Enchanting Rogue Valley: A Visit to Weisinger and Irvine Roberts Wineries

(February 2018) Recently I was honored to receive an invitation to speak at the Southern Oregon Wineries Association Annual Meeting in Ashland, Oregon. When they asked me if I wanted to arrive a day early so I could visit some wineries, my answer was –  naturally – yes! Though I have visited many wineries in this region in the past, because my relatives live in Medford, Oregon, this area is booming right now, and I wanted to take advantage of the chance to visit a couple new wineries. Therefore, I was pleased to visit Weisinger Family Winery and Irvine Roberts Vineyards.

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Vineyards in the Rogue Valley AVA of Southern Oregon. Photo Credit: TravelSouthernOregon.org

About the Southern Oregon Wine Region

Vineyards were first planted in Southern Oregon in the 1850’s by Peter Britt, near present day Jacksonville. Britt was an immigrant from Switzerland, with skills in photography and horticulture, and he saw that the warm climate of Southern Oregon was perfect for grapevines and fruit trees. By the 1880’s, he had acres of vineyards and was making wine from a multitude of varieties, including Riesling, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.

Today that same spirit of entrepreneurship and diversity of winegrapes continues to thrive in Southern Oregon.  Now home to more than 150 wineries, with 5 AVA’s, and 70 different grape varietals, Southern Oregon is starting to receive much more attention in the US market. Though most people think of the cooler Willamette Valley further north with its award winning pinot noirs, Southern Oregon has also won multiple awards, not only for its pinot noir, which is 40% of their production, but for its delicious tempranillos, malbecs, and white Rhone blends, such as Viognier, Roussane and Marsanne.

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Map of Southern Oregon Wine AVAs.  Photo Credit: Oregon Wine Board

The Five AVAs of Southern Oregon

Diversity is the key word of Southern Oregon, and this is clearly reflected in their five AVAs, which exhibit a wide range of climates and soils. Following are the five major AVA’s of Southern Oregon, listed according to the dates they were established:

  • Umpqua Valley AVA (1984), coolest region. Known for delicate pinot noirs and award-winning tempranillos.
  • Rogue Valley AVA (1991), warmer region, sheltered from the cool Pacific by mountains. Excels at producing many different grape varieties.
  • Applegate AVA (2001), warm region on the Applegate River with alluvial and granitic soils. Known for bigger reds and Rhone whites.
  • Red Hill Douglas County AVA (2005) single estate, very warm AVA. Can easily produce big cabernet sauvignons, malbecs, and syrahs.
  • Elkton Oregon AVA (2013), a smaller AVA within Umpqua Valley that is high in elevation and closest to the Pacific Ocean, producing aromatic Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, as well as delicate Pinot Noirs.

Weisinger – Top Tempranillo Estate in the Rogue Valley

Weisinger is one of the oldest wineries in the Rogue Valley, established by John Weisinger who was visiting from Texas and fell in love with the area. He planted 4 acres of Gewürztraminer in 1978 and then opened the winery in 1988. Weisinger is ideally located just outside the popular tourist town of Ashland that attracts many visitors due to its famous Shakespearean theaters, charming downtown, and delectable restaurants serving local food, wine, and beer – most of it sustainably produced.

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Weisinger Family Winery is small and charming, set a top a small knoll and surrounded by vineyards.  It boasts a sunny patio with umbrellas and tables, and allows visitors to relax and look at the view while sipping wine and enjoying a cheese and charcuterie platter. They are quite small – producing only around 2,000 cases annually, and selling the majority of the wine directly to consumer (DTC). Today the winery is run by John’s son, Eric, who is very passionate about the Gewürztraminer, but even more so about the 10 acres of tempranillo he planted around the winery.

Touring the Tempranillo Vineyard

When I arrived Eric immediately took me into the vineyard and we discussed the different clones he was using there. The vineyards were planted on a slope at an elevation of 2200 feet in average. Eric had consulted with winemakers from Rioja to learn more about tempranillo clones, and to determine which clones and pruning methods were the best for Southern Oregon. He found that Clone 1 provides a dark fruit flavor, but often has issues with shatter and poor fruit set. The Duero clone provides more bright red fruit and performs well in the region. He found that using multiple clones for blending allowed him to achieve a higher level of complexity in his wines.

Interestingly, he was also in the process of converting the vines from cordon to cane pruned, because he said you could achieve higher yields in Southern Oregon with cane pruning.  He mentioned that some years in the past the yield was so low he couldn’t produce much wine. By converting the Clone 1 Tempranillo from cordon to cane pruning, he said he was able to stop the shatter issues and double the yield to around 3 tons per acre.

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View of Tempranillo Vineyard at Weisinger Family Winery

Just as we were leaving the vineyard, my cousins, Matt and Staci, who live in Medford arrived. They were fascinated by the pruning process that was in progress. After examining the vines a bit more, we headed into the tasting room and were treated to 8 different wines along with their signature cheese and chacuterie platter.

Favorite Weisinger Wines

Though all of the wines were delightful, the ones that really stood out for me were:

  • 2014 Weisinger Tempranillo – floral and cherry notes with mixed berry and spice on palate. French oak aging. Very elegant with intense flavors and a long finish.
  • 2014 Weisinger Touriga National – deep black color with earthy fruitcake notes and velvety tannins. Very concentrated. 18 months on American oak. Truly delicious!
  • 2015 Weisinger Malbec – oozing with blackberries, spice, and coconut notes from American oak. Large velvety tannins. Crowd Pleaser.
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Wine Tasting with Cousins Matt and Staci at Weisinger Family Winery

Irvine Roberts Vineyards – An Elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Estate

The next stop was Irvine Roberts Vineyards, about a ten minute drive from Ashland, and hidden in an enchanting valley dotted with other wineries and beautiful estates. As we entered the sloping driveway, pinot noir vineyards fanned out on both sides of the road, climbing up to the brand new state of the art modern winery and tasting room perched on the hillside above.

We entered the beautiful visitor’s center with its unique chandelier made of cherry tree roots, massive tasting bar, and picture windows looking out over the vineyards and valley below. Outside a fire flickered in a fireplace where deck chairs were strategically positioned to allow the visitor to enjoy the warmth and the magnificent view.

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Outdoor Firepit at Irvine Roberts Vineyards

The 26 acre vineyard of chardonnay and pinot noir was started by husband-wife team Doug and Dionne Irvine in 2007. Later they were joined by Doug’s sister and brother in law, Kelly and Duane Roberts, so they named the winery Irvine Roberts Vineyards. Situated on a hillside within a cooler region of the Rogue Valley, the vines are planted on east-facing slopes at a higher altitude, and are certified sustainable by LIVE and Salmon Safe. The goal of Irvine Roberts is to produce ultra-premium pinot noir and chardonnay wines. They have recently added one acre of pinot meunier, with hopes to create a small sparkling wine production in the future. Production is currently around 6,000 cases, but they plan to plant 26 more acres, doubling production to around 12,000 cases eventually.

Cellar Tour and Tasting at Irvine Roberts

We were greeted by Managing Director, Michael Donovan who took us on a tour of the new winery, where we were able to see all of the modern winemaking equipment. In the cellar we bumped into owner, Doug Irvine, who invited us to taste the 2016 Irvine Roberts Reserve Chardonnay, which had not yet been released. It was rich, creamy, and delectable with ripe apple, pineapple, and a cleansing acidity. The one word that came to mind was “yum.”

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Wine Tasting with Doug Irvine (left) and Michael Donovan (right) at Irvine Roberts Vineyards

After the cellar tour we returned to the tasting room to relax in comfortable chairs near the picture windows.  There we were served the 2016 Irvine Roberts Rose of Pinot Noir. This was a truly elegant rose with watermelon, strawberry, and citrus notes. Very refreshing with a juicy acidity. Also it was not made in the saignee or blended fashion, but in the more expensive method of intentionally harvesting the pinot noir at a lower brix, letting it sit for one hour on the skins, and then making rose.

Soon a large platter of local delicacies arrived at the table, including nuts, cheese, and meats. We enjoyed ourselves immensely as we moved onto sample several pinot noirs and another chardonnay. My favorite was the 2015 Irvine Roberts Estate Pinot Noir, with expressive black cherry, truffle and earth notes. It was aged for 18 months in 25% new French oak, and had silky yet powerful tannins and a long, complex finish.

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A Nap Before Presenting and a Glass of Kriselle Cellars

Obviously after visiting two wineries during the day – even though I was professionally spitting the wine – a nap was still called for before my presentation that evening. However, when I arrived at the conference center, there was an advance tasting of many other Southern Oregon wines, followed by dinner, and then my keynote speech. Therefore, it wasn’t until much later in the evening, that I was able to relax and enjoy a full glass of Kriselle Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, an awarding winning wine from the Rogue Valley.

For more info on Southern Oregon wineries, please check out the following links:

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