by 40 degrees!”
And he adds that the same Pinot Noir clones ripen later at his site than they do in McMinnville or Dundee.
Dancin’s vineyards are in the mid-section of the Rogue Valley, just outside Jacksonville. Far to the west is the The Applegate Valley AVA which was established in 2000 as a sub-region within the Rogue. With over 700 acres under vine, the Applegate Valley “has a warm-summer Mediterranean climate, like much of coastal California. However, it has four very distinct seasons, a relatively short growing season, and fog is not a factor. Winter is cold, with occasional snow. That allows the vines to go into full hibernation. Half of the area’s annual 20-30” of precipitation arrives in winter.”
Because the growing season is on the short side and features cold nights and wide diurnal swings, the Applegate Valley AVA is best-suited to grapes which ripen quickly or are pleasing at low levels of ripeness. Here, veteran viticulturist Herb Quady who manages many vineyards in addition to his own for Quady North, is a strong advocate of Rhone varieties. He is joined by the founders of Cowhorn Vineyard who planted 25 acres to the Rhones. He explained his choice this way:“While our latitude is a bit lower than the Rhône, and our growing season is shorter, other qualities are similar, especially to Châteauneuf-du-Pape: river-side bench-land with little rain, hot summers, and rocky soils that don’t hold much water.”
But even in this corner, the Rogue Valley is not the exclusive Rhone Zone. A few miles away from Cowhorn, Red Lily Vineyards has emphasized Tempranillo planted along benchlands of the Applegate River and has vines located on three distinct sites. Winemaker/owner Rachael Martin tells us her “newest vineyard site planted to Tempranillo “has a predominantly northern aspect on a varying slope surrounding a knoll, and sits at an average elevation of 1500 feet.” And another vineyard site “has a predominantly western aspect on a 12% average slope that rises to an elevation of 1630 feet.” She makes Tempranillo in three styles, including a Rose.
As specialists, Dancin and Red Lily are rare in this region where it is more common to grow a dozen or more varieties within an estate. But, looking closer, Dancin makes 4 distinct Chardonnays, 4 Pinots from different blocks or different clones. It also makes a Syrah and a Barbera. Its kindred spirit near Ashland is Irvine & Robert Vineyards. Also specializing in Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, it typically bottles 3 of each varietal, all small batches identified by clone or vineyard block. And, no surprise, makes a rare Pinot Meunier.
However they go about it, Rogue Valley winemakers are making most wines in small batches based upon some unique condition, be it soil, micro-climate, clone, or block by block.
And this is how I read the situation after talking to winemakers at Peter William, Weisinger, 2-Hawk, Quady North, Goldback, and Schmidt Family: winemakers revel in the diversity. Making a wide variety of small batch wine is what being a winemaker is all about. Hands on winemakers: they can be creative and make decisions that they were trained to do. They dont have to be told what to make and how to make it from the sales team, the bosses, and the market or some focus group.
But since consumers naturally like to have reliable information and advice, the question of what is the Rogue Valley’s signature wine needs to be addressed. Not long ago, W. Blake Gray writing for winesearcher.com made a case for Malbec as the region’s best. He included wines from the Umpqua Valley but highlighted the Malbecs from Weisinger Family and 2-Hawk.
Though I share his enthusiasm for those Malbecs, his argument largely based upon grape prices failed to convince Malbec is it. On my first few visits, I thought the star was Syrah, but then I tasted a stunning Grenache from 2-Hawk, a beautiful Viognier from Quady North, Cabernet Franc from several wineries, and more recently Tempranillo from Peter William Vineyard and others. And then there are creative blends such as Tempranillo and Syrah.
In fact one could easily argue that the standout Rogue Valley wine is Cabernet Franc. While admittedly being on the Cab Franc bandwagon, I draw support from the excellent medium bodied versions made in Applegate by Quady North, Schmidt Family, and Wooldridge Cellars and then head south east to Ashland and add Cab Francs from Belle Fiore and Weisinger Family. Here’s a tip: when released in the Spring of ‘22, Weisinger’s 2019 Cabernet Franc will rank as one of the best made in the West Coast.
Tempranillo, the third most widely planted variety in the world, has not yet established a beachhead anywhere in the USA. Given the Spanish heritage, that’s odd. But there’s more new acreage being developed in the Rogue Valley. Today, close to 100 wineries offer one in their tasting room.
Winemakers, Not Rock Stars
Giving the great diversity of varieties that can be successfully grown, the Rogue Valley is attracting young, creative winemakers. Goldback is a new winery launched in 2016 by Andy Myer. In an interview, he explains:
“Wine had always been of some interest to me, but the big moment happened after I moved to Oregon from Pennsylvania in 2006. I was transferring to Willamette University in Salem and was looking for a summer job. I answered a craigslist ad for a tasting room job for the summer, which just happened to be for Cristom Vineyards. Within 15 minutes of driving up the driveway for the interview, a lightning bolt struck. I knew that working in wine was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
From there, he gained experience by working at William Selyem and Hirsh in Sonoma, Felton Road in New Zealand, back up to Wahington at Mark Ryan and then to Cape Mentelle in Western Australia.
From these experiences, he came to favor “a minimalist approach to winemaking and aims to preserve natural acidity in whites and tannin integration in reds.” After wandering the wine globe, his search for a region took him to the Rogue Valley.
The region’s diversity fits in perfectly with Myer’s view of wine:
“Wine itself is irreducibly complex. The fact that you could spend your entire life working one piece of land with one type of grape and never quite figure it all out, because there are thousands of variables every year in growing grapes, and about the same in making wine. That it’s impossible to make the same wine twice… and that every vintage everywhere is completely different.”
For detailed reviews of Goldback and other Rogue Valley wineries, see my reviews at