In the past year or two it seems I’m always being surprised by new Rogue Valley wines, labels that seem to pop up overnight like mushrooms.
Often these new kids on the block have already won an award or two by the time they appear on my radar. Such is the case with Awen Winecraft, a brand I encountered at a recent tasting at the Ashland Wine Cellar.
The name is neatly demystified on the back label. Pronounced like a sigh of satisfaction (ah…) followed by “when,” this Celtic word denotes “flowing spirit” and “divine inspiration for creators.” The creators are Sean Hopkins and Tom Homewood, information technology professionals who met in the Bay Area, got to be friends, and eventually started making wine together.
Hopkins, whose father’s career took the family to Aix-en-Provence and Cannes, discovered French vintages as a teen. He had little interest in wine as an adult until he caught a whiff of something wonderful at his brother-in-law’s house.
“We went out to smoke a cigar. He has a humidor on the side of his house, and it turns out it’s also a wine cellar where he had barrels. We walked in and there’s this blue 50-gallon drum, and I smelled this beautiful smell. He said that’s fermenting zinfandel.”
A few years later Hopkins and Homewood were making wine at Hopkins’ house in Boulder Creek, California. “We had this group of people who were all really excited about making wine,” Homewood remembers. “We bought eight tons of grapes and then only three of us showed up to do the work. That was the first time I learned that the romance of winemaking — stomping grapes and singing songs — was really mostly moving stuff and cleaning up stuff. And then there’s chemistry involved.”
Romance aside, the two persisted in learning the craft, and in 2010 Hopkins came to Oregon to taste wine.
“That’s when I fell in love with the grapes of the region. I’ve been to Napa, I’ve bought a lot of grapes in Santa Cruz, we’ve worked with some really great California winemakers, but the grapes here are just amazing. So in 2011 I looked at my wife and said, let’s move up to Oregon.”
After several years of making trips to Oregon to make wine with Hopkins, Homewood moved to the Rogue Valley in 2016.
Sourcing fruit from local growers, the team can be opportunistic rather than basing their production on an estate vineyard.
“As we got into the discussion of what we wanted to produce our first year, we wanted to weight things more heavily toward whites to start and we didn’t want to do something that everybody else was doing,” Homewood explains. “We talked to Michael Moore of Quail Run Vineyards about finding a variety that’s unique to the area and does really well here but is also a grape not everybody uses. He pointed us toward Grenache Blanc.”
So far the team has released a 2016 Grenache Blanc and Inspiration Blend (Viognier and Grenache Blanc), a gold medal winner at the 2017 Oregon Wine Experience competition. Hopkins calls the award “a feather in our cap and in the cap of Barrel 42 for helping us transition into professional winemaking. We’re amateurs starting out, we’ve done some good things and have our own style, but Herb Quady, Brian Gruber and Nichole Schulte — Barrel 42 winemakers — have helped us every step of the way.”
With the solid success of their first two releases behind them, Hopkins and Homewood look to put out a wider array of wines this year, all in lots of less than 200 cases. Look for Awen Vermentino, Inspiration Blend, viognier, grenache blanc, chardonnay, rosé and zinfandel. They also have 2016 malbec and cabernet sauvignon in barrel for release after aging.
You can find Awen at the Rogue Valley Growers and Crafters Market, Old 99, Cartwright’s and Bambu restaurant in Medford, and at the Ashland Wine Cellar. It’s a brand you won’t want to miss.
What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.