Trail of Peers

Trail of Peers

Winemaker Rob Folin was standing inside a new, multimillion-dollar tasting room in Sams Valley on Wednesday. The vaulted building, with panoramic views of vineyards, is more than three times the size of the one his family built to sell their Folin Cellars wines 10 miles away.

"This brings the area to another level," says Folin, who moved to Gold Hill in 1991 when he was a freshman in high school. Then, his family grew alfalfa and hay. Now, he grows syrah, tempranillo and viognier grapes. "This place looks high-end, and the wines reflect it, too."

Instead of seeing new neighbor Kriselle Cellars, which opens its grand tasting room to the public on Friday, as competition, Folin and other families who own nearby wineries are welcoming the extra 3,000 cases of wine — not to mention the entertainment — that will be offered to area visitors.

The wine producers in the Upper Rogue, which was once one of the most remote, least-known wine regions, have worked together for six years to bring customers to all of their tasting rooms. And they're happy to promote another place to stop.

Unlike most retail operations that compete for customers, wine producers sometimes see sales improve when they band together to create a day's outing for visitors hopping from one tasting room to the next.

Eight small producers in Ashland, Talent and Medford, for example, put on joint events as the Bear Creek Boutique Wineries to bring in more customers.

But when the group gets too big, close proximity to other tasting rooms can cut into sales. The 18 members of the Applegate Valley Wine Trail host fall and spring Uncorked Barrel Tours, knowing that wine drinkers can't visit every one in a day. Some are swamped and others are passed by. Larger Applegate producers sell in Portland and beyond, as far away as Japan and China.

Winery staffs in the less dense Upper Rogue don't face the same pressure to sell thousands of cases of wine outside of their tasting rooms. When visitors leave their places, they receive recommendations for wine sellers down the road. Customers hear that with a little driving, they can taste $15 rosés to $55 reserve tempranillos in different settings, from rustic to streamlined.

"The wine industry is interesting in that way," says Lindsey Zagar, who works at Del Rio Vineyards in Gold Hill, where merlot, syrah and pinot gris grapes are grown and bottles of wine are sold in a converted stagecoach hotel.

Del Rio is part of the Upper Rogue Wine Trail and participates in the group's free Second Saturday events that can range from Olympic-inspired cork-tossing games to grape-to-glass classes. On Oct. 13, the wine trail is hosting harvest celebrations with a grape stomping competition and hayrides through vineyards.

Zagar refers to members of the group as partners with the shared goal of putting the Upper Rogue and Southern Oregon in its entirety upper most in visitors' minds.

"More wineries with great products and customer service help drive more people to this region," she says.

Eagle Point/Upper Rogue Chamber of Commerce president Richard Gyuro is equally enthusiastic. "All these wineries attract people and are a boon to the area," he says. "They get people here, help them enjoy their time here and people spend money here. That's what we like."

People driving down Modoc Road near the Upper Table Rock trailhead will now see a tall red sign that announces Kriselle Cellars. Starting on Friday, Sept. 28, the gates will be open to visitors from 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily. The first three days — from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 28-29, and 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 30 — will be the grand opening celebration with wine and food for sale and live music.

Visitors approaching up a wide, gravel road will see a towering timber building fronting vineyards, mountains and trees lining the river. The already elevated land where the tasting room is located was raised an additional 6 feet to enhance the view over the top of trellised vines.

"That's just one example about how exacting the owners are," says Nora Lancaster, Kriselle Cellars' director of marketing and sales.

The owners, Scott and Kris Steingraber, planted the first of 25 acres of cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and tempranillo in 2006 on 250 acres owned by her parents, Winslow and Linda Buxton. Scott Steingraber, who retired in March from managing high-tech bridge-building projects from his Seattle office, has been making wine from Southern Oregon grapes for 10 years.

To launch this new project, he equipped a free-standing building as a winery on a tree-hidden part of the property and hired wine consultant Eric Weisinger to help produce malbec, sangiovese and other varietals.

The land is on an ancient river bed and the vines benefit from the rocky soil that withholds vigor but delivers intensely flavored grapes.

"We are dedicated to making the best wine, not a lot of wine," says Steingraber, who adds that he wants to grow over time to produce 5,000 cases a year, about the average for established Oregon producers. "We want people to enjoy our wine and let us show them the best Southern Oregon can do."

He says Kriselle's staff will also send visitors to nearby tasting rooms.

Lancaster nods. "Everyone's a little different," she says, standing next to bottles of 2010 Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 Viognier, each priced at $19. "It's the Oregon way that there isn't one way to do something. There are lots of expressions of wine creation and wine enjoyment exhibited here."

Architect Sean Parker of Bainbridge Island, Wash., and builder Matt Bryant of Riverdell Construction in Central Point used reclaimed pine from an old lumber mill to clad the 3,000-square-foot tasting room, which looks like a western lodge. All-season terraces, event lawns and other outside spaces triple the amount of room the tasting room staff has to pour wine, serve pizzas hot from the outdoor oven and host events such as concerts.

But this is not a restaurant or a concert venue, the owner says. It's a working cattle ranch, farm and vineyard. To make his point, Steingraber gestures to hitching posts near the parking lot and walkway. In the distance, there is a horse barn and riding arena.

On Wednesday, Kim Kinderman of Agate Ridge Vineyard was part of the Upper Rogue Wine Trail group invited to see Kriselle Cellars' tasting room for the first time. Her family planted vines in Eagle Point in 2001 and sells Rhone white and red wines from a century-old farmhouse.

While holding a glass of 2009 Kriselle Tempranillo, she looked up to the 35-foot-high ceilings, across the long redwood-topped tasting bar shaped like a wine barrel and down to the reclaimed oak floors surrounding the Montana stone fireplace.

"I have tasting room envy," she joked.

It used to be that Agate Ridge, Del Rio and Crater Lake Cellars in Shady Cove were the only wineries for miles. Kriselle Cellars is now the geographic middle of seven tasting rooms, with Kinderman's property just across the Rogue River, a 15-minute drive.

"The region is changing and we have another player," she says, "and this level of quality helps all of us tell our story."

Standing at a nearby table was Fred LaBrasseur, of LaBrasseur Vineyard, who opened his family's 1,600-square-foot tasting room-winery building near Butte Falls in 2010 where he sells merlot, red blends and riesling.

"Kriselle is coming out with a bang," he says, noting that few people have heard of the wine label until now. "They have momentum and 3,000 cases of wine to sell, which are both good ideas."

Standing on the terrace was Ruth Garvin, whose family owns Cliff Creek Cellars, which sells a national award-wining 2006 Claret and other wines in a converted farm building in Gold Hill.

She was talking about the heavy financial investments in building wineries and tasting rooms, but concluded that regardless of the frills, it comes down to the quality of the wine.

"There are seven wineries in the Upper Rogue," she says, "and each offers a different flavor."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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