Great Wine; No Traffic Jam

If you have recently driven down one of Portland’s most-traveled inner-city thoroughfares, you may have noticed a large billboard for Oregon wine. Its purpose is to send a simple, and what its authors consider indisputable, message to metropolitan-area residents and visitors alike.

Next to a bucolic valley scene, and above the URL for the Roseburg Visitors Center’s web page extolling the virtues of the rich and storied Umpqua Valley wine region, is the pointed pronouncement, “There’s more than one great Oregon wine region.”

Take that, Willamette Valley Appellation.

It’s not that anyone in these parts, least of all Umpqua Valley winemakers, are disputing the fact the northern wine country is a great tourism destination. But the proud people down here want it known that the Willamette Valley isn’t the only can’t-miss wine destination in Oregon.

In fact, people in this neck of the woods would wonder why anyone visiting the state for the Olympic Trials would travel more than twice as far and endure 100 times the traffic headache to head north, when one of those other can’t-miss wine regions is a simple traffic-free hour away.

In the Umpqua Valley, we’re talking about the birthplace of the Oregon commercial wine industry, after all. This is the home of Oregon’s first winery, Hillcrest, the place where pinot noir was introduced to the state by the “Father of Oregon Wine” Richard Sommer, who proved wrong all the viticulture experts who had always said that couldn’t be done.

That was only the first of many innovations that local winemakers have introduced to the industry.

This is where Scott Henry, a valley native and former aeronautical engineer, designed a trellis system for increasing the quality of grapes that is now used around the world.

It’s where physician Earl Jones and his wife Hilda kick-started fine Tempranillo production in the Pacific Northwest, landing here after an exhaustive search to find a growing climate similar to the region of Spain where the best Tempranillos in the world originated.

Oregon’s first Gruner Veltliner and Albarino also were produced in the region that one wine publication has called “One of the Top 10 Wine Destinations in America” and Sunset magazine called “The next Napa Valley.”

While it’s certainly nice to be mentioned in the same breath as such a legendary wine region, one of the Umpqua Valley’s best virtues is that the local wine collective and community at large aren’t trying to be the next anything.

And that is what makes an excursion through the backgrounds of the region (and the heart of downtown Roseburg, where you’ll find unique urban wineries) such a unique experience. If there is a resemblance to Napa Valley, it is only before it became the Napa Valley. This a place where you can enjoy scenic and leisurely drives from one great winery to the other and not feel like you need a stiff drink to survive the trip (another Roseburg Visitor Center billboard reads, “Great Wine; No Traffic Jam.”).

It’s a place where the person telling you about the wine you are enjoying my well be the same person who founded the winery.

Each stop on a tour is a truly unique experience and a truly unique setting. There’s the old barn where Hillcrest was born, the remarkable wine cave at Reustle Prayer Rock, the unique former car dealership setting downtown at Paul O’Brien, the incredible vistas outside Cooper Ridge, Melrose, Abacela and virtually every other tasting room.

And, of course, fabulous wine and conversations at every stop.

So take the short drive down, then take your time driving a road less traveled through one of Oregon’s great wine regions.

Regional Wines Known Worldwide

Wine has really come into its own throughout the Umpqua Valley. According to Wine Enthusiast Magazine, Southern Oregon is one of the “10 Best Wine Travel Destinations of 2016.”

Further cementing its place amid the world’s best, 28 local wineries came home from the 2016 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition with medals. They competed against over seven thousand wines from all over the globe.

Today, there are over 30 wineries in the Umpqua region. Thanks to colder climates in Elkton and warmer climates down south, different wines can be grown here. Terry Brandborg, Umpqua Valley Wine Growers Association board president and owner of Brandborg Vineyard and Winery in Elkton, is an impartial fan of every one of his fellow vintners.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth in Umpqua,” said Terry. “The fact that our local wineries did so well shows how our wines stack up compared to any other place. I think that’s very significant.”

Brandborg began producing wine in 1986 in California. He moved operations to Elkton in 2002 and has never looked back.

So, what has been the catalyst for wine success in the Umpqua Valley? Terry points to three significant events. First, Reustler Prayer Rock Vineyards near Umpqua was named Small Winery of the Year in 2010 by the Riverside International Wine Competition. Second, Wine Press Northwest named Abacela Oregon Winery of the Year in 2013. And third, Brandborg Vineyard and Winery took the honors in 2015.

Climate plays a role as well. The Umpqua Valley lies just between the 44th and 42nd parallels. Very similar to Spain in many regards.

According to the Wine Grower’s website, there are over 1,500 acres of vineyards in the area. Grapes include Pinot Noir and Riesling in the northern part of the region, with warmer varieties such as Tempranillo in the south valley. Other varieties include Syrah and Pinot Gris.

“As we recover from the recession and consumer confidence is on the increase, people are willing to spend more money on the higher priced wines,” Brandborg said. “We’re seeing a lot more traffic out and about, so I think it’s looking very bright.”

“We feel like it’s a tourist destination in and of itself,” said Terri Delfino, co-chair of Umpqua Valley Wine Growers Association. “And we’re close to other wineries in the area. When you come home, you can just relax and go out again the next day to Crater Lake or the coast. We’re really in a good location for tourists to come and visit.”

When you’re ready to sample the award-winning wines coming out of the region, just look to the Umpqua Valley Wine Grower’s Association map of wineries. Download it here. Plan your day accordingly, and enjoy the many flavors and notes that our soils, climates and growers have to offer.

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