Sip local: Secret to a vibrant wine region

In a recent column, New York Times wine writer Eric Asimov quoted a Dobbes Ferry, N.Y., wine retailer: "People can't wait to rush off to the farmers market for local produce," he said. "But when they come in here and ask what I have, and I say, 'A beautiful white wine from Long Island,' they say, 'What else do you have?' "

We've got a bit of the same problem right here. Over the past 25 years, the Southern Oregon wine industry has exploded — in a good way. From the top of the Umpqua Valley to the California border, now there are scores of bonded wineries and thousands of acres of planted vineyards. But, for a number of reasons, too few of the wines produced here are sold outside Oregon.

Contrary to some boosters' wishes, Southern Oregon will never be "the next Napa Valley." We're simply too far from major metropolitan areas to make wine daytrips a reality, and we probably need several additional higher-end hotels and resorts to accommodate serious oenophiles and major wine-themed events.

Yes, we do get hundreds of thousands of visitors to the region every year and they do their fair share of wine tasting and buying. But we can't rely too heavily on tourists to keep wineries afloat; they may never have even heard of many Southern Oregon varietals or wine brands, even the ones sold out of state. The solution? Wine-enjoying locals need to step up and start rooting harder for the home team.

It's time to adopt and spread the gospel of Sip Local. If you do that, two really good things can happen. First, we'll build a genuine wine community here, not just a loose aggregation of small businesses. And I guarantee our regional cuisine will continue to improve right along with that community.

Here's how to help local wine thrive.

  • Get region-smart. The best news about Southern Oregon is that a huge number of wine-grape varieties grow well here. We've got everything from A to Z, Albariño to Zinfandel, and we'll probably never have a flagship wine such as the Willamette Valley's pinot noir. Diversity is our hallmark, so be adventurous and willing to taste out to the edge of your palate. You might find you love that silky malbec or sprightly dry gewürtztraminer.
  • Ask for regional wines at restaurants and bars. It's tough to see so many bottles from other states and countries on the lists of local establishments. Brand names and price are important, of course, but the only way to get more local wines on local lists is to keep asking for them. If that fails at your favorite bistro, try bringing your own local wine and let the server or owner taste it.
  • Patronize supportive wine retailers. Broadline grocers Fred Meyer, Safeway, Albertsons and others usually carry a decent selection of Southern Oregon wines. But you'll often find an even greater array at wine shops and specialty grocery stores. Get to know the wine buyers at your favorite stores and regularly share your best local wine finds with them. And when Trader Joe's opens its doors in Medford later this year, let's all lobby for the widest possible selection of Southern Oregon labels.
  • Give good word of mouth. If you have favorite local wines or wineries, share that information with everyone you know, especially via social media — Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, LinkedIn or whatever. Use the destination advice sites such as Yelp and Trip Advisor to give shout-outs to the tasting rooms you like best.

One last little sidelight. In a Q&A session at a recent regional wine industry gathering, a local winery owner opined to the audience that competition was stiffening as "more sharks are circling in our tank." The presenter to whom the owner had addressed a question promptly responded: "Maybe it's time for everyone in the wine business here to start acting more like dolphins and less like sharks."

As the Southern Oregonians growing grapes and making wine become more dolphin-like, I'll wager it will be much easier for local wine drinkers to swim along with them.

Marilyn Hawkins is an Ashland-based public relations and marketing communications consultant.

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