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Jacksonville is taking advantage of Southern Oregon's growing wine reputation, attracting tourists from a variety of locales, including Andrew Siegal of Napa, Calif., who tries a taste of an Oregon wine at South Stage Cellars. - Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell

Going beyond history

JACKSONVILLE — Long promoted for its historic character, this 151-year-old gold rush town has its eye on another precious natural resource — wine grapes.

The city's embrace of the burgeoning wine industry is particularly evident this week, as Jacksonville takes over as host of the nine-year-old World of Wines Festival. The move of Southern Oregon's premier wine event, which will be based at Bigham Knoll, adds to efforts to promote the national historic landmark town as the gateway to the Applegate wineries, an area that now boasts 18 wineries.

The World of Wine will expand to a four-day schedule from its previous single day, with activities that start Wednesday. Events include clinics, vineyard tours, tastings, a dinner and auction.

The event concludes with the Grand Tasting at 5 p.m. Saturday. It is expected to draw up to 750 people — at $75 a head — to sample the wines of 40 area wineries and dozens of local restaurants and specialty food producers.

"It's like a validation of what's happening," said David Jesser, co-chairman of the event and a member of the Jacksonville Oregon Business Association, which is partnering with festival organizers. The event previously was held at Del Rio Vineyard near Gold Hill, but outgrew that location.

"JOBA' s mission is to put more feet on the streets in Jacksonville," said Jesser. "We do a wide range of strategies for that."

Jacksonville's connection to the wine industry began more than 150 years ago when pioneer Peter Britt planted what were believed to be the first wine grapes in the region. That effort died with Britt, but in the 1970s Valley View Winery restarted the industry in the Applegate. Jacksonville has long had an advocate for wines in the Jacksonville Inn, with its extensive wine lists and well-stocked wine shop.

But just a half-dozen years ago, there were only a couple of tasting rooms in the town. Now there are seven. More tourists are coming for wine, a Chamber of Commerce official, a local innkeeper and a tasting room manager agree.

Inquiries about historic attractions in town still outnumber those about wine, said Sandi Torrey, who manages the Chamber of Commerce's Visitor Center, but wine tourism is growing.

"We're getting more inquiries (about wine), especially after the article in Sunset magazine came out," said Torrey. That 2010 article compared the Rogue and Umpqua valley wine industries to that in California's Napa Valley 40 years ago. Sunset's website says the Applegate Valley offers excellent wines, no crowds and inexpensive tasting fees.

All told, there are more than three dozen wineries within a relatively short drive from Jacksonville, the bulk of them in the Applegate Valley to the west of town. An Applegate Trail wine map and brochures on the industry are handed out at the center, which has consistently promoted wine, said Torrey, who has worked there for nine years.

Jacksonville's wine connection also extends eastward into the Bear Creek Valley. South Stage Cellars, for example, which has a tasting room on Third Street, has a number of vineyards along the hillsides between Jacksonville and Phoenix.

South Stage Cellars marketing director Porscha Schiller says wine tourism has increased strongly in the five years the Jacksonville tasting room has been open.

"I think statistically the majority come from within driving distance — Seattle, Portland, California," said Schiller. But it's not unusual to have visitors from New York, other East Coast cities and the Midwest, she added.

Live local music four evenings a week, specials, food and a variety of wines attract customers to the room, said Schiller.

Wine tourism also has been a strong growth area for the Magnolia Inn, said owner Robert Roos, who has operated the business for 41/2 years. Guests are choosing this area over Napa, he said.

"We hear that comparison all the time with the guests that are coming in," said Roos. "It seems to be like Napa 30 years ago, both with the wine and the experience they are treated with."

Wine connoisseurs are attracted by the prospect of discovering new wines and a new area, as well as by the prices for restaurants and lodging, says Roos.

One vineyard owner says expanding the World of Wine to a four-day event and the move to Jacksonville is a positive step.

"As the tide rises, we all rise with it," said Joe Ginet, president of the Applegate Vintners Association and co-owner of Poisance Ranch, which grows grapes and raises organic beef.

"(The wineries) are still family-owned, it's not corporate-owned like Napa," said Ginet. "A lot of people miss that. It's refreshing for them to come to the Applegate Valley."

The proliferation of wineries also assures that prime agricultural land will remain in that status rather than become a target for residential development, said Ginet. Dairy, beef and grain operations often are no longer profitable, he said, and grape growing is helping to fill the agricultural niche.

"The old-school agriculture has to evolve to stay sustainable," said Ginet. "With the dairy business, environmental shifts have forced most of the dairies east of the mountains."

Ginet bought the ranch in 1979 and stopped dairy operations in 2004. He planted his first grapes in 1998 and this year claimed the top white wine prize in the World of Wine judging.

Tony Boom is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach him at tboomwriter@gmail.com.

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