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Southern Oregon Wineries Look Ahead

Conference addresses how to build an identity separate from Willamette Valley

by Peter Mitham
Troon Vineyards' owner Chris Martin, president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association, believes the region now stands at a crossroads in its development as a destination.
Grants Pass, Ore.—There’s more to Oregon wine than Pinot Noir. A conference yesterday in Grants Pass gave winemakers in southern Oregon a chance to exchange ideas about how to get that message out.

“The southern part of the state has, for a long time, lived a little bit in the shadow of the northern part of the state, where they’ve made an excellent reputation for growing Pinot Noir in the Willamette,” said Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College. “We’ve got that capability down here, but then a few more capabilities growing other grapes, defining this as a little bit different from what’s going on up north.”

Defining the difference, and the opportunities it creates, was a key theme at the institute’s second Wine Cluster Conference yesterday. Key speakers during the morning lectures included Nick Frey, president of the Sonoma County Wine Grape Commission, and Elizabeth Martin-Calder, former executive director of the Walla Walla Valley Wine Alliance, who highlighted how their own regions had established identities for themselves in the shadow of better-known neighbors.

“We think that a story like that resonates with folks down here,” Lake told Wines & Vines.

The message is especially critical following two decades of restructuring in the forest industry, which began with a fight to protect the northern spotted owl. Conserving the species trumped the economic value of timber, triggering an economic shift that increased unemployment and led locals to seek alternative business opportunities.

Winemaking is one of the options being pursued: 88 wineries now are active in Southern Oregon. “Not that this wine industry will replace (the forest industry), but it will probably be a component of what Oregon and Southern Oregon can grow into,” Lake said.

Growth prospects for the local industry have spurred an outpouring of financial support for the Southern Oregon Wine Institute. This past spring, Sutherlin, Ore., attorney Danny Lang made an $800,000 gift to the institute that is funding development of the Danny Lang Teaching, Learning and Event Center, set to open in September 2011 (see “Wine Programs on a Budget”).

“Lang saw this as an opportunity to advance the mission of the college and provide stimulus for the economic development in the community. When he gives like that, it inspires other people in the community to think, ‘This is beyond just a wine program, this is an economic issue,’” Lake said at the time.

James and Jane Ratzlaff have recently followed Lang’s example, donating $100,000 to the institute via the Crane Creek Foundation of Roseburg, Ore. The donation was inspired in part by the couple’s recognition of the benefits delivered by a wine cluster to Walla Walla, Wash. Tourist-oriented operations such as restaurants and hotels have been among the beneficiaries, for example, as explained in “Wine Ratings Spur Northwest Tourism.”

Region at the crossroads
The parallels with Walla Walla are apt, according to Chris Martin, president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association and owner of 7,000-case Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass. “We are a region that is right at the crossroads I think Walla Walla was at four years ago,” he said. “I think we as a region can take away a lot of the lessons they’ve learned, and hopefully shorten the learning curve for ourselves and move us forward.”

Speaking shortly after the conference ended, Martin said Southern Oregon—like the rest of the state—has to do a better job at establishing an identity for itself that would attract people keen to discover what the region has to offer.

“What is our brand identity; how do we take ourselves forward; how do we get people to come out and see what’s special about Oregon and advance the message?” he asked. “Beyond any varietal, what you’re branding is quality and name recognition.”

Martin is particularly keen to see a couple of wineries grow large enough to represent the region beyond state lines. It’s something most wineries are too small to do by themselves right now, meaning the region remains fragmented as a category.
Herb Quady
Troon winemaker Herb Quady
Troon winemaker Herb Quady, who also has his own winery, Quady North, is more optimistic. He feels the climate of southern Oregon allows vineyards to produce the kind of Pinot Noir people are happy to associate with Oregon, at prices consumers can afford. This is a strength that can be used to draw buyers in to discover what else the Applegate, Rogue and Umpqua valleys can produce. Abacela (10,000 cases) may be carrying the region’s flag right now, but Quady noted that the region’s Syrahs consistently score 90-plus points; its Viogniers are also highly ranked.

Quady said that to be successful, the drive to establish an identity for the region that will extend beyond state lines will require collaboration. The conference, he said, was helpful in keeping people on track. “The conference was yet another big step towards that goal, and it did build upon the first conference, which was a good sign,” he said.

The original Wine Cluster conference in December 2008 attracted 85 people; its proceedings were summarized in a report. Yesterday’s conference attracted more than 130 participants.

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