ASHLAND — If first impressions count, Irvine & Roberts Vineyards up Emigrant Creek Road is way ahead of the game.
High on a hillside, peering over a valley carved out by Emigrant Creek with Grizzly Peak hovering to the north and Cascade foothills to the south, Irvine & Roberts Vineyards is an instant getaway from the Rogue Valley.
Five minutes from the freeway, visitors can escape the scorching summer heat and see the region from a totally new perspective.
The start-up vineyard that earned "Best of Show" in the World of Wine competition with its first vintage, a 2009 Pinot, is poised for a move from an intriguing newcomer to a main attraction among Southern Oregon wineries.
A 2,700-square-foot tasting room designed by Kistler + Small + White Architects of Ashland and built by Adroit Construction — backed by a 10,000-square-foot winery built nearby into the hillside — opened last week.
Irvine Vineyards, founded a decade ago by Doug and Dionne Irvine, has morphed into a wider operation with Doug Irvine’s sister and brother-in-law, Kelly and Duane Roberts, becoming partners. The Robertses own the Historic Mission Inn & Spa in Riverside, California, a four-diamond AAA property.
"We've undergone a pretty extensive six-month process to rebrand Irvine Roberts as we come out of the gate with a new tasting room," Managing Director Michael Donovan said. "We really wanted a brand to reflect who we are. We've had a few name changes, but they all reflect ultimately back on the founders."
The vintners settled on a primarily two-varietal — pinot noir and chardonnay — approach years ago. In the beginning, the Irvines did a test plot outside their home, including viognier, tempranillo and nebbiolo.
"We tried nebbiolo," Doug Irvine said. "Everybody said, 'Doug, there is no way, you can't grow nebbiolo, it will never work.' I said, 'Watch me,' but it didn't work. We could never get it ripe, and the same with tempranillo; but we discovered pinot and chardonnay just thrive here."
What did work in the red volcanic soil drove the dream to reality.
"We discovered early on that the chardonnay and pinot noir were just superstars and just flourished here," he said. "And you know, pinot is king in Oregon and chardonnay is on the rise. So we said let's go for it, and we did the expansion up here in 2012 and just loaded up with different varietals of pinot."
In 2013, Michael Donovan, former Oregon Wine Board chairman, was hired as managing director.
"Oregon chardonnay, in particular, is getting national attention right now," Donovan said.
Wine Spectator magazine gave an Oregon chardonnay its No. 2 wine out of its Top 100 last year.
"You can go to any area of the country — Atlanta, New York — and say you're from Oregon, and the two words that come to their mind are pinot noir," Donovan said. "That's slowly evolving, but that's a great spear that we get to go in behind, because the founders of this industry have really raised the bar for pinot noir, and now they're starting to do that with chardonnay."
To that end, Doug Irvine said, tasting-room visitors who usually avoid chardonnay are more than pleasantly surprised when they try it.
"We pour them a glass, they love it and walk away with a case of chardonnay," he said.
Irvine made 1,500 cases of oak-fermented chardonnay a year ago and plans to up production to 3,000 this year in the new winery. Using Barrel 42 facilities in Medford last year, 3,600 cases of pinot noir were produced. The long-term goal is 20,000 cases.
Donovan anticipates 75 percent of sales will be to wine-club members and tasting-room visitors, with the rest sold through restaurants and distributors, primarily in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Nevada and Alaska.
Dionne Irvine tips her hat to local restaurateurs and shopkeepers who have served Irvine vintages.
"They have been instrumental in getting our name out there and created an incredible following for us," she said.
Farming in an area historically relegated to grazing presents unique challenges. Squirrels, birds and bears are nuisances, but typical fungus and disease issues have less impact, said winemaker Vince Vidrine, who joined the staff in May.
"Coming from the Willamette Valley, where there is more humidity and rain, mildew and mold are a bigger issue up there," Vidrine said. "It's nice to come in where there is a dry breeze blowing in the morning, which is a great way to ensure we don't have that issue."
Shifting winemaking to the estate is a game-changer, he said.
"We're really going to step things up at this vineyard, having someone on site the whole time," Vidrine said. "We can bring grapes directly in when they're ready. The winery is super well designed with great tanks and wonderful equipment."
Irvine joins a roster of more than 120 wineries in Southern Oregon, from Elkton to the California border.
"We're trying to be a leader," Donovan said. "We're trying to raise the bar for all of Southern Oregon at the same time time. We're not in competition with the other Southern Oregon wineries, we're in competition with France, Southern California, New Zealand and elsewhere."
— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.