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Life is fine at Upper Five Vineyard

It's always fun to visit the larger Southern Oregon wineries and their architecturally diverse tasting rooms. There is also a joy in discovering smaller wineries and tasting rooms, or an award-winning producer whose wines are available only in local restaurants, specialized outlets or online.

That's the case with Upper Five Vineyard. The 4-acre operation off Wagner Creek Road in Talent is planted with Tempranillo, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Grenache. The vineyard is certified organic and cultivated using biodynamic principles.

At first, co-owners Molly Morison and Terry Sullivan sold their grapes to other wineries. In 2010, their Sauvignon Blanc went to Cowhorn Vineyards in the Applegate and was bottled under the Sullivan-Steele label. Their Syrah and Grenache went to Broadley Vineyards in the Willamette Valley and were bottled as Broadley's Upper Five Blend.

Then Sullivan started making his own wine. He produced 100 cases of his 2010 Tempranillo, working in close collaboration with winemaker Linda Donovan of Pallet Wine Co. in Medford.

At the urging of the Broadleys, Sullivan submitted two bottles of the Tempranillo to Wine Spectator in the fall of 2012. His wine received a score of 90 points. The bottling promptly sold out.

He made 110 cases of the 2011 vintage Tempranillo ($28), and six cases remain. His 2012 and 2013 Tempranillo are in barrels at Pallet, with the 2012 to be bottled late this summer.

The 2013 Upper Five Sauvignon Blanc ($18) will be the first bottling under the vineyard's own label. It will be released in May, and there will be 190 cases.

"With the Sauvignon Blanc grapes, I can actually taste the wine in the grape," Sullivan says. "I want to keep the brix (sugar level) down to keep the flavor of the fruit. I harvest at a point of lower brix than most growers, because with high sugar levels, producing higher alcohol, I find that less of the fruit comes through. It is critical for me to pick at the right moment — the brix level can rise overnight. My Sauvignon Blanc only has 11.9 percent alcohol."

He ferments the grapes from the beginning in neutral oak to create a wine with lots of fruit that is not "oakey."

For the Tempranillo, some of the wine is barreled in new French oak, some in new American oak and some in used oak and then blended to create the flavors he is seeking.

"My wines are more pretty than powerful," he explains. "I do whatever I can to encourage the aromatics, picking the barrels, stirring the lees." The lees are the yeasty sediment that falls to the bottom of the barrel. Stirring them evens out the sugars and the fruit flavors in the barrel.

Sullivan's philosophy of farming is based on biodynamic techniques, encouraging the diversity found in nature.

"The challenge is to create a balance," he explains. "I'm constantly observing, looking for what will control pests or plants naturally, like opening up the canopy to sunlight.

Sullivan will pour his Sauvignon Blanc at the Ashland Co-op's "First Friday" wine presentation on May 2; at Ashland Wine Cellar on May 15; and at Harry & David Country Store's Memorial Day event. His wine can also be found at Liquid Assets in Ashland, Gogi's in Jacksonville and at Elements in Medford.

Upper Five Vineyard is a member of TAPAS (Tempranillo Advocates, Producers and Amigos Society), the trade association for producers of varietals from Spain founded by Abacela Vineyard and Winery owner Earl Jones. Other local members include Weisingers, Valley View, Roxy Ann, Folin Cellars, Red Lily and Kriselle.

Sullivan will pour his 2011 Tempranillo at the group's 7th annual Grand Tasting at the San Francisco Golden Gate Club in The Presidio on April 27.

"I'm still giddy about the Wine Spectator rating," Sullivan grins. "We shouldn't be afraid to get out of the valley to sell, pour and promote our great wines."

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