Center of Attention – Wine industry grows steadily in the high desert. Oregon Wine Press

By Patty Mamula

The Central Oregon wine region continues its gradual but steady growth. The newest step forward is the release of Lava Terrace Cellars’ 2019 vintages. They represent the first commercial release of locally grown, locally produced wines from hybrid grapes.

Of course, for the past 15 years, Maragas Winery in Culver has been producing wine from its estate-grown vinifera grapes for more than 15 years. But, the local production of Lava Cellars 2019 Marquette and La Crescent stands as a pioneering moment.

Kirk Ermisch, owner of Elixir Wine Group, made the wine in his new micro-winery. For more than two decades, Ermisch has been a wine importer with a storefront tasting room in Bend. Last year, he moved into his new, larger, attractively designed building on a busy corner in the Mill Quarter neighborhood and became a local winemaker.

Before moving to Bend, Ermisch gained winemaking experience in Argentina, helping Kendall Jackson establish its presence there. “Like many American companies, they barged into the country with little knowledge of how things worked,” he said. A fluent Spanish speaker with a background in science and Latin America, Ermisch remains an adept problem solver and diplomat.

In addition to establishing relationships with many longtime family wineries, he also became a partner in a historic winery he now owns: Bodega Calle. He travels to Argentina yearly to oversee harvest and operations.

He opened his wine importing business with $5,000, a profound knowledge of Latin American wines and invaluable goodwill. “I started selling wine all over the country. Malbec was a new category of wine, and it was a perfect time. I was one of the original pioneers of Malbec in the United States.”

Now, he’s a pioneering winemaker in Bend. He started with Pinot Noir, learning from esteemed winemaker Robert Brittan. With strong encouragement from Kerry Damon, the constant force behind the Central Oregon wine scene and president of the Central Oregon Wine and Grape Growers Association, Ermisch turned to making local wine as well, enthusiastic to see how hybrids perform.

Even though 2019 proved difficult for Central Oregon grapes, Elixir recently bottled, via a mobile unit, 100 cases of 2019 Marquette and 100 cases of La Crescent for Lava Terrace. The company also bottled some 2019 Marquette from Redside Ranch, where Damon is vineyard manager. Ermisch’s namesake brand bottled 750 cases, which included 2018 Pinot Noir, 2019 Pinot Noir and 2019 Chardonnay.

In August, Elixir hosted its first local vintners’ wine tasting event with wines from Maragas; Ermisch; Faith, Hope & Charity Vineyards; Redside Ranch; and Lava Terrace Cellars.

Owners of Lava Terrace, Duane and Dina Barker, farm five acres on the northern edge of Bend. They originally planted 50 hybrid grapes in 2012. With only about three inches of soil over lava beds, their property, at 3,440 feet, is filled with rock; they’ve terraced and cleared most of it, saving some for novel fence posts.

Currently, the couple cultivates 4,000 vines. “Our grapes are very happy here. They are very vigorous,” said Duane. “The 2019 Marquette that Kirk produced has a subtle, light flavor. He fermented the grapes in stainless tanks with oak staves to minimize off-flavors caused by too much oak. We are pleased with the result. It was a very tough year, and we were taking the last grapes off the vine when the snow was coming.

“Right now we’re looking to develop the rest of the property and get our volume up,” Dina added. “We think 1,500 cases a year will be our maximum, and we might hit that in 2022. At that time, we might look at opening a tasting room in Bend.”

Naturally, their wines are available at Elixir Wine Group and also at a new tasting room in downtown Redmond called Eqwine Wine Bar.

Eqwine opened for four days in March before closing due to the coronavirus. It re-opened in mid-May and specializes in Northwest wines.

Owners Kris Hakkila and Janel Maurer plan to feature various Northwest regions every other month with tastings from four select wineries. “We’re looking for ones that don’t have widespread distribution,” said Hakkila.

They started their business three years ago with a mobile wine cart in a renovated 1976 Miley Horse Trailer still used for special events. Their renovated building features both outside patio and inside seating and is open every day except Wednesday.

Also new to the Central Oregon scene is Central Vineyards. Friends Cale Meyer and Zack Gomber established the test plot east of Bend about five years ago. They received cuttings of Marquette, Marachel Foch and La Crescent from Faith, Hope & Charity Vineyards. “The local wine community embraced us as we started this project,” said Gomber.

Last summer, they planted more of the previous varietals alongside Frontenac Gris, Brianna and Baco Noir. Gomber, a grower relations manager for Foley Family wines in the Willamette Valley, believes the strength of these cold-tolerant hybrids remains their mildew- and fungal-resistant qualities.

“Short term, we hope to produce maybe 60 cases this fall, pulling some grapes from Central Oregon’s first hybrid grape vineyard, Monkey Face,” Meyer said. “We’ll make it in Portland to start things off.” Eventually, they plan to make wine in Bend to create a truly local product.

Redside Ranch in Terrebonne was recently purchased by a California investor who grew up spending summers on family property nearby. Its vineyard, originally planted by the Dunn family, is now under Kerry Damon’s care. The first 100 vines, planted about nine years ago, grew to 3,300 last June, covering nearly four acres.

The owner’s cousin, Ryder Redfield, oversees the property. “We don’t have any definite plans for the wine,” he said. “Once the vines get to full yield, we’ll have more than 9,000 bottles a year. As the quantity increases, we’ll have to start thinking about what to do commercially.”

Vineyard in the Making

With plans to plant a vineyard and ultimately make wine, Linda Lattavo and Grant Scholz purchased 42.1 acres on the west side of Redmond, about one-half mile from Cline Falls State Park, in November of 2018.

First, they added power to the property; next, they dug a pond for overhead frost protection, an essential tool for Central Oregon vineyards.

“The property is flat with lots of lava rock. Parts of it resemble a Mars landing,” said Scholz, who started his wine career at Maragas in 2012. At first, he was working the farm; then he moved into taking care of the winery and was assistant vineyard and wine manager. He gained additional experience working a harvest in New Zealand.

Their plans include 15 acres featuring two-thirds hybrid grapes and the remaining vinifera. “Doug Maragas has pushed the envelope about vinifera; that’s why I wanted to try it on this site,” said Scholz. “Of the reds, Cabernet Franc is probably the one that will do the best. It has higher cold tolerance and a shorter growing season.”

As a test, they planted 150 vines on Scholz’s parents’ property in Terrebonne in 2018. They chose several different clones of Cabernet Franc and Gewürztraminer. “In a region that hasn’t yet been established as a wine region, it’s important to pick the right varietal and the right clone,” he said.

This summer, they planted cover crops; their next project is irrigation infrastructure. They’d like to plant their first five acres next spring and five more the following spring.

Updates on Originals

Doug Maragas at Maragas Winery said, “Along with continued consecutive years of winning medals in the San Francisco Chronicle on our two wines made with estate vinifera, this year, we will have a momentous bottling of our first big red coming from our Central Oregon grapes in Madras.”

The significant wine, 2016 Legal Zin, was bottled at the end of August.

“Nearly four years in the barrel, this wine is classically Legal Zin: big earthy, spicy, fruit-forward but not jammy. Legal Zin was the first wine we produced, vintage 2001, and almost 20 years later, it is now the product of our Central Oregon grapes.”

Faith, Hope and Charity Vineyards are moving forward with plans for a new event center and hope to break ground this fall. Their estate-grown wines, produced at Pallet Wines in Medford, have earned several medals since 2017. Recent releases include a 2016 Marquette and a 2018 Frontenac Gris. Their estate-grown Frontenac and Leon Millot are selling well.

Originally Published Here: https://www.oregonwinepress.com/center-of-attention