Meticulously tended grapevines ― Chardonnay and Viognier, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon ― march up the steep, narrowing canyon above Wooldridge Creek's wood-and-stone winery. Curiously, tangled along the vineyard's edge are a few unkempt rows of Chardonnay. A sacrificial hedge, explains Applegate Valley winemaker Greg Paneitz.
"The bears like it," he says with a grin.
Once the blackberries shrivel, the resident black bears (one of which is featured on Wooldridge Creek's label) start munching on grapes. That's when keeping these hulking pests occupied ― in addition to keeping the wild turkeys out of the Merlot vines ― becomes chief among Paneitz's day-to-day concerns.
Selling his wine is the easy part. Local restaurateurs, wine club members, and tasting room visitors snap up Wooldridge Creek's entire 2,500-case annual production. Luckily for the increasing number of eager-to-taste tourists making the trek to this rural oasis of small farms in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains, there's plenty more where that came from.
Blessed with crisp mountain air, early springs, and long, luscious summers, Applegate Valley became a distinct wine appellation in 2001, splitting off from the surrounding Rogue Valley. Today, it has close to a dozen wineries, almost all with tasting rooms.
A Goldilocks of wine regions ― dry and warm but not too dry and warm ― the Applegate Valley does well by more grape varieties than most. Almost every winery's top wine takes advantage of that fact by being a blend: Valley View's "Anna Maria" Meritage, for instance, and Wooldridge Creek's Warrick Red and Warrick White. Mounting evidence suggests that Viognier, Tempranillo, and Syrah especially thrive here.
Still, for winemakers, and visitors, too, there's a sense of being in on something from the ground up ― quite literally, as boot-clad wine-makers can be seen tracking mud into their tasting rooms as they go from checking vines to pouring wine. Here, you don't see bus tours and grand châteaux, just down-home folks enjoying a glass of Chardonnay on a sunny afternoon. As Paneitz puts it, "We're like Sonoma in the '70s."
Until just a few years ago, you didn't see much of anything at all here, recalls Michael Wisnovsky, of Valley View Winery, one of the area's first vineyards, planted in 1972. Back then, there were no wineries. No tasting rooms. "Savvy wine lovers from San Francisco and Seattle still managed to find us," says Wisnovsky. And the wine pavilion built in 2001, with its airy tasting room and patio seating, certainly helped expand Valley View's fan base.
So has the region's proximity to the restaurants of Jacksonville just 8 miles east, and the Shakespeare and shopping of Ashland a little further down the road. Some of the new tasting rooms in the valley are pretty posh ― and you can get a lovely wasabi-spiked fillet of ahi at funky Magnolia Grill, in Ruch.
Otherwise, there's not much about the refreshingly rugged Applegate Valley you'd call gentrified. Yet.
The closest major town to Applegate Valley is Medford, a 5-hour drive from Portland. Or, fly to Rogue Valley International-Medford Airport. From I-5 in Medford take exit 30 and follow signs west 7 miles to Jacksonville; continue on State 238 into Applegate Valley. There's more lodging and dining in Jacksonville; visit www.jacksonvilleoregon.org or call the chamber of commerce at 541/899-8118.
WHERE TO EAT
Eve's Garden Cafe & Tea Room Take tea and scones or a slice of artichoke-green chile quiche in an old house gussied up in shabby chic. $$; closed Mon-Tue; 15090 State 238, Applegate; 541/846-9019.
Magnolia Grill Fine food in a small-town cafe setting. $$; closed Mon; 7360 State 238, Ruch; 541/899-8700.
WHERE TO SIP
Visit www.applegatewinetrail.com for info.
Bridgeview Vineyard & Winery No fee; 16995 N. Applegate Rd., Grants Pass; www.bridgeviewwine.com; 877/273-4843.
Rosella's Vineyard & Winery Open Thu-Mon; no fee; 184 Missouri Flat Rd., Grants Pass; www.rosellasvineyard.com; 541/846-6372.
Troon Vineyard $5 per flight; 1475 Kubli Rd., Grants Pass; www.troonvineyard.com; 541/846-9900.
Valley View Winery $5; 1000 Upper Applegate Rd., Ruch; www.valleyviewwinery.com; 800/781-9463.
Wooldridge Creek Winery By appointment; no fee; 818 Slagle Creek Rd., Grants Pass; www.wcwinery.com; 541/846-6364.
WHERE TO STAY
Applegate River Lodge All seven guest rooms overlook the mellow river in the town of Applegate; enjoy cocktails and dinner next door at Applegate River Ranch House ($$$; 541/846-6082). Rooms from $120; www.applegateriverlodge.com; 541/846-6690.
Applegate Valley Inn Spacious new two-story inn in Grants Pass is furnished throughout with antiques. Five guest rooms with private baths (four of them with jetted tubs) and some things you don't find in every hotel, such as hunting trophies in the upstairs parlor. Rooms from $125; www.applegatevalleyinn.com; 541/846-0353.