Chardonnay grapes head to the press at Pallet Wine Co. in downtown Medford. - Bob Pennell

Urban Vino

The Rogue Valley's first urban winery is up and running, pressing the season's first grapes at a converted warehouse on Medford's North Fir and Third streets.

It's also the region's first winery exclusively devoted to custom-crushing. Pallet Wine Co. expects to make wine for a dozen clients from approximately 160 tons of grapes, says partner and winemaker Linda Donovan.

"It's all Rogue Valley fruit," she says, supervising the transfer of more than a ton of chardonnay grapes to Pallet's press.

Within a day, the juice would be in barrels for five months of fermentation. By the time Talent vineyard owners David Traul and Lena Varner obtain their license to sell wine, the chardonnay will be ready to drink, Donovan says.

"They're not ready to build their own (winery)," she says. "That's why Pallet Wine Co. makes a lot of sense to a lot of people."

Custom-crush wineries like Pallet create, store, bottle and label wines for grape growers who may not have enough infrastructure or financial resources to handle wine-making on site. Both growers and custom-crush wineries streamline their businesses, saving money on either end of process.

"It's a pretty huge capital expense to start a winery," says Traul, a surgeon who has been growing grapes for just three years. "This has worked out really well for us with Pallet Wine Co."

With Dan and Olivia Sullivan, owners of the Domaine Paradox label, Donovan started renovating the 21,000-square-foot Cooley-Neff Building at 340 N. Fir St. in June. It's now home to 15 fermentation tanks with a total 35,000-gallon capacity. Wooden barrels line the deck above.

The 1924 building, placed on the National Historic Register in 2007, was designed by the builders of Medford's Craterian Ginger Rogers Theater and once served as a warehouse for Sherm's Thunderbird Market. Donovan credits City of Medford officials for aiding speedy development so Pallet could start making wine this year.

"There were a lot of skeptics out there," she says. "It feels really good to be employing people and helping other vintners.

"We're the true urban winery; we are downtown; we don't own vineyards," Donovan adds. "We have converted an abandoned warehouse into a winery."

A growing trend, clusters of city wineries can be found across the country from Seattle to New York. In the San Francisco Bay area alone, more than a dozen operate inside San Francisco city limits, and more than 20 in the East Bay.

With the economy in a tailspin, it's harder to get the kind of credit needed to invest in expensive real estate in exclusive areas like California's wine country. Meanwhile, city warehouse space is suddenly opening up at low, low rates.

"There's people doing it in Portland downtown, and they're doing great," says Bob Denman, owner of Slagle Creek Vineyards in Applegate.

In the past, Denman hired Eola Hills of the Willamette Valley to make most of his wines. But this year, he's entrusting his merlot to Donovan and Pallet Wine. He anticipates having a bit more input and can observe the winemaking first-hand.

"Linda's a great winemaker, and it's close to home," Denman says.

He's also used custom-crushing services at Schmidt Family Vineyards and Wooldridge Creek Vineyard & Winery, both in the Applegate area. Other local wineries with custom-crush operations include Medford's EdenVale and RoxyAnn wineries; Jacksonville's Fiasco Winery/Jacksonville Vineyards; Cave Junction's Bridgeview Vineyards Inc. and Foris Vineyards Winery; and Plaisance Ranch of Williams.

Grape pressing will continue at Pallet for more than a month, with daily deliveries of fruit into November, Donovan says. A wine-tasting room known as the Side Door is expected to open off the building's Third Street frontage next year.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 776-4487, or e-mail

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