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Grape expert Porter Lombard, right, stands with professor F.C. Reimer, a pear expert, at the Southern Oregon Experiment Station in 1967. [Southern Oregon Digital Archives]

Wine pioneer gets his due

When Frank and Ann Wisnovsky called on Porter Lombard at the Southern Oregon Experiment Station almost a half century ago, he wasn't surprised.

It was their first contact, but the Oregon State University professor and station chief was sure that someone like the Wisnovskys would show up wanting to talk grapes.

Lombard had been sent to the Southern Oregon outpost to assist pear growers in what was still the height of the industry. But Lombard had an interest in wine grapes and had rediscovered what Peter Britt had made plain in the 19th century — this is a region well suited for grapes.

"When they went to the (Oregon State) Extension Service with a dream of growing wine grapes, Porter and the others there said they had been waiting for someone else to show up with that interest," said Mark Wisnovsky, the second-generation leader at Valley View Winery in Ruch.

Lombard eagerly shared his findings, not just with Frank Wisnovsky, but with anyone who had an interest in the field. From a handful of vineyards and wineries sprouting in the 1970s to the more than 160 vineyards and 80 wineries presently in the Rogue and Applegate valleys, Lombard's contribution to the local wine industry can't be overlooked.

On Monday the pioneering scientist, sometimes referred to as the father of the modern Rogue Valley wine industry, will be honored at Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center, where a new acre-plus research vineyard has been dubbed as "the Lombard Block," acknowledging his contributions to grape growing and wine making in Southern Oregon in the 1970s and 1980s.

A ceremony including the Oregon Wine Research Institute, the Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association and the Southern Oregon Wineries Association is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at the center, 569 Hanley Road. Lombard, 88, has been in poor health but is expected to be at the event.

"He set a great standard for how our industry, how vineyards should grow and operate," Wisnovsky said. "He is such an even-going, even-tempered, excellent person to work with, and always thinking about what's going to work and what's the best thing that's going to make this (project) successful."

When Valley View planted its first 12 acres in 1972, it set aside an acre for the Extension Service, where Lombard planted 11 varieties.

"He took care of them for a long time, coming up at harvest to do analysis," Wisnovsky said. "It was really the beginning for some of the varieties that grow here in the Applegate and Rogue Valley."

Long after his retirement, Lombard was the go-to consultant, he said.

"Porter was the expert," Wisnovsky said. "He had the knowledge to help people so they were confident with the decisions. For a long time, people would come up and ask if I could look at their site. I know a fair amount about growing grapes, but I lack the scientific background. I would look at them and say, 'Here's Porter's number.'"

Lombard consulted on the side, and after he retired from OSU. There were people who took Lombard's advice, and others who simply thanked him and moved on. In some cases, his ideas just took longer to come to fruition.

The sun exposure, slope and soil types were hospitable more often than not.

"The commercial varieties did pretty well here, with high yields," Lombard told the Mail Tribune in a 2016 interview. "It hasn't surprised me how good things turned out here locally."

Lombard cultivated a grape native to Oregon — ironically known as Vitis californica — found along southwestern Oregon streams, including Bear Creek. From the native grape he produced what is known as Takelma noir.

"They make a pretty fair red wine," he said. "The best thing is you don't have to spray for disease problems like European varieties."

The vineyard block with pinot noir and chardonnay grapes will be devoted to entomological and pathological studies, said Alexander Levin, an OSU viticulturist at the research center.

"It's the first new planting (at the Extension Center) since Porter planted vines more than 30 years ago."

In an era when soil maps can be punched up digitally, it might be hard to appreciate Lombard's extensive soil mapping.

"Grapes like different soil than pears, so that was important for people when most of the efforts were done for pear growers," Levin said.

Don Moore of Quail Run Vineyards outside Talent said Lombard and his wife, Corine, were among the first acquaintances he and his wife, Traute, made after moving to Southern Oregon.

"He was our intellectual inspiration," Moore said. "I think he'd be No. 1 when it came to influencing the region, when it comes to bringing in new grapes and introducing them to people who grew them and turned them into wines."

Traute Moore said she discovered Lombard's reach while on a trip to Australia a few years back.

"We went to the University of Adelaide and the entire faculty from the agriculture department came to honor him and talk with him for a whole morning," she said. "He's a person who has gone around the world and made a big difference."

— 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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