The Applegate Valley Is a Sanctuary For Farm First Wine
Consider this off-the-beaten-path destination for your next Oregon wine tour.
All photos by Maggie Rosenberg.
The Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon is remote farmland that is developing into a wine region to watch. It’s hundreds of miles south from Portland or the Willamette Valley. Pinot noir barely exists here. To visit, you have to turn off from Interstate 5 and drive out into the mountains. Once you pass the tasting rooms of Jacksonville, there are no towns here, just a few general stores, and many farms. When the local farmers go out drinking, they drink bottles of acid-driven syrah right at the vineyard.
The region’s modern history began as a dairy region. Many of the dairy farms have closed down, leaving in their place eerie abandoned barns, or repurposed facilities that have found new life. Plaisance Ranch made a smooth transition from a dairy farm to a winery. Cows used to be milked in what is now the barrel room. The cattle now roam the pastures, finishing on grass before being butchered. The ranch steak here shares the spotlight with the wines. Joe Ginet first started his wine label in 2006, but he’d been making wine as a garagiste for years before that, and for even longer, he’d been cloning grapes from French cuttings on his dairy farm.
Ginet comes from a family of grape growers from the Savoie region of France. The wines of Plaisance Ranch retain an Alpine purity, even if the Klamath Mountains of Southern Oregon are less dramatic. They have an acidity typical of the Applegate, but with clean aromas and soft textures of Eastern France. Papa Joe’s Reserve Syrah is both a great example of the tender, delicate wines of Plaisance Ranch and the soft, cool-climate Syrah that is the Applegate’s greatest attraction. Even more tender is the grass-fed beef from the ranch. Locals come here to pick up both steak and wine in one stop.
The first step to understanding the Applegate’s potential is to try some of the wines from Cowhorn, the most renowned producer in the Valley. Cowhorn is a true believer in biodynamics, so much so that they named their winery after a totem of biodynamics. They aren’t just a biodynamic name though, they are Demeter certified, and their wines are made as true to Steiner principles as any producer’s. Their syrah is delicate and opens austere, but it develops with oxygen. Especially good is the Sentience Syrah. Give it some time, and you’ll be rewarded with sappy minerals and a tongue coating palate of purple fruit.
Another one of the more famous producers in the Applegate, Troon, is currently working to bury its own cow horns. Their biodynamic conversion is set to be done true to the principles, sheep are being brought in to graze, and an apiary of bees to pollinate the fruit trees that will be planted on-site. Compost for preparations will come from a neighboring dairy.
The winery was purchased in 2014 and has been gradually converting to a more natural winemaking style. All wines are foot-stomped and fermented with native yeasts. They have abandoned pumping-over or use of any additives to correct their wines. They no longer use any new oak for aging. Biodynamic conversion is the arduous next step. Recent vintages display some wild flavors and lighter profiles. This is only the beginning of the new Troon to come. Many new vineyards are currently being planted with Rhône varieties, what the Applegate does best. Once famous for zinfandel, grenache is set to become the feature of the revised Troon winery.
An exception to the Rhône rule at Troon will be their continued use of the varieties that currently go into their top red wine, the Cuvée de Pyrenees. It’s a blend of Southwestern French grapes malbec and tannat. The expressions of those rugged country French grapes are softer at Troon, but they retain the earthiness of their French inspirations in Cahors and Madiran. Troon makes the best white wines that we tasted in the Applegate. A favorite wine of the day ended up being their Kubli Bench Blanc, a blend of viognier and marsanne. It deftly balances the juicy peach aromatics of viognier with calming influence of marsanne.
Troon, Cowhorn and Plaisance Ranch are all exceptional producers, some of Oregon’s best. Although their distribution is limited, you can find them in national markets. The wines of Wooldridge Creek, on the other hand, require a visit to the Valley to taste. They don’t distribute at all. They find that it’s easy enough to sell through their production at the winery and their restaurant in Grants Pass, Oregon, Vinfarm. Your best bet for tasting them in Southern Oregon is to look for their wine on tap at local bars and restaurants, they were early adopters of kegging wine.
Wooldridge Creek is more than just a winery, it’s a complete celebration of fermentation. Wine, cheese, salumi, and pickles are made under the supervision of experts in the fermentation of local grapes, milk, meats, and vegetables. Because of the comfortable seating, mountain panoramic views, and total food and wine experience available here, the winery is very popular with locals.
Proprietors Greg Panetiz and Kara Olmos developed the winery and later began making cheese at the on-site Crushpad Creamery. They purchased the estate from the planters of the vineyard, Ted and Mary Warrick after working with them for years to develop a winery. Today it’s the first creamery/winery in Oregon, and both couples live on the farm. The estate benefits from old vines and modern fermentation science.
The Warrick Reserve blend showcases the proudest fruit from the vineyards. It is a blend of the four most common grapes we encountered in the Applegate: syrah, tempranillo, zinfandel, and malbec. We were also impressed with their varietal malbec, which, like the one we tasted at Troon, showcased a lighter expression of the grape. Fruitier than Cahors, but redder and brighter than anything from Argentina or California. Malbec at Wooldridge has a distinctive rose smell. We suspect if any grape might be able to challenge Syrah for prominence in the Applegate, it would be Malbec.
Visiting the Applegate is a great wine escape for those that are searching for tasting experiences with incredible views. You’ll drink with locals, rather than tour bus loads of weekenders. It’s a retreat to natural beauty both in the form of vistas and humble humanity.
Plaisance Ranch Papa Joe’s Private Reserve Syrah 2014: An expressive but balanced syrah that offers juicy berry and pepper aromas in perfect balance.
Troon Cuvée de Pyrénées 2016: A blend of malbec and tannat with a crunchy rusticity and dusty earthiness. An elegant and unusual wine.
Troon Kubli Bench Blanc 2017: A medium weight blend of co-fermented Marsanne and Viognier. It captures the peachy aromas of Viognier with an extra boost of acid.
Wooldridge Malbec 2014: A good introduction to the unique character of Applegate Malbec. Fruity and vibrant, with some evolution from aging.
Cowhorn Sentience Syrah 2014: A lithe syrah reminiscent of Rhône’s St. Joseph with a clean mountain purity. It develops more berry, violet and lavender notes as it aerates.