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Oregon Wine Cluster Conference Revived

Southern Oregon no longer searching for 'signature varietal,' some say, but embracing cultivars that thrive in area's terroir

by Peter Mitham
Cliff Creek Cellars
Ruth Garvin, co-owner of Cliff Creek Cellars, says the Oregon Wine Industry Cluster Conference offers an opportunity for growers to check in with each other.
Jacksonville, Ore.—The third Oregon Wine Industry Cluster Conference is slated for Aug. 23, and organizers are hoping it will tap a diverse range of perspectives to build on the foundation established by the previous conferences held in 2008 and 2010. (See “Southern Oregon Wineries Look Ahead.”)

“Our general interest in developing this conference was to pull together people who had something to say about the wine economy and where it’s headed, right now, in Oregon,” said Allison Priestley, who as program assistant for the Southern Oregon Wine Institute has worked to organize the conference.

“Rather than just having vintners and growers, see how the conversation might differ with a lot more representation from throughout the cluster,” she told Wines & Vines.

Key speakers include University of Puget Sound professor Mike Veseth, who authors the Wine Economist blog, and Jim Wolpert, emeritus professor in the Department of Viticulture & Enology at the University of California, Davis.

Oregon (and the Southern Oregon wine cluster in particular) are represented by Dwayne Bershaw, enology instructor at the Southern Oregon Wine Institute; Alex Campbell of the Partnership for Economic Development in Douglas County; Bill Henri of vineyard consultancy Wm. Henri Development Co.; Charles Humble, director of marketing and communications for the Oregon Wine Board; Greg Jones, professor in the Department of Environmental Studies at Southern Oregon University, and Kara Olmo, co-owner of Wooldridge Creek Winery in Grants Pass, Ore.

The conference in 2010 concluded with questions regarding what the best grape varieties might be for southern Oregon, and how best to use available grant monies and promotional opportunities.

But with changing economic fortunes and the growth of the industry, some older questions have been resolved—or deemed to be answered best in practice—while new questions have become more pressing.

A 2011 report about the Oregon wine industry pegged the impact of the state’s wine industry at $2.7 billion, with a net economic contribution of $1.6 billion. (See “Breaking Down the Oregon Wine Report.”)

The growth was driven in part by a rising number of producers across the state, including southern Oregon, where the industry saw wineries double in number between 2004 and 2010.

The establishment of new AVAs, including the Elkton Oregon AVA (see “AVA Boosts Profile for Southern Oregon”), is helping growers focus on working with the terroir they’ve been given rather than trying to match the style of other successful wine regions.

“Southern Oregon is still a teenager; we’re still developing, still answering some of those questions here,” Priestley said. “We’re still looking at, ‘How do we stimulate all of the cluster involvement in industry? How do we continue to grow as an economy in Southern Oregon?’”

The questions are worth asking, and Ruth Garvin, co-owner and manager of Cliff Creek Cellars in Gold Hill, says the Cluster Conferences provide growers with an important opportunity to check in with each other regarding their answers.

“We’re watching this grow, and we’re watching people move into the area,” she said, noting that the region now has at least 125 vineyards and more than 80 wineries. “When I look at what we have lined up for this year, I feel like they have taken into consideration where we’re at in the industry at this point.”

Garvin points to past discussions of a signature variety that could define the region as an example of how the industry has changed. Rather than follow the route of the Willamette Valley, which has painted itself with Pinot Noir, the region is discovering the breadth of varieties it can support: from Albariño to Viognier and even Zinfandel.

“Three years ago, we were looking for what varietal we should hang our hat on,” Garvin said. “That has changed. We’re now learning that that’s not the important piece, but to look at all the varietals that can be grown there successfully and to focus on exactly that instead of worrying about a single varietal.”

More than 80 people have registered to date for the conference, which is being held this year in conjunction with Jacksonville’s World of Wine festival, the region’s largest celebration of wine.

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