A spring break wine 'study' in Burgundy

I have to confess I was hoping to catch the three pillars of the Rogue Valley's biggest wine event off guard. I had learned that Lee Mankin, Joe Ginet and Cal Schmidt, along with another grape grower and all their wives, were going on a "research" trip to Burgundy during spring break.

I envisioned wild nights and slow cruising in convertibles down village main streets. You know, "French-American Graffiti."

Before we were scheduled to talk on the phone, I rubbed my hands together, cracked a few knuckles and warmed up my keyboard, all in preparation for hearing these statesmen of viticulture incriminate themselves.

Sadly, I feared that their golden reputations would fly away like so many bikini tops in Fort Lauderdale.

They were to call at 10:30 at night, France time. For me, it was the sober middle of the day. They would be interviewed after already spending long days "talking" to grape growers and "learning" from winemakers who create pinot noir and chardonnay like no one else can.

But before I was willing to expose these local wine linchpins for the globe-trotting cads they surely must be, I wanted to pay my respects to them for the way they have changed the local scenery. When Lee, Joe and Cal started the Southern Oregon World of Wine Festival in 2003, there were only seven wineries here.

They financed the WOW party using their personal credit cards, invited people they knew and made food to serve with wines made from Southern Oregon grapes.

Today, it would take two months to visit one local wine producer each day here. And that little summer party they held under a tent just 10 years ago? It's now where 700 wine lovers will huddle on Aug. 24 in Jacksonville to "discuss" wine and taste more than 180 different ones paired with locally produced beef, cheese and chocolate. Out-of-state judges bestow WOW awards that make bottles instant sellouts.

How did Lee Mankin of Carpenter Hill Vineyard in Medford, Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch in Williams and Cal Schmidt of Schmidt Family Vineyards in Grants Pass know that the growth and recognition of WOW would parallel Southern Oregon's gaining respect as a wine region?

They are pretty smart. And they have a lot to celebrate.

As I sat at home alone during spring break like the friendless loser I am, I assumed these longtime friends would be loose and laughing when we talked.

Oh, was I wrong.

The conversation commenced exactly at the appointed second. An uber-efficient Peggy Pearl, who owns Pearl Family Vineyards and Redlands Vineyard in the Applegate Valley with her husband Andy, read a report of the group's trip highlights.

She spoke eloquently of their appreciation of Burgundy's long history of complex, charming, memorable pinot noirs and chardonnays. The quality of the wines, often produced in small quantities, vaults some Burgundies to the top of the price list.

There, centuries-old vineyards were divided after the French Revolution, leaving growers in charge of perhaps just a few rows of grapes, and yet even those tiny domains have distinctive personalities.

The group "studied" Burgundy's fabled quilt of varying climates and soils by tasting smoked salmon with chardonnays produced by the same winemaker from grapes grown the same year but in vineyards scattered across 12 miles.

Says Joe: "The biggest take- away with Burgundians is terroir," a French word that envelops the characteristics of the land, weather and elements influenced by human hands and minds.

The guys — all with crisp, one-syllable names — then gave details about barrel regiments, clone selection and natural fertilizers French growers make themselves.

They talked about the cooperation they saw among growers, winemakers and wine merchants who all adhere to inflexible regulations, limited yields and strict classifications.

"You might have a 10-acre plot with 10 owners," says Cal. "It's very community oriented."

"Everyone has to meet the same high standards," says Joe.

"They don't allow someone to go rogue," says Lee.

Our Rogue growers promise to share their "hard-earned," "hands-on" "research." Says the ever-practical Cal: "If you don't incorporate what you have learned, you're wasting your time."

Like the Rogue Valley, Burgundy has cold winters, mild and rainy springs and hot, dry and sunny summers, a recipe for great grapes.

The boys sipping through Burgundy hope our area will produce more pinot noir, which is already the most commonly grown grape in Oregon, and more chardonnay, the most popular wine in the U.S.

"We tasted chardonnays (in Burgundy) that are fabulous, high quality, ageable," says Joe. "At home, we have a lot more work to do with our white wines."

In Burgundy, red wines are tasted first, followed by the bigger, fuller whites.

As French clocks were striking 11 p.m. Cal announces that it's time to wrap up the report. "We have at least four more bottles of pinot to finish tonight."

And the chardonnays, I inquire?

Suppressed laughter is followed by a confession from Cal: "We finished them a long time ago."

Pipes in Lee: "We haven't totally converted to the practice of pinots first."

"Au revoir," says Joe.

Au revoir, my spring-break fantasies.

Event: A good walk, for me, includes a stop for art, food and wine, and A Taste of Ashland delivers 17 opportunities for intake from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, April 27-28. Tickets are $55 for two days, $45 for Saturday and $35 for Sunday only. Call 541-292-2302 or see www.atasteofashland.com.

Tasted: After hiking Upper Table Rock, I needed a splash of viognier to cap the glorious day. Kriselle Cellars, near the base of the trail, has sold out its French white (the 2012 vintage will be released in June). But I found a 2011 Folin Cellars viognier ($25) at the nearby Gold Hill tasting room.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com

Share This Story