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Dreaming bears fruit

Photo by Jim Craven

Ruch pair invested long-distance labor in new winery

-- Garry and Cristina Wood were vacationing in Washington state a few years back when serendipity struck.

The couple, then living in Carson City, Nev., stopped into a small and simple vineyard and winery run by a husband and wife. It was just the kind of rural setting they'd been looking to find.

We went `Wow, we could do this,' says Garry Wood.

So the longtime Nevada Department of Transportation research analyst and his wife, now a nurse with Asante Health System, entered the wine business.

In 1996, they bought a small vineyard on 40 acres in Ruch tucked across Highway 238 from Applegate Christian Fellowship. They spent the first two years caring for their vineyard long distance, until moving to the spread in 1998.

It was a strange couple of years, constantly coming up on the weekends to take care of the vineyard, says Wood, 43. I made about 20 trips up, put about 20,000 miles on the car.

Now the Woods hope to make the miles and the risk of entering agriculture pay off.

After three grape harvests, the couple hopes to open a winery this fall. The project has been approved by the Jackson County Planning Department, but a neighbor with concerns about increased traffic has appealed. A public hearing is scheduled for May 1.

Wood is confident the issues will be resolved quickly and that Stepping Stone Vineyard will be bottling its first vintage this fall.

If he gets the go-ahead, Wood will join an estimated 10 other wineries in Jackson and Josephine counties, adding another player to the Rogue Valley's growing wine industry.

Jackson County's 53 vineyards harvested 1,050 tons of grapes off 379 acres in 1999, according to the Oregon Agricultural Statistics Service. That includes 30 tons of chardonnay grapes that the Woods harvested off 11 acres planted in the 1980s by the vineyards' previous owners.

His 1999 harvest was down significantly because of a severe spring frost. The first harvest, in 1997, yielded 40 tons of chardonnay grapes. That rose to 46 tons in 1998, to meet anticipated demand for champagne to celebrate the new millennium.

This year, Wood expects to harvest 40 to 45 tons and see the first production off 5 acres of merlot, syrah and viognier grapes he planted. To start with, he'll most likely crush only chardonnay grapes for the winery, selling the rest to other winemakers.

Those winemakers, including nearby Valley View Vineyards, have played a key role in helping the Woods along, he says. Valley View's winemaker, John Guerrero, has agreed to serve as a consultant for Stepping Stone.

The people in our industry are pretty open and helpful, says Wood. We've had a lot of help and met a lot of great people.

Valley View owner Mark Wisnovsky says he's been open with others who want to enter the industry. While there is competition, it's good for the industry to have widespread success.

We want him to make the best wines he can because it makes the whole region better, Wisnovsky says.

Wisnovsky says the market for Oregon chardonnay wines like those Wood plans to produce has struggled some in recent years.

Wood knows the road won't be easy but says adding a winery will diversify his business.

The winery will start in an existing building and Wood expects to bottle 500 to 600 cases the first year, hoping to reach 2,000 cases within three years. He plans to build an additional crushing building and a tasting room that would open in late fall of 2001.

Wood expects the winery and expansion to cost around $350,000, an expense the couple will spread over several years.

While the financial risk is substantial, Wood says the move seemed right from the beginning. That optimism is reflected in the Stepping Stone name.

It seemed like everything that we had done had lead to this point, he says, kind of like a stepping stone.

Garry Wood works in his vineyard near Ruch with his dog, Skippy. Wood and his wife, Cristina, left Nevada to realize their dream of owning a vineyard. They hope to open their Stepping Stone Vineyard winery this fall. - RUCH