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Grape expectations

Southern Oregon's wine industry has matured to the point where second-generation owners routinely step into leadership roles.

Yet, the region's vineyards and wineries are centuries removed from their European counterparts and decades behind their Californian brethren.

It's an industry where tradition holds sway but technology has changed everything, from planting, watering and harvesting to screw-top caps replacing corks on many bottles.

The annual Rogue Valley Winegrowers Association vineyard tour led by the Oregon State University Extension Service staff examined the role, application and utilization of technology in vineyard irrigation management at 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery; adapting practices to the site using alternative trellising strategies at Pond Hill Vineyard; and plant pathology and entomology research at the Southern Oregon Research and Experiment Station.

"These types of grower discussions are crucial, especially when people come from outside the region, bringing new ideas," said Jason Cole of Pacific Crest Vineyard Services. "The alternative is that people just sort of get buried at their own farm and just do things the way they've always done it. The idea here is to discuss better ways to do things, improve and not just do things the way we've always done them."

Soil, irrigation, trellises, replanting, cover crop management and disease and pest strategies addressed on the tour have often been implemented in the Napa Valley, he said.

"My background is working in places like Napa and in Bordeaux, so I have seen the most mature versions of a grape industry, so I would call Southern Oregon maybe a teenager," Cole said.

Meghann Walk, whose family is developing Hummingbird Estate off Old Stage Road, is working with Chris Hubert of Results Partners to determine what kinds of grapes, trellises and irrigation would work on the old Topsides estate.

"We're at that moment where we are making all the decisions," Walk said. "One of the things that seems really unusual about this area is that it is going against the national trend. In most of America, agriculture is a diminishing activity, but out here it seems it is rising. It's exciting to be part of that."

The first stop of the day was 2Hawk Vineyard and Winery off North Phoenix Road, where Ross Allen installed a sophisticated digital watering system that is controlled from his phone or tablet. The Central Valley pistachio farmer, who acquired 2Hawk three years ago, told tour participants that watering during veraison — a critical transition time when grapes develop their color and berries soften — requires attention to detail.

"When you start getting veraison, that's the game changer for the season, because that's when those grapes start to mature," Allen said.

Unlike most local grape growers, Allen adopted clean cultivation in his vineyard, leaving no grass or other vegetation besides the vines to promote healthier soil and control insects.

"It's just overall soil health, keeping noxious weeds out," Allen said. "By keeping the noxious weeds out, it keeps your vector insects out that can pass on disease to your vines."

Allen is a believer is spending time in the vineyard.

"The more time you spend in the field, it gives you opportunity to see what's going on with each individual plant," he said. "Not only from a water stress standpoint, but from insect pressure, and just overall vineyard health."

Across the valley, the growers discovered how one farmer handles wide rows with different trellis approaches.

David and Jody Lennon of Pond Hill Vineyard moved their family from Westchester, New York, in 2011 to pursue their wine dreams. They work eight acres of cabernet sauvignon vines planted on the northwest corner of Arnold and Bellinger lanes, where a small olive grove failed a few years earlier. The width between rows set up for olives has provided unique trellis challenges.

Observing the trellises and irrigation operations provided helpful insights, said Jay Crowl of Buxton Ranch & Vineyard, next to Kriselle Winery off Modoc Road.

"You pick up points at every vineyard you go to, learning something that will help you manage your vineyard," Crowl said. "It's especially valuable to anyone in the industry now. Every site is different, every application is different. We all learn from it; it's a very valuable asset for this valley."

 — 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.

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A group of winemakers makes its way through 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery Thursday morning. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Gordon Jones of the Southern Oregon Research & Extension Center takes a look at the grape crop at 2Hawk Vineyard & Winery Thursday morning. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]