The busiest time of the year at wineries is now. Whether that will translate into the best of times is still up in the air.
Locals and summer tourists are still crowding Southern Oregon tasting rooms and special events. Wine — babied and aging over months and years — is being bottled or released. And everyone's watching this year's crop as it ripens in the last weeks before what may prove to be the biggest and best harvest in years.
In between the optimism and activity, however, is the lingering concern about future sales.
If some projections are correct, an overproduction of Southern Oregon wine from the past three vintages, beginning in 2009, could reach 250,000 cases, according to Chris Martin, owner of Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass and president of the Southern Oregon Winery Association.
"It isn't all going to be sold here," says Martin, who is applying for a $300,000 federal grant to promote Southern Oregon wine, increase wine tourism and perhaps create a wine cave-themed information center near Britt Gardens.
Exporting wine to other states and countries also is part of the plan, as is selling more bottles to Portland retailers, restaurants and consumers.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, a few dozen Southern Oregon wine producers will be pouring more than 100 wines, from albarino to viognier, at the Savor Southern Oregon event in Portland's Director Park.
"We need to put Southern Oregon on a larger scale," says Martin, "and not try to just sell to the already interested local consumer."
Michael Donovan, director of national sales for RoxyAnn Winery in Medford and chairman of the Oregon Wine Board, agrees.
"There is a point at which this local regional market has a limit," says Donovan, who will accompany Gov. John Kitzhaber on a 10-day trade mission to China and Japan in October to promote Oregon products, including wine. "It's really necessary for wineries making more than 5,000 cases a year to expand beyond the region because that's where the growth is."
To sell mounting inventory, Southern Oregon has to move out of the shadow of the Willamette Valley. Some people think a signature grape, such as the Willamette's pinot noir or Napa Valley's cabernet sauvignon, could help distinguish the southern part of the state, where currently more than 70 different grapes are grown. The most widely planted grape in Southern Oregon is pinot noir, but it is mostly sold to wineries in the north.
Martin, Donovan and others invested in the local wine industry also have been hoping for years that a significant, outside wine producer will buy a stake in Southern Oregon and give it instant acclaim, as respected French wine company Maison Joseph Drouhin did when it opened Domaine Drouhin in Dundee in the 1980s. A large retailer with national distribution also could help spread the region's reputation.
The biggest factor to success here, as in any emerging wine region, still remains in the hands of growers, winemakers and producers, who need to continue to improve the quality of the grapes and wine, says Linda Donovan, who owns Pallet Wine Co., a custom crush facility in Medford that makes wine for small- and mid-size producers.
"We all need to be in it to make the best wine possible, a standout product at a great value," says Linda Donovan, who is not related to Michael Donovan.
The majority of the excess bottles that are in storage units are priced at $15 or more.
She sells some bottles of her L. Donovan Wines for $13 to $16 and is debuting her Late Bloomer label with a $9 gewürztraminer.
Last year, Linda Donovan's company became one of the top 20 wine producers in the state, representing Southern Oregon along with Bridgeview Winery and Foris Vineyards, both in Cave Junction.
Helping to boost production this year and last year were new vineyard plantings and high yields on existing vines. Last year, 6,000 tons of grapes grown in Southern Oregon were crushed, a 50 percent increase over the dismal, weather-beaten harvest of 2010.
Linda Donovan notes that many local producers are successful at selling the bulk of their wines, ranging from established veterans such as South Stage Cellars in Jacksonville to new producers such as Irvine Vineyards, which is planting 25 more acres of pinot noir in Ashland and building a downtown tasting room and hotel.
Small producers, who can't get much of a foothold outside the area, sell their limited cases of wine directly to customers. To boost their presence, they band together and organize "wine trail" events.
On Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 15-16, each of the eight members of the Bear Creek Boutique Winery Association in Ashland, Talent and Medford is waiving tasting fees, hiring musicians, laying out food and pouring wines to people who have purchased a $20 pass to the Wine & Vine Adventure weekend event.
"Group advertising is a huge advantage to smaller wineries," says Laura Lotspeich of Trium Wine, whose steady tasting-room traffic has made it necessary to restrict the number of bottles sold per person to stretch out her inventory until the end of the season. "Established wineries also help by sending customers this way and teaching about marketing."
Two new tasting rooms — Red Lily Vineyards in the Applegate Valley and Dancin Vineyards just east of Jacksonville — have drawn hundreds of wine fans on weekends. To bolster its inventory and round out its tempranillo offerings, Red Lily started selling Madrone Mountain Artisanal Dessert Wine. Dancin added Velocity Cellars' malbec to its pinot noir and chardonnay lineup.
But, Martin cautions, with about 75 local labels and 45 tasting rooms in the area with more under construction, sales out of the area need to increase dramatically. Otherwise, "facilities will be robbing from each other," he says. "Taking business from neighbors doesn't up the profile of Southern Oregon."
Valley View Winery, which built the first tasting room in the Applegate Valley, could once count on a visitor buying a half case of wine or more, says Mike Wisnovsky of his family's business. Today, people buy less because they are stopping at other tasting rooms. The Wisnovskys act as their own distributor and now sell to Costco and other retailers in Oregon and Washington.
To compete, wineries have to offer more than a nice vineyard view, Troon Vineyard's Martin says. It comes back again to quality. Positive reviews and ratings from respected experts help the label and the region.
Southern Oregon has been largely ignored by wine critics, but there are signs that's beginning to change.
"What we need more of is Robert Parker of Wine Advocate rating seven of Cowhorn Vineyard's wines 91 or better," Martin says. "That will generate positive energy outside of Southern Oregon."
Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or email@example.com.