Elkton: The wine world takes notice

An announcement on a typically cold February day in remote Elkton was cause for celebration.

The tiny town and about 75,000 surrounding acres on the lower Umpqua River had become Oregon's 17th American Viticultural Area, or AVA, a designation that brings instant cachet to a wine region.

The "Elkton Oregon" name on a bottle can now be marketed to consumers much like wine from Napa and Willamette valleys.

A legally defined wine appellation can also quickly translate into increased profits for grape growers, landowners and other local businesses if it lures in wine buyers, investors and eno tourists.

But the prize isn't given quickly.

It took Southern Oregon University climate expert Greg Jones more than three years of work and waiting — and farmers decades of grape growing — to potentially catapult Elkton from "the bass capital of Oregon" to the state's newest star in its $3 billion wine industry.

The U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, creates an AVA only if a tightly outlined region is distinguishable in terroir — climate, soil, elevation and physical features — and has had a history of success with specific grapes.

The petition proved to the federal agency that Elkton is Oregon's coolest and wettest wine region.

Located about 40 miles from the coast between Eugene and Roseburg, Elkton's maritime and temperate climate makes it suited to produce distinctly flavored pinot noir, pinot gris and riesling, as well as lesser known cool-climate grapes.

Wine styles, too, are unlike less isolated areas in the larger Umpqua Valley appellation or even the more-encompassing Southern Oregon AVA, which may have more soil types and a greater range of landscapes than any wine region in the world.

For Elkton, it would take a climate expert with experience in writing appellation petitions to detail these attributes to demanding TTB officials.

This is why Elkton invited Ashland-based Jones to visit.

Jones, 53, has been advising Oregon grape growers since he arrived at SOU in 1997.

With exacting data, lab research and field time, he defines terroirs and determines which grape varieties will thrive there, all in an effort to make better wine.

His career began with his father's vineyard dream of growing Spanish varietals in the United States. With Greg's reassuring research, Earl Jones of Abacela in Roseburg was the first grower in Oregon to plant tempranillo, a red-wine grape that some experts think may become a signature of the state next to already-famous pinot noir.

Greg Jones now travels the world consulting on climate and wine-related issues, often in centuries-old wine regions in Europe as well as developing ones in South America.

His back-to-back missions have Talent wine producer Laura Lotspeich of Trium Wines calling him "one of the best world ambassadors that Southern Oregon and Oregon has."

Closer to home, the scientist wrote the petition that established in 2004 the Southern Oregon AVA that joined the existing Rogue Valley and Umpqua Valley appellations. Elkton Oregon is now a sub-appellation of Umpqua Valley, just as the Applegate Valley is a sub-appellation of the Rogue Valley AVA.

And yet, even for the experienced Dr. Jones, it was a years-long process to get officials from the TTB to give Elkton the OK.

Michael Landt, a longtime Elkton pinot noir producer, started the paperwork.

"The directions given on the TTB website are deceptively simple," says Landt, who owns two vineyards and a winery in the new AVA. "They invite you to write a letter, which I did."

He then showed his draft to Jones, who added original research, mapping and descriptions of the area.

In the meantime, Landt compiled information on the grape-growing history, starting with Ken Thomason planting cool-climate whites and pinot noir in 1972 on a west-facing site east of Elkton.

Landt purchased that vineyard and in 1998 became the first in the area to open a winery, River's Edge Winery.

Thomason also urged farmer John Bradley to plant grapes decades ago. Today at Bradley Vineyards, 30-year-old pinot noir, gewürztraminer and riesling plants grow in blocks across 25 acres.

Vineyards now are planted on river terraces and foothills with elevations that rise to 1,000 feet, such as Terry and Sue Brandborg's Ferris Wheel Vineyard, which produces pinot noir.

Brandborg Winery gewürztraminer — praised by New York Times wine columnist Eric Asimov — is made from Bradley Vineyard grapes grown on alluvial deposits, sand, gravel and silt. "We get wines with a lot of minerality, wet slate with tropical and citrus notes," says Brandborg.

Landt says that when the group started the process, owners of all eight commercial vineyards — now there are 12 — and four wineries — one more has been approved — agreed that earning appellation status would benefit everyone.

"Collaboration reflects our community here," says Landt of the town with a population of fewer than 200 people. "We're a gregarious, cooperative bunch. We loan each other equipment and buy each other's grapes."

When the Elkton growers first put the petition together, there were only 75 acres of grapes. Now there are 100 acres. And growing.

"Vineyards are expanding 10 percent a year," says Landt, with new land buyers and existing landowners planting grapes.

After the Elkton petition was submitted, the TTB staff asked questions on several occasions over months, says Landt, and his team made necessary modifications, which is typical.

Then someone at the bureau retired and the application sat on a desk for six months. After the petition was reviewed again, it traveled through "a hierarchy from labeling to legal counsel that needed time to review it," says Landt.

On Feb. 4, when the TTB announced that Elkton Oregon had achieved the designation, local media were suddenly interviewing farmers unaccustomed to the spotlight. One heard from a wine journalist in the U.K.

Bradley says he "called everyone we knew and emailed everyone else and put it on Facebook. We're excited. We want to hatch a plan to have a party to toot our horn. This will be fun to promote."

Jones says he put 30 to 40 hours into preparing the petition and countless hours were invested by Elkton grape growers to create the united proposal.

"Rightfully so," says Jones. "If everyone willy-nillyed this, we would have AVAs that didn't mean anything. Rigorous work produces something that has good boundaries, good definition."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@mailtribune.com

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