YONCALLA — Winemakers often talk about “terroir,” how physical characteristics affect wine. Geography, soil, climate, local traditions, the grape itself — all are said to play a part.
High-tech tools help growers pair a grape with its optimal growing location. But these days, to sell wine, you also need a story.
Jessica Applegate has a story.
In April, the great-great-great granddaughter of Oregon pioneer Jesse Applegate planted 3,100 pinot noir and Albarino vines on three acres of the historic land claim of Charles and Melinda Applegate.
The claim now has Douglas County’s newest vineyard, as well as the Applegate House, billed as the oldest continually occupied house in Oregon.
Jessica Applegate, a Portland speech pathologist, grew up in the Applegate House. Her mother, Shannon Applegate, wrote the definitive family history, “Skookum: An Oregon Pioneer Family’s History and Lore.” Jessica’s grandfather, Rex Applegate, is the kind of rough-and-tumble figure family historians — and others — write books about. Jessica grew up steeped in family myth.
“It was something that was always there,” she said.
An oenophile from way back, Jessica completed the wine studies program at Chemeteka Community College in Salem six years ago. She met wine consultant and recent California transplant Nathan Wood at “Apple Days” at the Applegate House last fall, and they discussed their mutual love of Albarino wine. The varietal is known to have done well growing around Winston at Abacela Winery and elsewhere. The grape was first brought to the Umpqua Valley by Florida native Earl Jones, owner of Abacela.
Jones’ story is a familiar one in the Umpqua Valley. In 1995, searching for the perfect location to grow his favorite grape, the Spanish tempranillo, he studied climatological data. He wanted a cool spring, a dry-hot summer and a cool early fall. “My plan was very simple,” he said.
He found what he was looking for on the south-sloping hills just west of Winston. Today, Abacela is known for its Spanish varieties, including Albarino, and is credited for triggering a warm wave of Spanish wine in the Umpqua Valley.
The local wine growers association has worked to establish a regional brand. Some owners have gone their own way, winning new regional designations that highlight their own unique soil and “microclimates.”
Oregon pioneers, brothers Jesse, Charles and Lindsay Applegate, settled in the Yoncalla Valley beginning in 1849.
Today, the Applegate House is on the National Historic Register and privately owned. A nonprofit entity hosts events throughout the year to pay for house upkeep.
Applegate House Vineyards is owned by Jessica Applegate, who’d like to one day help fund house activities with wine proceeds.
“We want wine to carry this house into the future,” she said.
Applegate descendants are touting the vineyard’s connection with Oregon’s wine past. A press release for the vineyard claims Jesse Applegate planted wine grapes on the slope of Mount Yoncalla, putting 12,000 vines in the ground before an insect infestation wiped him out.
Steve Renquist, Oregon State University Extension Service horticulturist, said it’s not known whether the grapes Jesse Applegate planted were for wine. But fields around the property have been “clean” ever since, which could benefit the terroir, Renquist said.
Wine grapes were grown in California before it became a state, and they likely traveled up to Oregon from there. The Oregon wine industry probably began in the Rogue Valley with another famous early Oregononian, Peter Britt, according to Rachael Woody, archivist with Linfield College’s Oregon Wine History Archive. Britt grew grapes at his Valley View Vineyard near Jacksonville, which was restored by the Wisnovsky family beginning in the early 1970s.
According to the 1860 census, Oregon produced 2,600 gallons of wine.
Many settlers were European and brought with them fruit trees and grape cuttings known to be effective there, Renquist said. The German Doerner family, who settled and produced wine in Melrose in the 1880s, were perhaps the first Umpqua Valley winemakers.
The story goes, wine flourished in the Rogue, Umpqua and Willamette valleys of Oregon until Prohibition hit in 1920, then picked up again in the 1960s.
It will be three years until grapes ripen at Applegate House Vineyards. Wood said most vineyard owners don’t make any money for five years. Earning a profit can take even longer, if it happens at all.
Wood, the son of prominent Napa Valley winemaker Frank Wood, knows well how to make a small fortune growing wine grapes.
“Start with a large one,” he said jokingly.
The owner of Elkton Vineyard Management, Nathan Wood has built his young business around helping others realize the dream of growing wine grapes. Most get into it for the love of wine. Many are doing it as a second career, after a successful first one.
Growing grapes for wine is a thoughtful process. It takes knowledge, commitment.
Everything could go wrong in a day, with an early frost or a mildew outbreak. In the end the grapes could taste completely different than expected. But Wood knows one thing about those grapes.
“They’re going to taste like our grapes.”
• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.