Oregon winemaker Earl Jones' passion for Spanish wine began in the 1960s when he purchased his first bottle of red wine, a Rioja, for about 88-cents.
As a medical student in the San Francisco area, Jones could not afford wine from the nearby 10 wineries in the Napa and Sonoma valleys.
"I fell in love with Spanish wines," recalled Jones. "On the special occasion when I did splurge, and spend $5 on a bottle of California Cabernet Sauvignon, I found it wasn't as interesting as my inexpensive Rioja."
Jones and his wife Hilda turned their passion into a winery in Oregon, Abacela Winery, a 55-acre spread in the heart of the Umpqua Valley in Roseburg, OR. The couple produced the first Tempranillo in the Northwest in 1997 after planting vines in block sections in 1995.
More About Abacela Winery
The results are impressive and surprising, given Earl's method
While many winemakers select soil as a major consideration for planting a vineyard, Jones studied the climate of areas in Spain producing Tempranillo, his favorite wine. His son, Greg, analyzed climate charts and information gathered from Rioja and Ribera de Duero.
"What we learned was the soil in Rioja had clay soils with lots of iron," Jones said. "About 120 miles south, in Ribera de Duero, the soil was chalky, like Champagne (France). In both places, winemakers said it was the soil that made the difference
"Yet, we discovered the climate was very similar in both places," he continued. "We decided to find a location that fit the climate, and we found it in Roseburg, Oregon. I went out on a limb betting on the climate, not the soil."
The risk paid off. His initial offerings, including a famous reserve Tempranillo, the 2000 South East Block, received enthusiastic reception from national wine reviewers, who compared them favorably to Spanish Riojas. His Tempranillos can be blockbusters - full of plum, cherry and black fruit notes. His best are gorgeous wines that should be cellared for a few years, or at least decanted four or more hours before serving.
Southern Charm in Southern Oregon
To meet Earl and Hilda Jones is like a flashback during a gentler time. Hilda is from Florida and Earl was raised in Kentucky. Both have southern drawls peppered with colloquialisms from their upbringing.
With his academic background, love of research and deep southern accent, Earl spins stories about winemaking like a movie narration. (Think of Hoyt Axton's voice narrating the beginning of the movie "Gremlins.") Although Hilda is a southern belle, she can drive a tractor and use winery equipment like the rest of the crew.
Hilda knows the acreage inside and out, and provides nicknames for each varietal field. The Tempranillo she refers to as the Flamenco Dancers. The Zinfandel plants are affectionately known as Robert DeNiro. The Grenache is Dolly Parton and Malbec is Madonna. The Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc all have nicknames as well.
When she isn't working in the winery, Hilda serves on the local school board in the district where her 13-year-old daughter Meredith attends school. The Jones' have an older daughter, Hanna, 21, attending the University of Oregon. Earl has three grown children from a previous marriage and seven grandchildren.
Tempranillo is clearly Earl's favorite wine. His hero is Alejandro Fernandez, a Spanish winemaker from Ribera del Duero who put the area on the map in the 1980s with fabulous reviews of his rich and powerful Pesquera wine.
"I think the Spanish grape is the next varietal to be discovered by the American palate," Earl said. "Syrah has been a hot grape for the past few years, and everybody's tried it, but I think "
Although Tempranillo has been produced for hundreds of years in Europe, Jones said it never caught on in the United States until recently. He said the less expensive Tempranillo was often over oaked and under flavored. The New World Tempranillos are less oaked and user friendly, he said.
"Keep in mind that the older Tempranillos were so expensive that no one could afford them," Earl said.
Abacela produces several Tempranillo wines, blended from estate lots and the reserve Tempranillo. The wine has a spicy nose with a slight earthiness in the mouth.
With the release of his first reserve Tempranillo, Earl raised the bar on a grape sparsely planted in the Northwest. At the recent Taste Washington in Seattle, two wineries, Cayuse and K Vintners poured their first Tempranillo and vowed to make more in the coming years.
"I am very excited about this grape," said Christophe Barron, winemaker for Cayuse. "It grows very well in Eastern Washington too."
Several other vineyards in Southern Oregon are planting Tempranillo.
The casual wine drinker might have thought of Spanish wines as inexpensive and undistinguished, but the wines produced by Abacela are anything but undistinguished. Jones says he loves the grape for its multi-dimensional layers.
"Tempranillo offers so much in the mouth," Jones said. "You might get a hint of violets in one taste, then something completely different a short time later. It evolves with the air."
Jones doesn't know if he will have another reserve Tempranillo because the wine is still in barrels and the jury is still out. He is very picky about putting a reserve label on the bottle unless it meets his standards. His wines are good without a reserve label and are a tasty diversion from the standard, better known Northwest wines.
Wines this good could fetch higher prices, but the Jones want to offer value as part of the Abacela package
Abacela's White Wines and Additional Red Varietals
Abacela offers a range of white and red wines, including a lovely Dolcetto, an Italian varietal with aromas of fresh strawberries, plum and honeysuckle. Their Cabernet Franc fills the mouth with black cherries, toasty oak and sweet vanilla.
The Malbec and Sangiovese are quite interesting and worthy food companions. The Malbec has plum and blackberry flavors and is built to age for a while. The Sangiovese has hints of cedar and caramel with bing cherry and raspberry flavors in the mouth.
An Abacela favorite is the Syrah, a big, fruit-driven wine with spice, chocolate and dark fruit flavors. Earl adds about 3 percent of Viognier contributing a rich mouth feel. He also produces a Grenache, with warm aromas of cherry pie, vanilla and a nice cedar finish.