APPLEGATE VALLEY: Wineward Ho!
Searching out the wild heart of Oregon
MICHAEL GIUDICI DOESN'T EXACTLY exactly extend a pinkie finger when he sips his wine. He doesn't dress up, eitherat least not today, in his sweatpants as he shouts at his dogs barking at strangers in the driveway. I double-check my brochure on southern Oregon wineries. Sure enough, we're at the right spot. For the next 45 minutes we sit with Giudici, owner of John Michael Champagne Cellars, and sample shots of his estate-bottled bubbly, a sparkling sake, and a 2001 blanc de blancs that took best of class at the 2005 Los Angeles County Fair. I have no idea whether that award would impress a wine connoisseur, but I do know that Giudici's boutique concoctions are tasty and as full of "intense character" as the man who makes them.
My girlfriend, Heidi, and I are weekending in the Applegate Valley, near Grants Pass, Oregon, looking to blend an earthy cuvée of Siskiyou Mountain hikes with stops for chardonnays and syrahs at the up-and-coming vineyards sprouting across this part of the state. While the land in this region, 4.5 hours south of Portland, is ruggedsteep hills falling into angry whitewaterit's the wine part that intimidates me. As a red-blooded dude with a beater truck, I turn hangover-green at the snootiness that sometimes pairs so well with pinot.
The Applegate Valley, I'm learning, is my kind of wine country: small, a little bit wild, and unpretentious. The $1.4 billion Oregon wine industry is small in the first place, compared with California's $45 billion juggernaut, but most of the Oregon action takes place in the verdant fields of the Willamette Valleya 147-mile-long yawn farther north that's famous for velvety pinot noirs. The Applegate is a drip on the wine taster's map; masters here cork less than 1 percent of the 1.2 million cases produced in Oregon. But size can be deceiving.
Though people in the area first began crushing grapes and topping casks in the mid-1800s, the Applegate wasn't recognized as an American Viticulture Area until 2001. Today, only about a dozen wineries pepper this 30-mile-long valley of rolling dairy farms pinched by hills of madrone, oak, and cedar. But those wineries serve scores of micro-winesoften cabernet sauvignons and syrahs poured by the owners' own purple hands. Giudici's operation might be an extreme caseas suave as David Beckham in a coonskin capbut who cares about highbrow tasting airs when there are 200-plus miles of raftable rivers, 1.8 million acres of national forest, mossy granite canyons, and lonely, serpentine roads out the tasting-room door?
As our base for a late-fall weekend, Heidi and I pick the woodsy Weasku Inn, a log-cabin lodge in Grants Pass, a small town at the northwestern corner of the Applegate Valley. The inn was built in 1924 and was once frequented by Clark Gable, Bing Crosby, and Walt Disney. We dump our bags in a cabin and ease our car out on Route 238, looking for our first taste.
First stop: Troon Vineyard. We pull on the door and walk into an airy space of Brunello Italian granite and hand-scraped hickory floors. Inside, the mood is lively, with tasters sampling Troon's 14 wines, some with whimsical names like Druid's Fluid or Jeanie in the Bottle. Chris Martin, a techie who traded software for stemware, opened this Tuscan-style tasting room last summerone of four new ones in the valley last year, with at least two more on the way in 2006. "We're the redheaded stepchild of the wine industry," Martin jokes, adding that all of the grapes for his 5,000 cases come from vineyards within two miles of his casks. "This is what Napa was maybe 20 years ago, but without so many people."
We roll onward past pastures out to Valley View Winery. At 34 years old, Valley View is the oldest continually operating winery in the area, though it shares its name with the long-since-closed winery that in 1854 started it all. Between checking scores on the football game, Michael Wisnovsky pours us a buttery chardonnay followed by a 2000 meritage, in glasses set on his circular copper bar. After tasting a late-harvest dessert wine that lingers so miraculously thick and sweet on the tongue you'd think Willy Wonka had made it, we buy a bottle and head for our drizzle-splashed cabin to uncork it.
The next morning we set out on a three-mile hike to Rainie Falls, near Galice, northwest of Grants Pass, to look for migrating steelhead fighting up the currents. The trail is spectacular, a thin ribbon of rock and dirt gouged into the side of a steep canyon. One hundred feet below, the Rogue River coaxes black boils of water through hissing rapids that you can raft, inn to inn, during the summer. Waterfalls braid down the mountainside and collect on mossy ledges. This is the kind of Oregon I imagined as a kid.
The rain starts to pad across the forest floor again, so we hike back to the car and drive to the Blue Giraffe Spa, in Ashland. I get an hourlong rubdown that leaves me drooling through the headrest. I'd be embarrassed, but any thoughts I can muster keep coming back to the wineries we missed. I'll return next year with a mountain bike and plenty of room for cases of Troon's Ltd. Reserve II. I can already smell the blackberry air whipping through the holes in my truck.