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Welcom to Umpqua Valley

While Umpqua Valley AVA is decidedly not off the beaten track, it hasn't attained the attention it deserves as an outstanding grape growing region.

Umpqua Valley (AVA)

Go Ahead, Say It: Umpqua
Better You Should Taste It

The Umpqua Valley AVA is an "undiscovered" jewel but the gleam of the world class wines emerging from the region is about to change all that. Remember you heard it here first.

by Dan Berger
March 17, 2008

DropCap It’s been said that Gewürztraminer is the wine world’s worst name: If consumers can’t pronounce it, they won’t buy it, no matter how good it is. (Perhaps topping that would be Crljenak.) Pronunciation was the only drawback I could come up with for not considering Umpqua Valley as a potentially great region in which to make wine - not only a place to make great wine, but a place to attract serious tourism.

Even though it is pronounced exactly as it is spelled, the name doesn’t come tripping off the tongue. (It refers to the various Native American tribes that live in the area.) Umpqua Valley is in Southern Oregon, and as a wine-growing region, it is not nearly as famed as is the more northerly Willamette Valley, which has a worldwide reputation for its Pinot Noir and other wines. Indeed, the Willamette is so well identified with Pinot Noir that, to many people, it is all that Oregon wine making seems to be about. This leaves other Willamette wines screaming for attention. And it leaves other regions scratching their heads. Not to mention lovers of wines other than Pinot Noir.

umpqua valley map.jpgStart with the fact that Willamette Valley’s Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Gris are among the finest wines it makes. Still, they are dwarfed in attention by all the fawning and kowtowing that greets the area’s Pinot Noirs. (I also love Amity’s remarkable Gamay Noir, but that’s another diatribe.)

Then there is the plaintive cry of other Oregon regions, such as Umpqua Valley, Applegate Valley, and Rogue Valley, all of which make some pretty fine wine.

What is compelling about Umpqua is that the quality of the wines here, many with a regional distinctiveness that emphasizes food compatibility, has rocketed forward in the last three years. When I visited here in 2005, I was surprised by the overall quality. A recent tour in early March was even more startling.

Moreover, recent support by the local non-wine community for the growing wine industry is not only heartening, but welcome. Especially for wine consumers seeking a new and undiscovered wine region where the wines remain fairly priced, where the tasting rooms, even on weekends, are only moderately busy, and where the hospitality is warm.

Finding Umpqua Might be Easier Than Pronouncing It

Umpqua Valley, roughly two hours south of Portland on Interstate 5, is dotted with smaller towns that provide the support base for a potentially large tourism industry. That industry is based on the beauty of the local parks; boating, hunting and fishing; the scenic coastline, and the nearby campuses of Oregon (at Eugene) and Oregon State (at Corvallis).

It’s still not easy to find most of the wineries that exist here. Not one is visible from the main artery, I-5, which runs north-south between Portland at the north and the California border city of Ashland. The Umpqua is a fairly vast, green abacela tempranillo.jpgvalley that features forested hills and a pace of life that is unhurried. Of the two dozen wineries that now operate here, most are owned by transplanted wine lovers from other regions, such as Earl and Hilda Jones of Abacella, Terry and Sue Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyard and Winery, and Patrick and Loree Spangler of Spangler Vineyards.

For the most part, they chose this area over one of the more well-known spots in California because of the twin benefits of quality and value. Studies done recently show that some 140,000 acres of land in Southern Oregon are tillable for vineyards, and of that total, some 40,000 acres are prime land that can grow superb grapes to make truly great wine.

Add to that the fact that the average cost of an acre of that land runs between $3,000 and $5,000 (most of it on the lower end of that range). Even with clearing and planting costs, potential winery owners are looking at a tiny fraction of what it would cost in Sonoma, Santa Barbara or even Monterey counties.

Thus far the success of the Umpqua has come from just about 1,000 planted acres of grapes, most of which are scattered hither and yon in varying climate regions that range from being able to make sensational dry and off-dry Riesling and Müller-Thurgau (at Henry Estate), Spanish varieties like Albariño and Tempranillo (at Abacella), to Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc (at Spangler). And now Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards has produced what Steve Reustle says is nation’s first commercial Grüner-Veltliner.

As you can see, variety is the spice of vinous life around here, and that means lots of different things for consumers to try. It’s also a handicap in that the Umpqua isn’t as easy to typecast as is the Willamette Valley, which can rightfully claim it’s the home of world-famed Pinot Noir.

So although the Pinot from the Umpqua shows great potential, it’s not going to alter the travel plans of wine geeks looking for the latest Oregon Pinot Noir to wow their snob neighbors. But given the cost that the Umpqua vintners paid for their land, it’s clear that this is perhaps the last undisturbed mecca for all types of fine wine.

All of Southern Oregon, including the warmer Rogue Valley, developed as a wine region far more slowly than its storied cousin just to the north. Part of the reason is that Willamette Valley is easier to get to from Portland, and thus tourism fueled growth early on.

Variety of Varietals is Umpqua’s Pro and Con

Oddly, Umpqua’s blessing - being able to ripen a wide variety of grapes so well - means that it can’t pinpoint a superstar wine that can lead the district into instant world fame. And thus has it has lagged in the publicity department.

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Reader Comments... [5]

Paul Sinclair , Judge
Winepress Northwest Magazine, Kennewick, WA
Dan, I have to agree. Having just judged their ‘Greatest of the Grape’ event I was pretty taken back by the variety, low price and high quality of their wines. I was awed by the Reustle line up. They've got a good thing going there.

Raoul Duke
Paso Robles, CA
Having lived in Roseburg in the 80's, I enjoyed some great wines, mostly from the Willamette Valley. It's nice to see the Umpqua region getting its due. The only thing lacking are decent restaurants. They’ve never had them from the 80's to date. You think with all the interest in wine, someone would pick up the slack in the food area.

H Bruce Smith , Owner
Oregon Wine Country Tours, Umpqua Valley, OR
Right on! You are preaching to the choir! Unfortunately, you missed the boat on the best of the best -- that is Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards. Yikes. You could blind taste yourself to death and Stephen Ruestle's wines would blast the competition. Consider a separate article on him! In the meantime, stop by and we will take you on an insiders tour of Umpqua Valley.
Yours in Wine,

Mike Brinkley
Roseburg, OR
I live in the center of the Umpua Valley AVA, and it is great to see this wonderful area get some recognition. The people, wineries and the wines are first class and I am blessed to live just a few miles from them. Thanks for the article.
~ Mike

Clark Anderson
Fall Creek, OR
Great that the Umpqua Valley wines get recognition. I used to live about halfway between Henry Estates and Melrose wineries and feel that you could have given Melrose more recognition for its wines, particularly their Baco Noir and Pinot Noir, not just their grape sales. Plus Wayne Parker is a great chef, having pairings of food and their wines at different times of the year, long before other wineries picked up the idea.

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