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Rogue Wine Notes: The long journey from roses to grapes

Driving by our local vineyards at this time of year, you may notice a pronounced difference in their appearance. In late autumn, after the vines had shed their leaves, the naked canes stood reaching for the sky, as if surrendering at gunpoint. But by now, for the most part, those vertical canes are gone, trimmed away by vineyard managers for whom the interval between fall harvest and pruning in winter, during the vine’s dormant months, is all too short.

Per the Oregon Winegrowers’ Association bible, Oregon Viticulture (OSU Press, 2003), pruning stimulates the vine to produce new fruiting canes — the ones that generate new grape clusters. The way the vines are pruned will also affect how many grape clusters will appear on the vines in proportion to its canopy of leaves. If you get this, you’ll understand why pruning is one of the most important, albeit unglamorous, aspects of vineyard management.

Viticulturalist Brian Jordaan, producer of Eliana Wines, recently took time out from pruning at Belle Vista Vineyard, a stunning hillside site in the Pompadour Bluff area east of Ashland, to talk about how he came to be growing wine grapes in the Rogue Valley, a story that begins in Africa.

Jordaan grew up in Zimbabwe in the 1970’s beginning in Rohr on a rented property called Banana Grove Farm and later on a farm near the town of Banket that his father purchased in 1977. Besides tobacco, corn and beef, the Jordaans produced roses for export. They eventually maintained 140,000 rose bushes on five acres of greenhouse plots, mostly hybrid teas, but also the long-stemmed red roses prized for Valentine’s Day bouquets.

Jordaan learned the business of farming by working side by side with his father, but in 1993 left Africa to pursue a different dream — raising polo ponies. He went to Argentina to work with one of the great polo players of the day and to train horses on his farm, with the ulterior motive of improving his polo skills so he might qualify for Zimbabwe’s national polo team. But the job in Argentina never materialized and Jordaan caught a plane to Miami to take in the US Open at the International Polo Club of Palm Beach. He then began hitchhiking, and got a ride that would put him in Atlanta at 2 a.m. Fortunately, he was able to connect with a friend of a friend there, a young medical professional by the name of Carien whom he later married. Brian and Carien moved back to the farm in Zimbabwe and started a family.

By 2000 the government of Zimbabwe adopted the Fast-Track Land Reform Program whereby property held by predominantly white owners of European descent was seized without compensation and redistributed to indigenous people. Jordaan remembers busloads of people arrived on the farm with government officials who presided over the division of the land into five- and 10-acre parcels that were assigned to the new settlers. Jordaan and his family were able to remain on a part of their land until December 2003 when the family was forced to leave with only the suitcases they could carry. Jordaan took his family to stay with friends in a neighboring town while applying to emigrate to America through the U.S. Embassy in Harare. The family finally made it to the U.S. in April 2004.

Because of the availability of medical jobs in the Medford area, the Jordaans wound up in Oregon. After four years of playing Mr. Mom to their four children, Brian was ready to find work. “But,” as he put it, “what do you do with a retired farmer from Zimbabwe?” Fortunately, he discovered Belle Vista Vineyard and found that the “soft-handed” technique he learned growing roses was adaptable to producing top-quality wine grapes.

Jordaan has his fruit made into about 500 cases of wine annually, Bordeaux varietals and tempranillo, by Eola Hills winemaker Steve Anderson. The tempranillo comes from Thistlecroft Vineyard where Jordaan has opened a small tasting room with a view of the Siskiyou Mountains. Reflecting, over a glass of merlot, Jordaan says, “Isn’t it amazing. I come to a country that’s on the other side of the ocean and I meet people who are so gracious and allow me to lease their property and produce some great wine. American in my mind is the greatest country on earth and the people around here are just so incredibly kind.”

Jordaan will be pouring his wines at the Ashland Wine Cellar, 38 Lithia Way, on Thursday, March 17.

Ashland freelance writer MJ Daspit is co-author of "Rogue Valley Wine."