A tale of three vineyards

The wine business is spooky. During this freaky harvest, growers are gnawing on their thoughts and wondering if the late ripeners will make it.

But there is an ongoing scariness, too. Will a winery make it? The investment is huge. The return can be slow and spotty.

Right now, I'm naively following blue highway signs that promise me a winery on this Ashland road. My car windows rattle like skeletons as I creep over the groaning gravel. Instead of signs of life, I see a row of dead sunflowers dried in position as if art-directed by Tim Burton. Instead of a gateway inviting me to enter, I see signs that portend danger: Keep Out! No Trespassing!

There are electric fences, barbed wire and — more menacing — aggressive blackberry bushes. But no grape-harvest activity. What's going on at this old Ashland winery? Seemingly, nothing.

Sadly, it's not the only deceased-looking wine business in the neighborhood. Up the road, past a cemetery and weeping willows, is an 88-acre viticulture fairy tale turned bank-owned nightmare. Two years ago, merlot, mourvedre and syrah blanketed this south-facing hillside. Now, weeds tower over trellises.

The spots reserved for the Disneyland-like water features? Dry dirt. There isn't even a ghostly outline of the envisioned Tuscan-style residence or 10,000-square-foot tasting room. And the tram to trundle tourists from the downtown plaza up the hill to buy estate wine is as real as the bison-breeding program.

The tale of these two vineyards has Ashlanders bragging about a property just two miles northwest of this dead end: slow-but-steady Dana Campbell Vineyards. Tempranillo, malbec and viognier vines planted in 2006 have grapes ripening under manicured canopies.

In newer blocks, grow tubes have systematically been removed, and irrigation lines have been laid in preparation of the next phase. An older building with a sweeping view of Bear Creek Valley is being readied as a tasting room to sample and sell bottles of wine ($22 to $30) starting this spring.

There is a sense of military precision to these 20 acres. And that may be because one of the owners, Paula Campbell Brown, is a rear admiral in the Navy reserves. Ask about the deer fence that she installed with her husband, retired foundation director Patrick Dana Flannery, and you get the sense that she gave it the same consideration as defending the South Pacific (her day job).

"We were fortunate enough not to have all the money in the world," says Brown. "It's like paying for your education. Every time I go away to do Navy, it's money for the winery."

Without fanfare, the couple marches on. There is a postage stamp-sized photo on the back of every bottle. It shows the original vineyard as seen through a window in their home. Underneath the image, in small type, are the words: "View toward the future."

HALLOWINE: Last Halloween, Laura Lotspeich served her grenache rose (now sold out) to Pipi Longstocking, who was visiting Trium's tasting room in Talent. Lotspeich also poured viognier ($20) to Elvira and cabernet sauvignon ($38) to a "cereal" killer. A guy dressed as a tube of toothpaste got a little pinot gris ($19).

"Some folks that I thought were in costume really weren't," says the anecdote-affluent Lotspeich. "One lady in a fishnet blouse wore nothing underneath. She shows up every year in the same outfit."

Lotspeich adds, "We will probably be harvesting Halloween weekend, so maybe we can draft all of the costumed customers to pick."

Fiasco Winery outside of Jacksonville is having a Halloween party from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 29. Costumes are strongly encouraged, but owner Pamela Palmer says they are not required. In keeping with their Italian-inspired wine, she and husband David will be dressed as gondoliers. Seasonal dishes will be served with their Super Tuscan ($40) and Fattoria Rosso ($21).

EVENT: Ubiquitous singer/songwriter Gene Burnett, who is recording an album optimistically called "Have a Wonderful Miserable Life," hosts wine-fueled open mics around Ashland. Tuesdays, he's at Tabu, encouraging accountants and others to pull away from their bar tables and sing their favorite tunes. The first Wednesday of the month, he's at the Wild Goose. The musical theme for Nov. 2 is political songs. Now, that's scary.

TASTED: I like value wine as much as anyone else. Many local wineries deliver nice goods in a bottle for around $20. That's squeakingly enough to help support local businesses, farmland and families.

Once in a blue moon, a local winery bounces up the price tag. Troon released both its 2008 and 2009 Vertical — a blend of four sequential vintages of cabernet sauvignon — at $100. As I wrote then (clearly in my beatnik phase): "It takes guts to charge a cool C note for a non-Napa cab."

This November, if Abacela's wine-club members don't snag all 170 cases, you can spend $90 for a just-released bottle of 2005 Paramour, an American Gran Reserva-style tempranillo that owners Earl and Hilda Jones said brought them to Roseburg in the 1990s to make. Winemaker Kiley Evans worked with the Joneses.

Lorn Razzano of the venerable Ashland Wine Cellar wasn't shocked by the price: "Earl Jones is one of the top five winemakers in the Northwest. As a quality statement, it might even be a bargain."

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

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