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Homework has paid off for Foris wines

Foris Vineyards Winery, a family-owned and -run vineyard, was one of Southern Oregon's winemaking pioneers. It is still going strong and — given the scores received by its latest releases — worth a fresh look, not to mention taste.

Ted Gerber purchased 15 acres near the old, abandoned mining town of Holland in the hills above Cave Junction in 1971. He had a dream and a plan.

Gerber had done his homework. Armed with meteorological data going back 30 years, collected by a forest-firefighter base south of Cave Junction, Gerber knew that he had the ideal climate for Alsatian and Burgundy grape varieties. Gerber bought an additional 80 acres in 1975, armed with more soil and weather data from Oregon State University's Southern Oregon Experimental Station. His first plantings were pinot noir and gewurztraminer followed by experimental plantings of chardonnay, Muller-Thurgau, semillon, zinfandel, pinot blanc, pinot gris, sylvaner, cabernet sauvignon and early muscat.

Gerber first sold his grapes to other Oregon wineries. Some varieties, like the Muller-Thurgau, did not grow well. Other varieties, like the early muscat, did not have much market demand. By 1986, Gerber knew which varieties did well and he knew he could produce good wine. He created his own label: Foris Vineyards Winery. At first he did his custom crush at other wineries but, in 1989, Foris produced its first wines at home.

In 1990, Gerber hired Sarah Powell, a young, French-trained winemaker. She changed the way the grapes were grown and the wine was made, focusing on low yields and quality fruit. Foris began producing award-winning pinot noir and marketing it to out-of-state distributors willing to try an Oregon pinot made south of the Willamette Valley. She was so successful that a bottle of Foris 1994 Maple Ranch Pinot Noir was served at a White House dinner in 1997. Powell left Foris in 2001 to become a wine consultant. Tragically, she died of cancer in January 2004.

Bryan Wilson joined Foris in 2006 and became its winemaker in 2007, bringing a new vibrancy to Foris wines. Wilson's working background includes associate winemaker at Stag's Leap Wine Cellar in Napa and winemaker at Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma, at Sylvan Ridge/Hinman near Eugene and briefly at Del Rio Vineyards.

Today, Ted Gerber's Foris Vineyards Winery has more than 186 estate-planted acres and buys grapes from 12 other Illinois Valley and Rogue Valley vineyards. In 2012, Foris produced 132,380 gallons of wine, featuring riesling ($14), pinot blanc ($14), pinot gris ($14), gewurztraminer ($14), pinot noir ($22), cabernet sauvignon ($20) and cabernet franc ($20). Foris' multiple-award winning Maple Ranch Pinot Noir ($35), produced from grapes from the estate-owned Maple Ranch Vineyard, is only produced in outstanding vintage years.

Foris also produces its famous "Fly Over Red," named to express Gerber's frustration with wine writers who focus on northern California and the Willamette Valley and "fly over" Southern Oregon. "Fly Over Red" ($13.50), with its catchy label of a small plane flying over a Southern Oregon forest, is a blend of Bordeaux varietals — cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc — with the fruit coming from vineyards in the Rogue Valley.

The 2011 Maple Ranch Pinot Noir takes full advantage of the vintage's long, cool growing season that allowed the fruit to slowly ripen before being harvested. It has rich, dark fruit aroma and taste and, as Wilson says, "a little bit more of everything." It has lush color, smooth mouth taste with intense berry and cherry flavors and a smooth finish. It was given 91 points by International Wine Cellar and 86 points by Wine Enthusiast.

The 2011 Rogue Valley Pinot Noir takes advantage of quality fruit from a number of Rogue Valley vineyards. It is not as intense in color or fruit flavor as the Maple Ranch, but it is still a true, fruity, slightly acidic and food-friendly pinot noir. Wine Enthusiast gave this wine 88 points, and International Wine Cellar gave it 89 points.

Wine Spectator gave the Foris 2012 Pinot Gris Rogue Valley 89 points, describing it as "bright and lively." It's got a tangy minerality and the aroma and taste of pear, Fuji apple and honeydew melon. It is wonderfully food-friendly. It won a gold medal at the 2013 Northwest Food & Wine Festival in Portland.

Wilson also produces his own Cuckoo's Nest label at Foris, featuring a pinot gris ($12); "Aromatique" ($12), a white blend of viognier and gewurztraminer; "Two Birds," a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah; and Fizze ($14 for a half-bottle), a low-alcohol, slightly effervescent, early muscat dessert wine that won a "Best of Show" at the 2013 World of Wine Festival.

Roberta Kent is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at rbkent@mind.net.