Cocktail dresses. Embroidered cowboy boots. Tight black mini skirts. Three-piece suits. The some 500 wine enthusiasts and foodies who came out for the 34th Annual Jefferson Public Radio Wine Tasting and Silent Auction at the historic Ashland Springs Hotel were looking good last night.
While the event is a fundraiser for Jefferson Public Radio, it also serves as a showcase for what’s new in the wine industry in Southern Oregon. And what was offered last night proves that the wines being made in Southern Oregon just keep getting better.
“I am very impressed,” said Beverly Hovenkamp, a Presbyterian minister who came all the way from Davenport, Iowa to attend the event (and visit her stepson). “I stuck to Tempranillo and tried as many as I could. I thought they were very good.”
While the Willamette Valley has made a name for itself with Pinot noir, Southern Oregon’s warmer drier climate has turned out to be ideal for a diverse array of red grapes. Hovenkamp, who used to live in California before The Golden State’s wines hit their apex, wonders aloud if Southern Oregon is the next Napa.
Tempranillo grapes, a black varietal originally from Spain, grow especially well in our microclimates. The Syrahs, Cabernet Franc, and—surprisingly—the Pinot noirs being poured were fabulous too.
But wine maker Bryan Wilson, co-owner with his wife of Cuckoo’s Nest, also encourages wine lovers to try the unique and flavorful white wines coming out of the region right now.
Wilson, who used to be a wine maker in Napa, says that the feel of the wineries and the wine community in Oregon is much more down-to-earth than in California.
“We moved from Napa to Eugene and my business card used to read, ‘putting my nose in the glass not in the air,’” Wilson laughs, pouring Cuckoo’s Nest’s 2013 “Aromatique,” a white wine that is 62 percent Viognier and 38 percent Gewürztaminer. “Wine doesn’t taste better by being snooty about it.”
Gewürztaminer grapes, originally from Germany, are growing well in the Illinois Valley, Wilson says. Aromatique has a rich, almost spicy, floral flavor. Wilson says it is a thicker wine than their 2013 Pinot gris. He wants to call it “oily,” though that does not sound quite right.
Southern Oregon has successfully made a name for itself as a region that specializes in Viognier, a drinkable aromatic white wine that aficionados describe as “fruit forward.” But there are more white varietals to look out for in the coming years. Though wine makers say we are still in the discovery phase, roussanne and marsanne grapes, originally from the Rhône in France, seem to be growing particularly well here as well.
As the economy improves and tourists become more interested in wine, new restaurants and foodie businesses are also flocking to Southern Oregon. A Basque-themed restaurant that opened six months ago in Ashland, Eleven, was dishing up lamb meatballs in a tomato ragu. For the first time at a JPR wine tasting, guests could try a fermented local non-alcoholic drink, Wylie’s Honey Brews, with red-haired Wylie pouring them himself. Also there for the first time was 30 Brix, a Medford-based winery that opened last October, pouring port wines, including an orange Muscat and a blackberry dessert wine. Tasters were excited to see that two cideries were pouring this year: Atlas Cider from Bend, and Wandering Aengus Ciderworks, whose varietals are made from Oregon-grown heirloom cider apples.
Homegrown bluegrass favorites Eight Dollar Mountain kept the crowd lively in the Ballroom, while in the Crystal Room Flamenco duo Grant Ruiz and Dan Fellman treated guests to the sounds of Spain.
“It was a great party,” said Abigail Kraft, JPR’s event coordinator and editor of the Jefferson Monthly, as the evening started to wind down. “Wineries, restaurants, caterers, silent auction donors, the bands, and volunteers—we are so grateful for all of the community support. It’s fabulous to see so many people gather together to support what we do at Jefferson Public Radio. We live in an amazing region.”