ROGUE RIVER — Del Rio Vineyards has acquired two parcels encompassing 215 acres from descendants of David and Clarissa Birdseye, who settled on the property in the 1850s, several years before Oregon joined the Union.

Jackson County property records show the $2 million transaction was completed last month.

"I'm always looking for good acres and we've been looking for years," said Rob Wallace, one of Del Rio's owners. "When all the planets line up, that's when you go do it."

Ted Birdseye has raised cattle on the sloping, boot-shaped property, bounded by Rogue River Highway, Birdseye Creek Road and Birdseye Creek, as had six generations of his family. He plans to continue in the cattle business.

Wallace, whose co-owners are wife Jolee and Lee Traynham, expects to plant 175 acres of wine grapes on the property early next year. Crews have cleaned the upper 96-acre parcel of stumps and other obstacles, tilling the hillside below Birdseye Creek Road.

Rob Wallace began planting grapes on a former orchard site near Rock Point downstream from Gold Hill in the late 1990s. Today, he said, 15 varieties grow on 300 acres. Del Rio sells its grapes to Willamette Valley wineries, produces its own labeled wines and sells bulk wine. Pinot noir, merlot, syrah and pinot gris are Del Rio's primary crops, and Wallace intends to stick with the game plan.

"We'll have more of what we already have," he said. "From a marketing standpoint, pinot noir has been our most successful variety. We've sold considerably more of that crop for sure. We have to assume our ability to market it is directly related to the quality of product."

The new acreage, which is across the Rogue River from Valley of the Rogue State Park, is slightly cooler than Del Rio's existing south-facing vineyards.

"It has a little bit of a different exposure to the Rogue River canyon, which is a little more of a benefit, keeping the moisture out and reducing frost in the spring," Wallace said. "It's warm and dry, which I like."

The soil is silty and rocky, he said.

"The soils are light as opposed to a lot of the valley, which has clay," Wallace said.

Del Rio planted 100 new acres last year to add to its Gold Hill-area vineyards.

"That took nine days," he said. "If we have good weather, we should be able to knock it out in a couple of weeks."

The vineyard cuttings awaiting planting next year are already in the greenhouse, he said. Wallace's farmhands began preparing the new vineyard shortly after the deal went through.

"It was a cattle ranch for years and years, and so we took out all the cross fencing and then took out the perimeter fencing and we picked up the stumps, the roots and the rocks, generally cleaning it up and make sure it drains well and get it ready to rip," Wallace said.

The irrigation system will go in first, along with trellis rows and a cover crop.

"We're getting the cover crop started this fall so that come spring when it's time to plant, we'll have a nice cover crop to work with," he said.

Del Rio employs about 60 people for its sales, tasting room, winery, vineyard and development. Last year it produced 275,000 gallons of wine and bottled and sold 30,000 cases.

"We do processing for other growers, custom crush bottling and bulk wine," he said. "A little bit of everything."

Wallace arrived in Jackson County in 1999, trading in his tomato-growing heritage for a less predictable future in wine grapes. He acknowledges the wine boom in Southern Oregon, but thinks the local industry is still in its infancy, with a lot of change ahead.

"I'd say the whole thing was a bend in the road," he said. "I haven't found a straight stretch yet. My intention when I came up here was to be a grower, now I've got a winery that's a big part of our operation."

Changing market and climate conditions continually offer challenges, and palates vary as well.

"Think about rice or beans on a store shelf," he said. "There will be two brands with one priced 5 cents higher than the other. You take wine and there will be dozens of bottles."

The price range will vary greatly and marketing will help determine buying habits, he said, noting the popularity of Trader Joe's legendary Two Buck Chuck.

"If people didn't think it was good wine, it wouldn't sell," he said. "Quality is going to dictate demand."

Wallace said there wasn't a particular breakthrough moment that pushed Del Rio, already one of the region's largest growers, into the forefront.

"There's just been a lot of tenacity involved," he said. "We just keep sticking with it, working with it. We hit a lot of singles and not too many home runs. You get up every morning, put on your boots and go to work, and 15 years later you're still doing it."

David and Clarissa Birdseye filed a Donation Land Claim in 1853 and operated a trading post in Jacksonville.

Ted Birdseye said he balked when Wallace first approached him about buying the property where his family had long grazed cattle.

"They asked me how much I wanted, I told them and their jaws dropped," Birdseye said. "It will provide a major opportunity to find a more economically efficient place for cattle."

 

—Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31