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AVA Boosts Profile for Southern Oregon

Elkton Oregon is the second sub-AVA for Umpqua Valley

by Peter Mitham
elkton oregon
The newly established Elkton Oregon AVA is home to 12 commercial vineyards.
Elkton, Ore.—The designation of a new viticultural area in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley will help local wineries hone the story of winemaking in southern Oregon.

The new Elkton Oregon AVA, which becomes effective March 7, was announced last week by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. It encompasses 74,900 acres currently within the larger Umpqua Valley AVA and the Southern Oregon AVA.

While just a smidgen of the new AVA is planted to grapes—96.5 acres, according to the new rule, in just 12 commercial vineyards—a group of eight growers led by Michael Landt of Elkton felt a new AVA was important to distinguish the area from the larger Umpqua Valley.

“We needed an AVA because the Elkton area, though it’s part of the Umpqua Valley AVA, is quite different in climate from the rest of the AVA,” Landt told Wines & Vines during a conversation at River’s Edge Winery, which he operates with his wife, Vonnie, along the Umpqua River in Elkton.

Situated just 30 miles from the Pacific Ocean in the canyon carved by the Umpqua River, the new AVA is separated from the rest of the Umpqua Valley by a low ridge of hills (approximately 1,500 feet) that trap the cool, moist ocean air flowing inland. Rainfall is greater, and the climate is 1,000 growing degree days cooler than Abacela Winery, an hour’s drive to the south.

“We are in a basin here that traps that marine influence and keeps us cooler than the rest,” Landt said. “Pinot Noir is king here, and although they grow Pinot Noir in the rest of the Umpqua Valley, much of it is hot enough to grow Cabernet (Sauvignon) and Tempranillo and Syrah.…We wanted to make it geographically apparent that we were distinct from the remainder of the Umpqua AVA.”

Production at the Landts’ winery includes Pinot Noir as well as delicate, aromatic versions of Riesling and Gewürztraminer. The Landts have owned their vineyards, which include vines originally planted in 1972 by the area’s pioneering viticulturist Ken Thomason, since 1996. River’s Edge opened in 2000 and now has an annual production of 3,000 to 4,000 cases per year.

Landt believes the appeal of the wines will have to sell the AVA. River’s Edge sells from its tasting room as well as through distributors across the country, but its location isn’t well defined in the minds of consumers.

“Frankly, we don’t think that a lot of the public (especially once you get out of Oregon) is very aware of the Umpqua Valley,” he said. “We might start focusing some interest through our labels, through the wines that are tasted out of state, on our new AVA.…A lot of people aren’t going to have the slightest idea where Elkton is, but it’s going to be our job to educate them.”

There are five wineries in existence; a sixth is in the planning stages. There are also plans for more vineyards drawn by the area’s potential for cool-climate viticulture.

Terry Brandborg, who with his wife Sue runs Brandborg Vineyard & Winery in Elkton, came north from California and opened the winery in Elkton in 2002. Brandborg is excited that Chris Hudson, assistant winemaker at King Estate Winery in Eugene, is developing a vineyard in the AVA.

Some members of Frank Laurie Woods’ family, a former owner of Freemark Abbey in California, are scouting properties.

“They’re bringing Napa Valley money to Elkton, which I think is pretty cool,” Brandborg said.

The interest notwithstanding, Brandborg feels the AVA will help define what is generating the interest and help define what’s being done here.

“We’re not in a well-known area, and I think it’s quite valid—for the sake of steering the conversation towards what we do best here—to have an AVA that we can say, ‘We have higher rainfall, we have a very cool Pacific-influenced climate, and these are the varieties that have been grown here for 40 years,’” he said.

There are upwards of 8,000 plantable acres within the AVA—and much of that is former ranch land. The wine industry is providing a viable alternative to more traditional activities, but the challenge is achieving consistent quality and boosting sales.

The quality question has been helped by a cooperative environment that has seen Brandborg and River’s Edge give fledgling producers a hand-up, making their wines or hosting vinification until new wineries becomes established in their own premises.

Brandborg’s own production of 7,500 cases has doubled in some years thanks to custom-crush activities, and the Landts make wine for two or three wineries, too.

Custom crush also has been important for Brandborg’s cash flow. While it sells a third of its wines from the cellar door, it receives about 3,700 visitors per year—a number the owners hope will grow with regional awareness.

Elkton Oregon is the Umpqua Valley’s second subappellation; it joins the Red Hill Douglas County Oregon AVA, which was established in 2005. Encompassing 5,500 acres, Red Hill Douglas County Oregon includes just one winery, Sienna Ridge.

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