Off to see the vineyard wizard
"You will see it," assures the steady voice of viticulture wizard Chris Hubert as he guides me over the phone to a land magically being transformed into a 15-acre vineyard.
I'm driving on undulating Carpenter Hill Road in Medford, past gnarly pear trees with leafless limbs outstretched like bony witches' arms.
"Keep coming this way," he repeats. "You will see it."
But my cowardly lion soul is full of disbelief. At a cost of $25,000 or more an acre to plant a premium vineyard, is there really a market for more wine grapes? Nevertheless, I keep driving toward the voice.
One by one, Chris's predictions come true: "You will see a semi pulling out onto the road." (Ah! It's a fantastical purple color; enchanting for such a macho machine.) "You will then turn into a bowl-like plot of land where the earth has been ripped by an excavator." (Another piece of equipment I've only seen in toy size.)
It is as if I am entering Vino Oz and Chris is in charge. Only he isn't hiding behind a curtain, but standing next to swooping acres that soon will be lined in almost 24,000 short pinot noir plants, all uniformly standing at attention like an obedient army of Munchkins.
And they are not alone. We have all seen new plantings across the Rogue Valley, the young vines gift-wrapped in protective grow tubes.
Chris works for Results Partners of OVS — Oregon's largest vineyard development and management company based in the mighty Willamette Valley.
As if in a dream, he has seen the company rise like a hot-air balloon over the Rogue Valley. In the past year, 200 acres of vineyards have been turned over to Chris's care here or have been planted under his vigilant watch.
And he is not alone. Randy Gold of Pacific Crest Vineyard Services, Herb Quady of Applegate Vineyard Management and others are planting and nurturing grapes for clients.
At this Medford site, hungry earth-movers and powerful reshaping equipment have cleared a fallow pear orchard of misbegotten shrub oak, frightful poison oak and misshapen Christmas trees.
Chris and his crew will pull twigs and other remnants buried in the soil out by hand. Then, the next monster toy, a dig, will rip the earth 3 feet deep, then cross-rip it and disc it. Chris's crew will then cultivate the soil, smooth it and map out a grid with place-holding, 1/4-inch pencil rods.
Rows will be spaced exactly 7 feet apart and thick posts will anchor the beginnings and ends. Tethered to posts will be twin trellis wires to support ripening fruit and irrigation lines.
Around June, passers-by will see what looks like a net stretched across the bottom of the bowl and up the very steep sides. Pencil rods will be replaced with plants, rooted 4 feet from each other. "At 1,556 vines per acre, it will be high density," says Chris, who envisions an eventual Emerald City of tendrils and leaves.
"This is an intense project," he continues, pointing seemingly straight into the air as his index finger traces the trajectory from the bottom to the top of the 28-percent slopes. "This is the edge of how steep land can be farmed."
Those slopes — as wickedly upright as a tornado — have a purpose. They will block direct sun when the grapes' leaves and clusters have had too much and trap circulating cool air at night. That's the formula to consistently ripen delicate pinot noir, which is in demand across the state.
Chris knows this. He has been caring for wine grapes since he received an agriculture degree from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo in 2000. He worked nine years as the vineyard manager for the Moore family's 300-acre Quail Run Vineyards in and around Talent before accepting the newly created position at OVS.
Experience keeps him unnerved by the demands of this site, perhaps the steepest in the valley.
He shrugs. "My grandparents were farmers in Colorado. When I was young, my parents said to me, 'Don't be a farmer. You will break your back going broke.' "
He pauses. "But then I went to Napa Valley and I thought, 'These farmers look like they are doing pretty good.' And I have been working in the wine industry ever since."
He scans his future yellow-brick roads, the paths to more vineyard acres, and smiles at the journey ahead.
"What a beautiful office," he says.
Event: Eliana Wines, Ledger David Cellars, Kriselle Cellars, Serra Vineyards, Valley View Winery and other local wine producers will be pouring at the Rogue Valley Wine and Food Festival from 6 to 10 p.m. Friday, April 19, and from noon to 6 p.m. Saturday, April 20, at the Medford Armory, 1701 S. Pacific Hwy. The second-annual event will benefit Sacred Heart Catholic School in Medford and scholarships to the Southern Oregon Wine Institute. Tickets ($12 for adults, $6 for kids) can be purchased in advance (www.roguevalleywinefest.com) or at the door.
Tasted: At Easter brunch with my Southern California family, a well-heeled, non-journalist member of the group ordered a $115 bottle of 2008 Kistler Sonoma Mountain chardonnay from the wine list at the stargazing Surf & Sand Hotel overlooking Laguna Beach. Before I try Kistler again, I will probably spend about the same amount of money enjoying two cases of 2008 Swallow chardonnay. The $5 bottle's label explains that it is a "distinctive wine at a price you can swallow." Made by Bryan Wilson at Foris Vineyards Winery in Cave Junction, it's available at Ashland Shop'n Kart.
Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org