Del Rio Vineyards
Southern Oregon Fruit in Northern Oregon Wine - Del Rio is Hot
by Christina Kelly, Avalon Editor/Writer
Make room Pinot Noir - Oregon is expanding into other wine varietals with help from a relatively new vineyard located in Southern Oregon, land of Shakespeare festivals, white water rafting and fruit orchards.
For those who visited Oregon wineries over the three-day Memorial weekend, chances are you tasted wine made from the fruit of Del Rio Vineyards, located in Gold Hill, about 15 miles north of Medford. Fourth generation farmer Rob Wallace, who spent years farming in the Sacramento Valley, turned in his tomato and vegetable crops for vineyards in 1999.
"It's been a nice change to go from hot and windy to cool and mild," said Wallace, who was semi-retired before Lee Traynham, an old friend, invited Wallace to be his partner in Del Rio Vineyards. The ranch has just less than 1,000 acres, with 185 acres of vineyards.
Traynham purchased the ranch in 1997, hired a developer to get the vineyard project moving, and then realized he would need an experienced, professional grower to make the project work. By 1999, Wallace sold his Sacramento farm business, telling his family he was tired of farming for increasingly smaller margins.
"I didn't have any idea what I would do next," recalled Wallace. "I wasn't that worried. I think you would have to say it was fate when Lee contacted me about coming to Southern Oregon. The timing was right."
It seems the timing was right for Del Rio Vineyards. After five years, Del Rio is selling grapes to some of the most prestigious wineries in the state. Most of the wineries are known for Pinot Noir. With a steady source of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and nearly a dozen other varieties not usually associated with Oregon, winemakers are releasing new wines.
Gino Cuneo was one of the first wineries to sign a contract for fruit from Del Rio. Cuneo Cellars produces Bordeaux-style blends and some Italian varieties. With fruit from Del Rio, Cuneo is one of the first to mix grapes from Southern Oregon with fruit from Eastern Washington, a blend he refers to as Two Rivers (the Columbia River and the Rogue River in Southern Oregon).
"We watched these guys at Del Rio come in and knew they were serious, professional growers with a plan," Cuneo said. "They have an incredible site. It is the lowest vineyard in the Rogue Valley, so their season is longer.
"I just felt like we could work together and they were the horse to bet on, so to speak."
Cuneo said he finds it interesting that winemakers are suddenly snatching up Del Rio fruit, "when they never touched it before." He said it is a testament to Rob Wallace, who is producing the highest caliber fruit he can.
"His word is gold," Cuneo added.
In the Beginning
Wallace grew up in the Northern California town of Arbuckle, about 70 miles north of Sacramento. He is the fourth generation of his family to farm the land, growing wheat, rice, tomatoes and vegetables. He produced a commodity on a very large scale. Before selling his family business, he would see 25 trucks per day of tomatoes leave his farm.
As the economy eroded, Wallace said he was busting his chops from sun-up to sundown, only to see less and less profit.
"It just wasn't worth it to me anymore," said Wallace.
When Traynham asked him to take over at Del Rio, Wallace, his wife Jolee, twin (now) 11-year-old boys Jason and Clayton and 8-year-old daughter Fallon moved to Gold Hill. Traynham runs a trucking and almond business in California, so Wallace runs daily operations at Del Rio.
At the time the vineyards were planted five years ago, about a dozen or so vineyards were operating in Southern Oregon, although none, at the time, were on the same scale as Del Rio. Five years ago, few winemakers outside of Southern Oregon sourced fruit from that area. Most of the grapes were sold to wineries in the Southern Oregon area.
Del Rio sells grapes to more than 20 wineries, with more than half in the northern portion of the state. Suddenly, winemakers like Ken Wright, associated with production of premium Pinot Noir, began purchasing Syrah and Cabernet Franc.
In fact, Wright's newest label, Tyrus Evans (named after his sons) releases its first vintage over Memorial Day weekend and includes a Cabernet Franc and Syrah.
Other wineries include Domaine Serene, Elk Cove, Cuneo, Chateau Benoit, Abacela, Valley View, Rex Hill, Bethel Heights, Erath, Bridgeview, Willakenzie, Solena, Penner Ash, Walnut City Wine Works, Foris, Edgefield and Argyle.
Rollin Soles, winemaker for Argyle Winery, said he wanted to support Del Rio's efforts and encourage Wallace to stay with the operation.
"This is a professional vineyard operation and they are doing a great job," Soles said. "It makes a big difference to have that fruit available. Viva La Difference!"
Pat Dudley, marketing director (and part owner) for Bethel Heights Winery, said they've been very happy with fruit from Del Rio.
"This is good for Oregon," Dudley said. "It gives us more diversity. Del Rio can grow grapes that don't necessarily do well in the Willamette Valley. For those who aren't producing entirely estate fruit, this is a very good option. He is an excellent viticulturalist."
Southern Oregon Fruit Versus Northern Oregon
It took Wallace some time before learning how to farm grapes in an area vastly different from the Sacramento Valley. In fact, he is still learning.
"It will take a lifetime to learn this - I am competing with Mother Nature," Wallace said. "We have 3,000 degree days (heating units) compared to the 1,700 degree days in the Willamette Valley. We have a lot more summertime."
The growing season for Pinot Noir is short, Wallace said. He grows some Pinot Noir at Del Rio, although he says it is very different from the grape produced in the north.
Right now, Syrah is the hottest grape in the vineyard, literally. The heat of a long summer allows Syrah to slowly ripen. The dryer, hotter Rogue Valley produces denser, jammier Syrah than anywhere in the state.
Del Rio is located on historic property. The area was once a stagecoach stop and an old hotel, built originally in 1907. The property became a pear orchard and remained so until it was sold in 1997.
Last year, Wallace built a tasting room at the old hotel site, renovating the building and selling wines using Del Rio fruit. This year, he is selling his first release of wine, made for Del Rio Vineyards by Ken Wright, and Brian Wilson, of Silvan Ridge. Wright made Cabernet Franc and a Claret, and Wilson made Pinot Gris and Merlot. The wine is sold only at the tasting room.
"It made sense for us to produce our own wines, now that we had a tasting room," Wallace said. "We've always enjoyed wine, and we have vineyards. We selected good winemakers to produce it for us."
Del Rio produced about 800 cases of its own wine this year. Wallace says he isn't certain whether he will expand his own wine production, especially with a sluggish economy.
He has plenty of room to expand on the ranch, but for now, his dance with Mother Nature is giving him plenty to think about. The rest, as he says, will come later.
Wineries using Del Rio Fruit
Ken Wright/Tyrus Evans
Walnut City Wineworks