The Oregon Wine Industry Symposium was held in Portland, but all eyes seemed to be focused on the south.
Experts with PowerPoints and marketing reports told the 1,250 people attending business seminars earlier this week that selling more Oregon wine will depend on producers' ability to get more attention outside of the state and to promote more than just pinot noir.
This new push will only work, it was said, if Southern Oregon plays a bigger role.
"Even though our 45 brick-and-mortar wineries only represent a tenth of the number of wineries in the state, we received more than our fair share of the conversation," said Chris Martin, president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association.
Martin said this region's 70 varieties of wine grapes — long thought of as a marketing disadvantage when compared to the Willamette Valley's international recognition as a pinot noir producer — have finally become an advantage.
Regions that rely on one wine can suffer when that grape goes out of favor. "There is a folly to hitching your wagon to one varietal," said Martin, who owns Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass and sells zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, syrah, viognier, sauvignon blanc and blended wines.
Half of the merlot, pinot gris and other grapes grown here is sold to northern producers, who depend on this area's warmer climate, variety and flavor profiles.
"Southern Oregon is our insurance policy," said Joe Dobbes, one of the state's larger producers with Dobbes Family Estate wines and the lower-cost Wine by Joe.
"They can grow a lot of different grapes so well. Maybe Southern Oregon will never be famous for tempranillo or albarino, but for a range of wines."
Dobbes has been buying wine grapes from Don and Traute Moore's Rogue Valley vineyards since 1993.
"The quality of the grapes has improved over time," Dobbes said. "They are planting the right grapes and clones in the right spots. It takes time to figure that out."
He said the best-selling wine in his Dundee tasting room is the $45 syrah made from the Moores' vineyards. "I dearly love what's happening there," said Dobbes, who graduated with a biology degree from Southern Oregon University before becoming a winemaker. "It's like my second home."
The Moores' son Michael said he and his crew have become better farmers because of the long-term collaborations with northern winemakers.
"We've also seen that the northern Oregon wineries that have embraced Southern Oregon fruit have a competitive advantage that has served them very well," he said.
For five years, the annual Oregon Wine Industry Symposium, which is organized by the Oregon Wine Board, was held at the Hilton Eugene. This year, it was moved to the larger Oregon Convention Center in Portland, making it easier for Willamette Valley producers to attend, but less so for those from the south.
Still, the event was rewarding. "It was the best conference I've been to in the industry," said Christine Collier, a former Willamette Valley Vineyards employee who now works for Troon and bottles tempranillo under her own label, God King Slave. "It felt so collaborative and 'brand Oregon,' instead of 'brand Willamette Valley.' "
Speaker Rob McMillan, founder of Silicon Valley Bank's wine division, predicts a 7 to 11 percent growth in the fine wine category across the nation and said that Oregon is getting back in balance between supply and demand. Kurt Lotspeich of Trium wines in Talent said it was the most positive report he's heard in five years.
Southern Oregon University climatologist Greg Jones gave a presentation on last year's tough harvest and his forecast that this will be a "recovery" year with a warmer summer. Afterward, he was standing in the middle of the convention hall amid a sea of 140 vendors.
"There are all kinds of bottles, barrels and software products," he said. "The industry is maturing and suppliers are seeing that we are worth their attention."
Past symposiums have placed emphasis on individual wineries maximizing direct-to-consumer sales in tasting rooms. This year, experts spoke of the benefits of collective marketing among all the regions and branching beyond borders.
SOWA's Martin said that direct-to-consumer sales have increased 50 percent in Oregon. "That's impressive," he said, "but there is a limit to that. It won't keep growing at that rate. So we have to go on the road and take the conversation to the next step, that we make great pinot noir, but also other varietals."
Sam Tannahill of A to Z Wineworks in Dundee, who buys sangiovese from Del Rio Vineyards as well as pinot noir and pinot gris from the Moores and Aguila Vineyard, spoke at Wednesday's general session called Oregon Wine in the Eyes of the World.
"People like diversity," he told the audience. "They don't want to drink pinot noir every day of the week. If they like the wines of Oregon and they don't feel like a pinot noir, they will try a syrah, pinot gris or chardonnay."
In position to take advantage of the diversity campaign are Southern Oregon wineries with tasting rooms here and in the more populated Willamette Valley. Troon, Cliff Creek Cellars and Folin Cellars opened tasting rooms in Carlton a few years ago. Pat Spangler of Spangler Vineyards in Roseburg just opened in Newberg.
"We have 700 wine club members already and we hope to get even more attention for our big reds in pinot country," Spangler said.
Another southern innovation getting statewide attention is Wooldridge Creek Winery and Vineyard's pioneering project to sell wine in kegs. Greg Paneitz told a rapt audience at a Wednesday session on alternative packaging that the cost-effective keg delivery now accounts for 35 percent of his business and that he has hired two employees and is adding a 1,200-square-foot building on his Grants Pass land to accommodate the growth. In two years, he also saved the cost of 30,000 bottles, corks, foils and labels.
Another indicator of interest from the north: Venerable vineyard supplier OVS of McMinnville has hired respected viticulturalist Chris Hubert to manage vineyards and other agricultural land here. After the symposium, Hubert said the approach to include the entire state would benefit everyone.
"It was cool to hear some of the top wine critics mention Southern Oregon and recognize there are great wines coming from this area with its rainbow of varieties," he said.
In every session Martin sat in on, he noticed there was a conscious effort to include Southern Oregon to a greater degree.
"Pinot noir producers have done a great job branding Oregon as a wine region," he said. "Now there is a genuine desire to include all of Oregon and other varieties in that brand."
To participate, Southern Oregon producers need to make better wine and stronger connections, Martin said.
"This industry will be built not working locally, but by us showing our faces, our power and our numbers in the state and beyond," he said. "We can't stay home."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org.