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Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneChad Day, Owner/Manager of RoxyAnn Winery inside the facitilites in Medford Friday.

Rogue Valley wines: The vat's out of the bag

Over the past four decades, millions of dollars have been invested in the region’s vineyards and wineries.

Yet remarkably, little has been spent on marketing vintages produced in the Rogue, Applegate and Illinois valleys.

That’s about to change.

Spurred by competition to the north and south, local winemakers and grape growers formed Rogue Valley Vintners this month, seeking to coalesce the thriving industry’s collective marketing efforts.

Wine judges and writers have made it clear Rogue Valley wine is world class. Distracted by distribution and land-use discussions and inside-the-vineyard minutiae, however, growers and wineries have yet to capitalize on the unique set of micro-climates enabling production of more than 70 varietals.

The catalyst for the new organization was a February meeting when Travel Southern Oregon Executive Director Brad Niva forcefully told local wine industry representatives it was time to get their act together.

“Everybody knew we needed to do this and Brad gave us the kick in the pants,” said 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery owner Ross Allen, who is president of Rogue Valley Vintners. “I always thought we needed to do things bigger and better. But in order to do that we needed money; because money is everything. You can’t have exorbitant fees to the growers and vineyards, but you have to have something substantial enough to get the ball rolling.”

Unlike the Napa-Sonoma region, where 9 million people live within an easy drive, or the Willamette Valley, with 3 million nearby, there are fewer than 300,000 residents in Jackson and Josephine counties combined.

While industry insiders know about Rogue Valley wine, Chad Day of Roxy Ann Winery said the region remains a hidden treasure even within the state.

“I talk with people in Portland, and they think the Rogue Valley is an hour south of Eugene,” Day said. “Our own state doesn’t realize how big we are and where we are located. There are still a lot of people up north who think Oregon only produces pinot and chardonnay. Geographically, we need to educate the consumer and put the Rogue Valley on the map.”

Day suggests the local industry needs to take advantage of the exposure provided by Wine Enthusiast magazine last year.

“For a long time, individuals have been trying to raise awareness,” said Day, the group’s treasurer. “But a dollar only goes so far, and we all have pretty limited budgets as it is.”

Southern Oregon Winery Association has been an umbrella group for the Rogue and Umpqua wine grape-growing regions, long providing political, legal and industry advocacy. But marketing hasn’t been its forte.

“It just got to a point where we couldn’t do enough through SOWA,” Allen said. “It’s an organization that’s all volunteer, where you don’t have any staff, and everybody is busy. So the amount of focus you can truly apply is limited.”

Douglas County entities saw the light first, wanting to distinguish themselves from the Rogue and Willamette valleys. The Umpqua Wine Association was established, complete with its own marketing and events.

“Twenty or 25 years ago, when there were 13 wineries, an organization like SOWA made a lot of sense.” Day said. “Now you look at the number of brands registered in the Rogue Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), and you can see how we needed to evolve. We had our heads down, doing the same old thing. It got to the point where we needed to make a change.”

Rogue Valley Vintners intends to pattern itself after the best-known associations in Northern California — Napa Valley Vintners, which has been around for 74 years, and the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance.

Like those groups, the goal is 100 percent, dues-paying participation, with fundraising, partnerships and grants.

Travel Southern Oregon and Asante Foundation have pledged funds and resources to the organization, but require a business plan and three-year strategic plan before fully committing. To that end, Rogue Valley Vintners has formed committees to both market the industry externally and boost membership, seek funding and promote community networking.

“All this is rough-draft at this point in time, nothing has been hammered out, but there are lot of great ideas on the table,” Allen said. “There is a lot of willingness with Asante Foundation, Travel Southern Oregon, with the Rogue Valley Vintners group. What’s good for Rogue Valley Vintners is good for them and what is good for them is good for us.”

Asante Foundation, which operates the Oregon Wine Experience, has indicated it will expand its interaction with local vintners, chipping-in with office space and lending its fundraising expertise.

Asante Foundation Executive Director Floyd Harmon sees plenty of potential in partnering with the fledgling group.

“They are repositioning themselves to market the Rogue Valley as a destination, which is exactly what the Oregon Wine Experience is trying to do,” Harmon said. “We’ve really focused on brand Oregon, unashamedly and unapologetically. When we look at brand Rogue Valley, it’s still Oregon. They need to take full advantage of that, attracting people and tying it to the Oregon mystique.”

Harmon expects the payoff will come over time.

“To get to where you want to be is a long, slow, methodical process,” he said. “Every year, it’s important that you’re making progress.”

Travel Southern Oregon brings money and marketing expertise, especially in regard to tourism and drawing people to the area. Wine Country license plates sold in Oregon provide some funding, and there are state grants for promoting the industry as well.

“We have a great product,” Niva said. “If we were making bad wine, I don’t know if I would want to promote it, but we’re making phenomenal wine. We have to figure out how to get the wine industry to see itself as a tourism asset. What our office is asking for is collaboration of the wine industry. I told them, ‘come on, let’s get moving,’ and gave a little kick in the butt. We have a great wine product. If we were producing crap, we wouldn’t want to talk about it.”

Allen said the chief obstacle in promoting the local industry has been funding.

“We already know that a marketing campaign the size we’re looking at doing is going to be extremely expensive — in the very beginning, somewhere in the neighborhood of $200,000 to $250,000,” Allen said. “That just scratches the surface.”

In comparison, Napa Vintners’ advertising budget is over $2 million, funding road shows, targeted campaigns, office, staff and designers.

Even with significant costs, every winery and vineyard participates, he said.

“Folks down there understand the importance of marketing,” Allen said. “If you have a tasting room, a winery, a vineyard, even if you just sell fruit, you want to bring attention to the valley. In our case we have X-amount of dollars on an annual basis for advertising. I can tell you it’s nowhere near $250,000. If I can buy in for $1,000, $2,000 or even $3,000 into a $250,000 or $300,000 campaign — for that kind of money, I’m all in.”

He said there are about 150 winery and vineyard operations in the region. Annual dues are $1,000, with smaller operators allowed to pay $100 monthly for 10 months. Associate membership (dues have yet to be established) will extend to restaurants, hotels, golf courses, as well as financial firms and trade organizations that work with the industry.

The broad-based support isn’t surprising to Grizzly Peak Winery owner Al Silbowitz.

Silbowitz planted his first vines 20 years ago. There were perhaps a half-dozen serious winery operations at the time, he recalled. There are more than 100 now in the region.

Silbowitz considers Belle Fiore Winery outside Ashland, Schmidt Family Winery in the Applegate, Dancin Vineyards outside Jacksonville and Del Rio Vineyards outside Gold Hill as markers demonstrating the industry’s growth.

“We’ve gotten to a critical mass, where people have made serious investment in what we’re doing, so that we’re large enough to show the world what we’re up to,” Silbowitz said. “We depend on regular tourist traffic coming here to see Britt, Shakespeare, and all the recreational things, but the wine region hasn’t made itself known anywhere near the way the Willamette Valley has. The time has come to let the cat out of the bag, and let our secret be known.”

In some ways, the new organization underscores a strong five-year run, Allen said.

“By numbers we’re strong, and Napa shows that,” he said. “A year from now we should have everything established and a basic campaign in place. There are some grant opportunities right around the corner through the state and Travel Oregon. We’re not ready for it yet, those grants are very competitive, and we need to have a track record. A year from now, we’ll have the credibility and contacts in place.”

Allen noted there have been momentum-building turning points in the past four or five years.

“In 2016 Wine Enthusiasts said Southern Oregon was one of the Top 10 undiscovered wine regions in the world and Forbes followed up on that, and there were other articles written,” he said. “All of us are individually pushing to get on the radar. Together, we can get higher on the radar. When we met with Brad in February, we realized it was time to step up to the plate.”

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

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