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MJ Daspit

Wine Wednesday: Ashland’s Weisinger Family Winery turns 30

With wine, age is a critical element. No matter how accomplished the winemaker or exceptional the vineyard, some things can be accomplished only by time. Newly planted vines need five or six years to yield fruit that will result in wine with mature varietal character. Then there’s the aging of wine in barrel and in bottle before it is released, and cellaring time required by some vintages to achieve their full potential.

In a “new” wine region only recently heralded by the national wine press, finding a winery that has stood the test of time seems a contradiction in terms. Well worth noting, then, is Weisinger Family Winery’s celebration this summer of 30 years in operation.

One of only four first-generation Rogue Valley wineries still in business (besides Weisinger, I count Troon, Valley View and Foris), Weisinger’s began with a vineyard planted in 1979 four miles south of Ashland with cuttings of gewürztraminer John Weisinger got from Frank Wisnovsky, founder of Valley View. Weisinger’s estate winery was bonded in 1988.

If you’d taken odds on the survival of Weisinger’s at the inception, you’d have considered several negative factors. The proprietor was a Texas native, a Protestant minister with no formal training as a winegrower or businessman. At 2,200 feet, his was the highest vineyard planting of any in an unproven viticultural area. With no large metropolitan center closer than Portland or San Francisco, the winery would depend on the support of a sparse rural population and tourists drawn to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

On the plus side of the ledger was Weisinger himself, a perpetually curious character with an array of talents: hunting, ham radio, restoring and crafting firearms, and repairing just about anything. He’d spent time in Alaska before coming to Oregon, reflecting an adventurous streak. And he had an ace up his sleeve, his son Eric.

Eric started in the wine industry as a 10-year-old, helping his father shove those gerwürztraminer cuttings into the ground. He attended Ashland High School, played the drums, hunted squirrels, skied the mountain and spent time in Germany. When the winery started operation, he worked the crush pad and the cellar beside Donna Devine, Grants Pass Courier reporter turned winemaker.

When I first met John and Eric, Weisinger’s had been producing wines for 15 years. At that time much of the Southern Oregon harvest was sent north to be used for blending, to add ripeness to the pinot noirs of the Willamette Valley. Wines made in the Rogue Valley sometimes achieved excellence but sometimes fell short. Eric is one of the reasons the quality shifted toward consistent excellence.

In 2006, the second generation Weisinger went abroad to expand his winemaking experience. To get two harvests a year, he alternated his time between Oregon and the Southern Hemisphere, mostly producing reds in New Zealand’s acclaimed Marlborough region. Having honed his knowledge and skills, he evolved a robust consulting business among start-up wineries in the Rogue Valley, including DANCIN Vineyards and Kriselle Cellars. Vintages under his revamped label, Weisinger Family Winery, started to win awards, notably the 2014 estate tempranillo that took a double gold at the 2017 Wine Press Northwest Platinum Judging and Best in Show at the 2017 Oregon Wine Experience competition.

Thirty years in any industry is a long time, especially when that industry combines agriculture, artistry and capturing the public’s taste. How does Weisinger keep it fresh and interesting? Each harvest is a new puzzle, he explains.

“I’m pretty confident in being able to pick which vineyards are good and to know how to produce those wines. But occasionally I’ve been surprised. I’ve had wines that I thought were OK winning double golds — always a nice surprise. I’ve had wines that I thought were great that didn’t do so well. That’s something about wine that I have a lot of respect for. If you’re honest with yourself about it, it will humble you, because you aren’t always right.”

Striving for perfection, he concludes, is the one constant in a business that presents a different challenge every season.

To mark this year’s landmark anniversary, a gala winemaker’s dinner is scheduled for Aug. 10. A 10-course meal will be catered by Medford’s Truffle Pig Craft Kitchen with 14 of Weisinger’s favorite library wines, including side-by-side pours of cabernet sauvignon from 1990, 2001 and 2015 and petit pompadour, a proprietary Bordeaux blend, from 1991, 2006 and 2014. The 2014 estate tempranillo also stars on the menu along with a 1989 estate gewürztraminer. There will be gifts for attendees and a rare appearance by founding father John, who now resides in Texas. For reservations, see weisingers.com.

What’s next for the ever-energetic winemaker behind the Rogue Valley’s fourth-oldest brand? Would you believe Eric is now producing wines for a new label from the Texas Hill Country AVA? Yep — but that’s a story for another time.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.

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