Rogue Valley, Oregon: A Little Wine With Your Shakespeare

The recently held Wine Media Conference (WMC) 2021 brought wine writers to Eugene, Oregon, this year, and as always, the excursion prior to the main event was a highlight, providing an in-depth discovery of one specific region in the state. Along with about 25 other wine writers, I chose to take a closer look at Southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, about which I knew very little.

About three hours by bus from Eugene, the Rogue Valley, along with neighboring Applegate Valley, sits just above the northern California border in Oregon. The destination town for the wine media was Ashland, Oregon, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the gorgeous old Ashland Springs Hotel, where we stayed. Dating from 1925, and originally known as the Lithia Springs Hotel, this nine-story hotel boasted that it was “the tallest building between Portland and San Francisco,” and brought European elegance to the area, known for the gold rush, mineral springs, and the Chautauqua lecture series, which were an educational/self-improvement movement popular in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (they are still on-going in NY State). The facility for the Chatauqua meetings became the present-day facilities of the popular Shakespeare Festival. Tudor-style themes dominate the town as an homage to Shakespeare.

The hotel was refurbished in the 1990s with a “cabinet-of-curiosities concept based on education and travel,” per an Architectural Digest interview with its owners Doug and Becky Neuman. I was personally intrigued by the hotel’s lobby with its magnificent display cases of the aforementioned curiosities (see photos below).

collage of Ashland Springs Hotel
The Ashland Springs Hotel has a “cabinet of curiosities” design inside, and a beautiful art-deco exterior.

Rogue Valley Wineries

At a reception in the Ashland Springs’s beautiful cobblestone patio and flower garden (which replaced a pool during restoration), several knowledgeable representatives of Southern Oregon organizations extended their hospitality and welcome to the writers. Among them were Lanessa Pierce, author of “What to Do in Southern Oregon;” Gina Bianco, Executive Director of Rogue Valley Vintners; Bob Hackett, Executive Director of Travel Southern Oregon; Dana Keller, Director of Food & Beverage at Rogue Creamery; Chris Spirko, GM/CFO of Sharffen Berger chocolates; and representatives of 10 area wineries.

Following are the wineries, and their wines, in the order they presented, with just a few notes on each. Each wine was paired with cheese, chocolate, or a delicacy from Lark’s, the restaurant in the Ashland Springs Hotel.

Hummingbird Estate: 2020 White Pinot Noir, a white wine from a red grape, retails at $32 a bottle. Hummingbird has a tasting room and Bed & Breakfast on their property, and they also produce three different wines in a can, a growing trend.

Dwell Wines: Based in Applegate Valley, Dwell is a woman-owned winery, and her plans are to open a  tasting room in January 2022. The wines are made at Barrel 42, an off-premise facility. We tasted their 2020 Rose of Pinot Noir.

Coventina Vineyards: The 2017 Chardonnay, priced at $20 a bottle. The name is from the Celtic for purification and regeneration. Their wines are also made off-premise at Barrel 42.

Irvine & Roberts: 2018 Estate Chardonnay, $35 a bottle. Winemaker Vince Vidrine explained that he does one early pick of grapes which produce crisp clear juice, and one later pick, which produces a richer, rounder juice with high sugar, and he combines these in barrel for this estate wine.

Foris: “Meticulously crafted. Amazing Affordable.” This phrase comes from their Web site, but everyone at this event was floored by the $20 price tag on the very good 2019 Foris Rogue Valley Pinot Noir. Founded in 1974 by Ted Gerber, an early pioneer of the west side of the Rogue AVA, the winery has 40-year-old vines featuring the heritage varieties of Oregon: Riesling, Gewurtztraminer, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay. Like Barra of Mendocino (see story here), Gerber owns his land and chooses to pass on the concomitant savings to his customers.

collage of Oregon wine bottles

Naumes: 2018 Barbera, $40. This was paired with Rogue Creamery Caveman Bleu Cheese, which would taste good with just about anything, in my opinion, but the Barbera was delicious with it. Naumes also produces sparkling wines, a growing category in Oregon.

Quady North: 2018 GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre), $25. Herb Quady is the son of the Quady wine family, known for their sweet red and white wines made from Muscat grapes in California’s Central Valley. The family purchased Oregon property and Herb now makes Rhone-ish and Loire-ish style wines (his words). Quady noted that the Mourvedre in the Rogue is lighter in style, but still maintains the “funk” that is its hallmark, and that the Syrah is the “glue” in his GSM that does well in just about every vintage.

RoxyAnn Winery: Claret is RoxyAnn’s signature red wine, and the 2017 Claret is composed of 40% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, and the rest Cab Franc and Malbec. The winery is on the site of one of the oldest orchards in Oregon, dating back to 1908 as the Hillcrest Orchard, which is on the National Registry of Historic Places. The propety has 3 VRBO properties, and features a 120-year-old horse barn tasting room, which is open 7 days a week, and is also “kid friendly.”

Weisinger Family Wines: While Eric Weisinger’s father, a pioneer of the Rogue Valley, felt Gewürztraminer was the future of Southern Oregon when he first began growing grapes, it didn’t quite turn out that way, and the son was pouring his 2018 Tempranillo for us wine writers. This grape is the easiest to grow on their property, says Eric, and since he is a self-proclaimed “lazy winemaker,” that suits him fine! (There will be more on Weisinger in a future post, as they hosted an in-depth tasting for WMC 21 attendees.)

Belle Fiore: This producer has the most opulent estate, comprising a French-style chateau with magnificent views of the Ashland area, and offers private tastings by appointment in their Italianate tasting room. They grow 15 different varieties and have three distinct labels, of which the Belle Fiore Winery brand is one. The 2016 Numinos wine, poured for us, is a Bordeaux blend, with 54% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cab Franc, 9% Merlot, and some Malbec and Petit Verdot to round out the blend, which retails for $49.

collage of food and wine at Ashland Springs Hotel wine tasting

Foods of Southern Oregon

Not to be overlooked or overshadowed were the food pairings for the above wines. Lark’s chef prepared gorgeous small plates, and Rogue Creamery provided their award-winning cheeses.
Another presenter was Chris Spirko of Scharffen Berger, the company known for producing baking chocolate. Spirko explained how this 25-year-old company was sold to Hershey 15 years ago, and purchased back from them in 2020. They are developing a “bean to bar” facility in Ashland, Oreg., employing 25 people, and at the time of this tasting in early August 2021 they were doing first trials of their products. Baking chocolate is a majority of their business, and they have partnerships with chefs and bakeries.

“Team Oregon”

Going into this excursion, I believed that as a Southern Oregon winery, it must be a constant thought that you are living in the shadow of your northern neighbors in the Willamette Valley with their world-famous Pinot Noirs and 700+ wineries.

I was wrong. Per Herb Quady of Quady North, it’s not a South vs. North mentality in the Rogue, in fact “I’m Team Oregon,” he says. The Rogue Valley is a newer wine region, with more freedom and openness, with a youthful character, and presenting different opportunities. We certainly saw that in our visit with Cowhorn, with two women in their twenties as owner and winemaker (see my last post).

I also wanted to know what the signature wines of Southern Oregon are, assuming they were like Willamette Valley in this respect. It turns out that this is no signature wine, or signature grape, or even signature influence (i.e., French, Italian, Spanish, etc.). We sampled Sauvignon Blancs, Viogniers, Rieslings, Gewurtztraminers, Grenaches, Pinot Blancs, Chardonnays, Barberas, Cabernet Sauvignons, Pinot Noirs, Tempranillos, Mourvedres, Bordeaux blends, Carmeneres … a veritable kitchen-sink of wines.

And the wines are good … no tasting notes to share, but I have a fairly trained palette and I know good wine when I drink it. And there is so much value wine, or bang-for-the-buck wines. Most of the wineries we visited sell direct to consumer either via Internet sales or wine club, so check them out via the links above.

I’ve also never seen a region that is so conscious of the environment, with the words organic, biodynamic, and sustainability on the lips of just about every owner/winemaker. The farm-to-table movement is also vibrant, with mouthwatering world-class food available.

Southern Oregon deserves a closer look … and possibly an extended vacation. In addition to the wineries and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, there are lakes, caves, mountain trails, and much more to see. If you do go, see below for some important links.

Until next time,


Important Links:

Travel Southern Oregon:

Ashland Springs Hotel:

Rogue Valley Vintners:

Rogue Valley Wine Country:

Rogue Creamery (they have tours):

Scharffenberger Chocolate:

Oregon Shakespeare Festival:

For ideas on things to do with a family: