25 years of winemaking

The Weisingers of Ashland are all about wine — and they always have been.

So when Eric Weisinger returned home from a trip through the European wine country in 1988 to find his dad, John Weisinger, standing on top of a pile of rocks behind his home looking proud, Eric wasn't terribly surprised by the answer to his question.

"It's the cellar," John told his son. "We're starting a winery."

That year, with the hard work of family members, close friends and volunteer pickers, Weisinger's of Ashland Winery and Vineyard harvested about 17 tons of crush-worthy grapes that went into its first vintage, says John Weisinger, the winemaker then.

This year, the winery's 25th vintage accounted for about 30 tons of grapes and stands a good chance of aging into some of the best wine Weisinger's has ever produced, says Eric, the winemaker now.

A lot has changed at Weisinger's in 25 years, both men agree, but not the passion behind their fine wines.

John started planting his east-facing hillside vineyard in 1978, after close friend Frank Wisnovsky, then owner of Valley View Vineyard, agreed to sell him enough cuts of gewürztraminer grapevines to plant a 1.5-acre vineyard, he says.

The two Rogue Valley wine industry originals started to become friends as Wisnovsky built his Ruch vineyard during the early 1970s, John says.

"My dad always talked about someday having his own winery, and he wasn't going to let his dreams just be dreams," says Eric. "He was one of those early growers who really believed in this region, and thought he could make good wine here."

All of the region's vineyards had to be replanted after being torn out during Prohibition in the 1930s.

"I knew that Southern Oregon had been one of the oldest wine-producing regions west of the Rocky Mountains," John says. "In our small valley, we have the ability to be very diverse in the grape varieties that we grow simply because of our unique geology, elevations and micro-climates."

For the first decade of growing grapes, the Weisingers made wine as a hobby and held pressing parties in an old tin garage that's since been torn down, John says.

By the time of its first commercial harvest in 1988, Weisinger's boasted a 41/2;-acre vineyard of all gewürztraminer grapes.

The vineyard still is the same size, but pinot noir vines were added in 2003, along with tempranillo in 2006, Eric says.

To make room for the new varieties, the family decided to tear out several rows of gewürztraminer vines, he says.

This year's top-quality harvest was a good way to celebrate one quarter of a century of winemaking, says Eric, but he is mostly looking forward to the next 25 years.

Before returning to Ashland as a winemaker in 2011, Eric had spent five years building his wine consulting business in Oregon, California, Australia and New Zealand, he says.

"It was interesting coming back ... what's strange is that it doesn't seem strange," he says. "It's home."

Having worked a seven-year stint as the winemaker for his family's vineyard starting in 2000, Eric made the hard choice to leave for more experience and he found it, according to his dad.

"He really educated himself and came back as a very, very confident winemaker, and that has been very good for us," John says.

That's not to say John, 71, is stepping away from the winery he founded, he says, but on the winemaking side of things, there has been a changing of the guard.

"I want to see us be an example of the kind of quality wine that can be produced in this region," Eric says.

Eric, 43, will continue working with his clients as a wine consultant and vineyard manager in the area, he says, but most of his focus will go into making Weisinger's wine.

"What started as a hobby and passion for my dad has become a career path for both of us," he says. "And at some point, you begin to realize that all of this is going to be here a lot longer than you are."

Reach reporter Sam Wheeler at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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