You know about the theater, music, and white-water rafting. Now discover the wine.
Maria Iargaespada speaks matter-of-factly about how she and her husband, Matthew Sorensen, came to own their winery in the heart of Oregon's Rogue Valley appellation. "We found it on the Internet," she says. After just one visit to the vineyard in 1999, the Indianapolis couple bought the 22-acre property, nurtured the grapevines, and started offering fruity chardonnays to the public under their LongSword label. Stumbling upon the nearly two dozen wineries dotting the Rogue Valley seems to be a popular way of finding them. "We began producing a bordeaux variety called Fly-Over Red," says Ted Gerber of Foris Vineyards Winery, "as a poke at all the California wine writers who flew over us on their way to the Willamette Valley." The Rogue is an area about 70 miles wide and 60 miles long, just above the California border. The valley's three largest communities, Medford, Grants Pass, and Ashland, lie fairly close together along the I-5 corridor. The rest of its territory remains grassy meadows,
fir-and pine-covered hills, llama farms, and pear and apple orchards. The Rogue Valley appellation actually encompasses three smaller valleys: Illinois, about 25 miles from the Pacific; Applegate, a subappellation of the Rogue; and Bear Creek, to the east.
Subtle differences in rainfall and temperature allow each valley to focus on producing wines best suited to local conditions. Tart whites such as pinot gris and gewürztraminer, for example, do well in the cool Illinois Valley, though overall the Rogue's output tends toward reds, like the merlot and cabernet franc that thrive in the drier Bear Creek Valley. The up-shot? You're bound to find a varietal you like as you work your way through these relatively uncrowded wineries.
For an introduction to some of the region's zinfandels, merlots, and chardonnays, check out the Rogue Valley Wine Center at the EdenVale Winery in Medford. Its tasting room, in the carriage house of a colonial revival mansion, pours samples from 10 local labels, including Granite Peak, Troon, and Lorelli.
The Rogue's relationship with wine began with Peter Britt, a Swiss immigrant who arrived in 1852 during a Northwest gold rush. After four years as a prospector and mule skinner, Britt returned to his true calling—photography. His success with that let him indulge in one of his other interests, viticulture. By the 1870s, he had established his Valley View Vineyard.
The modest output of those Rogue Valley winemakers who followed in Britt's wake all but evaporated during Prohibition in the Roaring Twenties. It was not until 50 years later, in the 1970s, that local wineries began to reemerge. But the region has yet to develop the reputation as a destination for oenophiles that the Willamette Valley enjoys.
The Rogue's slow road to respect doesn't faze Foris's Gerber, who's been growing grapes on the southwestern edge of the valley since 1975. "These things take time," he says. "People are still discovering Anderson Valley wines in California, and they've been producing great wine for years."
First-time encounters with Rogue Valley wines sometimes occur in unusual settings. Visitors to Oregon Caves National Monument, on the valley's west side, are just as likely to come across a glass of sauvignon blanc as they are a stalactite. The dining room at the monument's 23-room, six-story château features a list of local vintages to pair with such fare as trout with slivered almonds, honey-glazed salmon, coconut prawns, chicken marsala, and spinach fettuccini.
Rogue Valley visitors seeking to counterbalance their winetasting adventures with other diversions need not look far. More than a dozen rafting outfitters offer thrills along some 84 miles of the Rogue River's white water. The river also provides anglers with some of the best steelhead and chinook fishing on the West Coast, especially during the early fall. For encounters with land-based wildlife, visit Great Cats World Park, a 10-acre spread not far from Cave Junction that's home to more than two dozen exotic felines, from Bengal tigers to ocelots.
Theater lovers flock to Ashland beginning in February to enjoy the nine-month-long Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a showcase of works by the Bard and other luminaries from Moliere to Tom Stoppard and August Wilson.
Nearby Jacksonville shows that picturesque gold rush towns are not exclusive to California. Site of the Pacific Northwest's first gold discovery (1851), Jacksonville today is full of restored 19th-century buildings and hosts the superb summertime Britt Festivals, a mixture of classical and pop music performances in an outdoor theater located on the spot where the home of Peter Britt once stood. It's a lively tribute to a man who helped the Rogue Valley develop its vintage spirit.
Photography by Andrea Johnson
This article was first published in July 2008. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.