The winsome wines of Southern Oregon are gathering acclaim far beyond the Cascades and Siskiyous.
An industry once summed up by a collection of one-offs in Ashland, Cave Junction, Roseburg and Ruch during the 1970s now boasts 121 wineries and 226 vineyards on 5,886 planted acres in Jackson, Josephine and Douglas counties.
The fruit of the region's vines has drawn accolades from the Atlantic to Pacific, capturing the hearts of wine columnists and judges. Reports in the New York Times, Sunset magazine and Wine Enthusiast, plus an avalanche of medals in this month's San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, are creating reasonable expectations the coming travel season will attract more and new wine tourists.
"This is really an important moment in our transition from a region that's unexplored and undiscovered to the recognition we've received from the national press, and awards coming in," said Michael Donovan, president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association. "Not to mention the individual wine ratings awards."
Wine Enthusiast named Ashland one of its "10 Best Wine Travel Destinations" for 2016. Sunset magazine's October article touting Southern Oregon's myriad wine offerings, reasonable rates and few crowds came on the heels of a similar article in the New York Times the year before. And the San Francisco Chronicle is featuring the region's wines at its Feb. 13 Grand Tasting at Fort Mason in San Francisco, an event expected to draw thousands.
Foris Vineyards' 2014 Pinot Gris and Pebblestone Cellars' 2014 Ellis Vineyards Viognier earned Best of Show awards as Southern Oregon wineries, including Applegate, Elkton, Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley locations, reeled in a total of 134 medals in the Chronicle's competition. Another nine entries earned double golds and 15 garnered golds. All those entries will be available at the grand tasting.
"From the wine growers and winemakers, we've really stepped up the game now to the point where we are producing world-class wines," said Pebblestone Cellars owner Dick Ellis. "I think that can be coupled with a message going out telling the world through social media, advertising and different forms of marketing that this is a real destination to come. It's great publicity, very good timing. As we get more and more people coming here as a destination wine area, it will help to get the word out of what kind of wine we're producing here."
Joe Czerwinski, managing editor of Wine Enthusiast Media, said areas profiled previously in the magazine, such as Virginia and the Texas Hill Country, reported tourist upticks after the articles were published.
"I think the response depends on how able and willing each region is when it comes to promoting the award and what the public awareness of the region is to begin with," Czerwinski, who resides in upstate New York, said in an email. "If the recipient does a good job getting out there and marketing it, there can be (especially with domestic destinations) an immediate response."
His long-distance perception of Southern Oregon is of a bucolic region "with the sort of real country vibe that might be missing from some of the world’s more developed wine regions," such as the Napa Valley, while still offering enough in the way of fine dining and accommodations.
With encouraging reviews, affirmative adjudication and international acclaim in hand, the region's vintners and wine marketers seized on a rare opportunity, turning the San Francisco tasting into a launching pad to greater things. The Southern Oregon Winery Association signed on the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Neuman Hotel Group and Travel Medford to promote its cause.
"We're going into spring with a plethora of great coverage," Donovan said. "We're starting to see the momentum build, it's snowballing."
Among the selling points both SOWA and individual wineries can espouse at the Chronicle's grand tasting are the breadth of wines produced in the region because of varying climate and soil factors.
"We grow 75 different grape varieties in the region, so we can literally offer A to Z, everything from Albariño to Zinfandel," said Liz Wan, a wine consultant based in Josephine County. "If they get here and decide they don't love the Albariño, they will find something else to fall in love with."
Wan suggests the greatest obstacle to drawing more tourists has less to do with wine than distance and time.
"We're not marketing a commodity, we're marketing a lifestyle here," Wan said. "We don't have to worry about anything else other than getting them here."
Based on what a group of graduate students from the University of California-Davis Enology and Viticulture Organization found while touring Rogue Valley wineries earlier this month, the lure to Southern Oregon is building.
"I was impressed with the region's ability to make so many different varieties and styles well," said Charlie Henschen, who grew up in Knoxville, Tenn. "There aren't many places where one can make balanced and nuanced wines from viognier, pinot noir and cabernet franc all within a few miles of each other."
Among the sites the UC-Davis students visited was Dancin Vineyards off South Stage Road, where Dan and Cindy Marca have created pinot noir to rival the Willamette Valley.
"I was struck by their attention to detail, as exemplified by their practice of hand-tying each cane to the trellis wires," Henschen said. "Even in an industry with its fair share of meticulous personalities, that stands out. And judging from the wines, their efforts definitely paid off."
The buzz via trade publications, social media and cocktail conversation is obvious, Dan Marca said.
"It's really elevating our region, nationally and internationally. People are discovering us and it's really showing we have a lot to offer here," he said. "All of this exposure nationally and internationally, I believe is going to be incredible."
Tawny Doiron, who works in the Edenvale Winery tasting room on Voorhies Road, sees intriguing parallels to California's Sonoma County, where she grew up.
"I saw the wineries explode there," Doiron said. "In the past 10 or 15 years there have been wineries popping up everywhere. It's one of those areas that is beautiful and desirable to live there because of the wine and climate and this is a very similar area in that regard. There are lot of rolling hills, a lot of beautiful vineyards and views. I see a lot of similar features from those California times when there weren't as many wineries here."
Within the industry there are sweeping movements, collecting adherents as well.
The inaugural Oregon Tempranillo Conference in Ashland earlier this month highlighted the region's unique ability to produce competitive wines from the fastest expanding varietal on the planet, something outside wine experts adamantly approved.
Later this year, Donovan said, a Terroir or Sense of Place conference will focus on soil, topography and climate. The annual Oregon Wine Experience also will expand its competition, inviting entries from northern and eastern Oregon wineries.
Tasting room visits, busy restaurants and filled hotels are underlying aims, but as much as anything the local industry hopes to develop relationships with distributors that will deliver Rogue, Applegate and Umpqua vintages to customers in Florida, New York, Illinois, Texas and California.
"There are thousands throughout the country, from small independents to national players like Southern Wine and Spirts, and Republic," Donovan said. "As we raise the Southern Oregon profile for quality winemaking, we'll raise the interest of more and more distributors who are keeping an eye on the best 'new thing' for their portfolio. I'm hopeful it will be commonplace to see Rogue Valley, Applegate Valley and Umpqua Valley wines in distributor catalogs in the next five years."
A great temptation and possible riptide, Wan said, would be trying to do too much too fast. Front-line personnel in tasting rooms, restaurants, hotels, shops and tourism offices need to be prepared for an unusual onslaught of visitors. And small producers will have to be careful not to ramp up too fast to replenish their inventory, which could lead to loss in quality.
"If they sell out one, they should have another vintage as a backup," Wan said. "Many producers believe in bottle aging for that reason so they always have a couple of vintages in their pocket that they can pull from. We need to be prepared for the onslaught, and yes I believe it's coming."