With Oregon Wine Experience activity rippling through the next few weeks, August has become a pivotal month for the Rogue Valley wine industry.
“Oregon Wine Experience is the linchpin-event in our cycle, culminating the year, and then we transition into harvest,” said Barbara Steele, co-owner and winemaker at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden.
Four Masters of Wine and two nationally renowned wine writers will assess close to 350 wines from nearly 100 Oregon wineries during OWE judging this weekend at the Ashland Hills Inn & Suites, capped by a forum Sunday evening.
This week, OWE announced a change in its judging lineup. Tim Hanni, a wine master and member of the Sonoma State University wine industry faculty, will stand in for Patrick Farrell. Hanni is one of the first two resident Americans to earn the title Master of Wine. He is a trained chef and has been involved with wine- and food-related businesses, education and research for more than 35 years.
“This is the time of year when the tasting room is the busiest it’s going to be,” Steele said. “You have the energy surrounding Oregon Wine Experience bumping against the harvest.”
Cowhorn is one of the host sites for Oregon Wine University classes during OWE’s Aug. 20-25 celebration.
Even without the region’s largest competition, it’s a busy time of year, with grape growers tracking the onset of veraison as the fruit changes color, while pouring for tourists in tasting rooms. Beyond the usual routine is the fledgling Rogue Valley Vintners organization, whose members are gearing up for a survey that will shape the regional industry’s 2019 marketing campaign.
Steele, who has operated a 25-acre vineyard off Upper Applegate Road for the past 15 years, said the outside world is starting to understand Oregon wine is more than Willamette Valley pinot noir.
“The world doesn’t need another wine region,” she said. “There are a lot of little wine regions you can go to. When you put it all together, there is a lot of compelling stuff.”
During the next week, Rogue Valley Vintners will invite 200 or more industry-related entities to participate in an Aug. 15-20 survey. The data will go to Full Glass Research of Berkeley, California, for analysis. The results will be returned in November. In conjunction with the Oregon Wine Board and Travel Oregon, the survey results will be analyzed on a statewide level as well, but those results won’t be available until mid-2019.
Steele said the regional results will be used to draft a strategic plan presented to Rogue Valley Vintners in January.
“It’s a tight and aggressive timeline,” Steele said. “Even though it’s coming up to harvest, we’re committed to getting this done.”
One mark of the maturing local industry, Steele said, is its expanding base.
“A regional wine industry doesn’t develop without wineries of every type — wedding venues, urban settings, boutique biodynamic wineries and creekside luncheons,” Steele said. “We didn’t have that five or 10 years ago.”
2Hawk Vineyards & Winery owner Ross Allen, president of the Rogue Valley Vintners board, said step-by-step implementation is important to maintain the new organization’s momentum.
“People are waiting to see if we have movement,” Allen said. “If we are going to do something, they want to see if it actually happened. We’re going to do that and follow through. If we say something indicating a period of time, it needs to get done and done right. Then we’ll get more people on board.”
All the event and marketing buzz has come against a background of smoky skies.
Even though wildfire smoke has dampened tourist traffic, RoxyAnn Winery owner Chad Day said his tasting room took full advantage of the Country Crossings crowd during the country music festival at the Expo in Central Point.
“All those people here for Country Crossings needed something to do before going to the music,” Day said. “We were handing out free tasting cards, and it worked out pretty well. We were inundated with people when we opened on Friday and Saturday.”
There were 40 people tasting between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. both days, he said. “That’s a pretty good morning for us.”
Out in the vineyard, Allen has taken a different approach as well to compensate for the air quality.
“With the reduced air quality, we’ve started working earlier in the morning,” Allen said. “We try to work when there is a window of better air quality, but as the day progresses and the air gets worse, the people working outside go home.”