The nickname for the Umpqua Valley is “100 Valleys of the Umpqua.” Recently, a writer called the area “The Valley of Varietals.” I like both. They help describe what you can find in this wildly diverse wine growing region. My wife Sue and I have been making wine in Elkton, in the northwest corner of the Umpqua Valley, since moving here from San Francisco in January, 2002. I believe some history is in order to place that move in context.
I started making wine as a home winemaker in 1975. It was sort of a cosmically funny accident. On a Tuesday evening I got a call from my uncle, who had made some homemade wine as a hobby. By the following Saturday morning I assembled some winemaking supplies, including a used 60-gallon whiskey barrel, and headed off with a college buddy to a vineyard to pick a half a ton of grapes. I guess I was either foolish or naive enough to think I could make a barrel of wine that anyone would choose to drink. We had such a wonderful time with the grower and his family. I knew I stumbled across something that had a much deeper connection to something I needed in my life, that until then I had never experienced. And by luck or by being too scared to screw it up, that first wine turned out to be more than just drinkable.
Then, one night a neighbor stopped by to introduce himself. It turned out that he had been growing grapes in Anderson Valley since the late ’60s. I started to “hang” in AV on a regular basis, lending a hand in the vineyard, helping with harvest, hauling grapes, and making wine with his fruit. Within a couple of years I knew most of the grape people in AV and by then was making Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer. All the while, my day job was working on the waterfront in San Francisco. People still say, “That sure sounds different from the wine business,” but I still spend a lot of time on the forklift and much of winemaking is really not that different.
In 1986 I started a bonded commercial winery as a home occupation in my garage. The first vintage included Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Pinot Noir. Then I bought a sample bag, threw it over my shoulder after work, and took to the streets of San Francisco. I began to realize how small the wine community really is by knocking on doors and making cold calls to sell my wine. I got to know most of the food and beverage folks in just a few years of selling on the street.
My life changed dramatically once again in 1998. I met Sue at a wine tasting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming where she lived and worked and where I had been going to sell my wine since 1990. We were both pretty raw, recently coming off 20-year marriages. To keep it simple we exchanged addresses and started a communication with letters in the mail. Long story short, we fell in love and a year later Sue moved to San Francisco. She’s fond of saying that all the prior stuff is “BS”: “Before Sue.” We both shared a vision of growing our own grapes. After a couple of years searching the cool coastal valleys of California, we came to the realization that we needed to look farther afield. California land prices had become too much for us to get the kind of property we wanted.
Another fortunate meeting led to us relocating in the Umpqua Valley. I had familiarity with the Umpqua, having visited friends from San Francisco who had moved to the area in the eighties. I even got to know some of the pioneering winemakers a bit, including Scott Henry, who told me I could pick my climate, my soil type, elevation and aspect, and find it somewhere in the Umpqua. On a road trip to Oregon in 2000 Sue and I stopped at Abacela Winery and met its owner, Earl Jones, who remains our good friend. I told Earl that he was raising the bar for Umpqua Valley wines and we did some trades with the juice I was carrying in the trunk. He knew our thing was cool climate varieties and he told us to check out Elkton. Pinot Noir, Riesling and Gewürztraminer had been planted there since 1972, which is old for the Oregon industry. When we got to Elkton I felt very much at home. It really reminded me of the Anderson Valley. I was able to find climate data online and this confirmed that it is indeed a bulls eye for these varietals. Just two weeks later we were riding with a realtor. When he stopped at the bottom of a southwest facing slope and said, “This is it,” I turned to the back seat and told Sue excitedly, “This is it!”
We packed up and headed north just after New Years Eve, 2002. What we have found in Elkton and the Umpqua Valley has exceeded all expectations. I was always very pleased with the wines I’d been making in California but I love the wines we’re making now. Can you imagine a wine region where you can drive from Burgundy or Alsace to Ribera del Duero in one hour? This should give you a good idea of the different types of wine you can encounter in the Umpqua.
The soils of the Umpqua Valley are an amazing amalgam of different types of rock and minerals from three very distinct mountain ranges. These ranges look like an accordion of ridge lines running north and south along the Pacific Coast. The Coast Range is created by the Pacific Plate being sliced off as it dives under the westward advancing North American Plate. To the south, the Klamath and Siskiyou Ranges are composed of some of the most ancient rock in Oregon: Pacific volcanoes that have docked on the North American continent, along with uplifts of volcanic rock from closer to the source. The Eastern Range is the Cascades, a volcanic formation that is much younger.
Umpqua’s drainage is wholly within Douglas County and headwaters form in each of these ranges. All of the minerals, washed into the Pacific through the various river drainages, contribute to this wild diversity of marine sediment. Umpqua’s variety of soils has been called the most diverse and complex array of soil types found anywhere on the planet in a single river drainage.
Umpqua’s hundred valleys have been formed by the meandering Umpqua River as it navigates its way towards the Pacific through these combinations of ancient and more modern ranges and soils. The climate is temperate with a long frost-free period. You can pretty much experience the warming that comes with moving farther inland and away from the Pacific. Elkton, in the northwest corner is the coolest, most maritime climate within the AVA and as you move inland and south along the course of the Umpqua River it warms dramatically. Rainfall in Elkton is 54 inches annually and in Winston, home to Abacela, annual precipitation is only 24 inches. The average July/August high temperature in Elkton is only 83 degrees. If you’re familiar with Growing Degree Days and its corresponding Climate Regions, Elkton is a “Low Region 1” and Winston is a “High 2” or “Low 3.” Burgundy to Spain in less than an hour! You move from deep Douglas Fir forest to oak and grassland savanna.
At Umpqua’s wineries you can enjoy everything you’d find in the classic wine regions of the world. There’s really no other region where so many types of wine are done so well. Sunset Magazine has called the Umpqua the “Now Wine Region” as contrasted to the “Then Napa Valley.” Dan Berger remarked that the Umpqua is the “Greatest Undiscovered Wine Region in America.”
Touring the Umpqua Valley is a real treat. You will most likely meet the owners and winemakers at most of your stops. Most of the area’s wineries are small family-owned operations. Everyone is extra-friendly and welcoming. The area is blessed with remarkable beauty and, besides wine, there is an abundance of outdoor activities to experience. The Umpqua River is world famous for steelhead and salmon fishing. The Dunes National Recreation Area is less than an hour west and Crater Lake National Park is only two hours away in the Cascades. For more information to plan your trip, visit www.umpquavalleywineries.org.