Toasting wine pioneers

Inside a climate-controlled storage room, Eric Weisinger is tasting his past.

For 25 years, the Weisinger family has been making wine in Ashland and it's time, says the second-generation winemaker, to evaluate every vintage and varietal, and decide which to continue to age, sell or distill.

Weisinger's of Ashland was the first winery in the city to bottle wines made from a tiny patch of gewürztraminer graepvines John Weisinger planted in 1979.

Now, there are about 200 acres of grapevines quilting nearby hillsides and enough wine producers to create a map to hand out to customers wanting to visit one tasting room after another.

The local enology enterprise is so long-lived and interesting that Southern Oregon University's Hannon Library is archiving historic documents — photos, wine labels and reports — donated by local grape growers and wine producers. These will be preserved, organized and made accessible online.

The Wine of Southern Oregon project, in partnership with Linfield College's statewide project, will be added to SOU's vast collection of enology and viticulture books and journals donated by retired winemaker Will Brown of Ashland.

On Wednesday, people in the wine industry will be able to see the collection and meet some of the original quixotic pioneers and self-taught winemakers who defied pessimists and planted the roots to an industry that has taken hold. The state's wine industry was estimated as worth $3 billion annually at last count.

The next wave of wine producers in family-owned businesses are stepping in. Many spent their youth in vineyards, carrying buckets during harvest and sitting on oak barrels as their parents tasted and blended what would later be bottled and sold.

"My dad handed over the reins this year and he likes to say he's retired, but I still keep him in the loop on current activities and future planning," said Eric Weisinger, 44, who was underage when he tasted his dad's first vintage, a 1988 gewürztraminer. "He likes where things are going."

After graduating from Ashland High School, Eric Weisinger took classes at U.C. Davis, surrounded himself with reliable mentors and spent three years learning New Zealand's wine production techniques. Newly married, he's home for good now and facing a hard chore.

As he slowly takes over from his 72-year-old father, he is setting up the business for the future.

He sees his label, with the telltale image of an American kestrel, as representing his family, the region's history and terroir. The fourth pillar is quality, and to improve the taste and ageabilty of his wines, he has to evaluate what the soil, sun, rain and a series of winemakers, including himself, have produced before.

Over the last week, he has tasted about 100 different bottles from the "wine library," which is a fancy term for the cases that he has sorted and stacked on the concrete floor in a storage building that is a parking lot away from the winery and tasting room.

He quickly sniffed, sipped and then spat out a taste from each bottle. He then rated it and wrote its future on a simple chart: Keep it. Sell it. Distill it.

Weisinger picked up a bottle of 2001 merlot that captured an impressive 89 points from Wine Spectator and caused a rush of sales in the tasting room. The family kept a few cases.

As he did with other wines, he looked at the label and sentimentally spoke about that year. Where he was living. Where the family was on their quest to make good wine.

"I have winemakers friends who endured sadness during a year and they won't even drink their wine made then," he said, before sniffing at the merlot's earthy, fruity scent.

Absent or distracted winemakers affect the wine, he said. If they're unable to work early in the morning until late at night, or systematically check on wine aging in a barrel, it can be tasted in the bottle.

"I know all these wines intimately," he said, "and I know how they should taste."

He then shook off emotions, and recalled that the merlot was made with the old winery equipment and a yeast carefully selected to bring out the flavor.

He sipped, spat and then graded the merlot as excellent on his chart.

"This is the best wine I've had in here," he said, adding that he may create a special event at the tasting room to celebrate it being released from storage. "We will do something fun with it. Right now, though, I'm going to take a few bottles home."

Digging deeper, he found a case he hoped had been saved. It contains bottles from the earliest year, a wine so precious that John Weisinger and his wife, Sherita, signed and numbered the first 100 bottles.

"This," said Eric, holding a bottle high as if offering it to the heavens, "is what I will donate to the history project."

He then carefully puts bottle No. 16 back into the box and closes the lid without a single taste.

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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