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A winery gem off the beaten path

Ted Gerber’s philosophy has never been “build it and they will come.”

The Foris Vineyards owner realized at the outset that his location in the Illinois Valley (near Cave Junction, about 25 miles from the coast as the crow flies) was too far removed from urban centers to lure tourists. For that reason he named his red Bordeaux blend “Fly-Over Red.”

The dose of reality combined with humor is typical of the Foris founder, one of the original Rogue Valley wine industry pioneers who started his vineyard in 1972.

His interest in wine began several years before in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he began making home wine. He got his supplies from a place in Berkeley called The Wine Barrel, where he met now-famous Oregon vintners Dick Erath and Scott Henry. Over the past 46 years, Gerber has turned Foris into a highly esteemed and enduring brand both domestically and overseas.

This past July, after our air conditioner had been out for a month, my husband and I fled Ashland for the Oregon Coast and returned home by way of Cave Junction and Foris. I had visited Gerber about eight years ago while working on a history of the local wine industry, “Rogue Valley Wine” (Arcadia Publishing, 2011), but hadn’t spoken to him since. Gerber is elusive mainly because he actively farms about 170 acres of vines, down by 200 acres from when he was making wines for A to Z. To say he’s hands-on is a mega-understatement.

Just down the road from the current estate is his first house, on 15 acres he bought after living on an Illinois Valley commune in 1969. He built that first house with his own hands using a handsaw and some 1921 construction books he found at St. Vincent de Paul.

Starting a vineyard in Oregon, when the general feeling was that wine grapes couldn’t be grown north of Mendocino, took a combination of youthful moxie and a lot of research. Before he made up his mind to plant, Gerber looked into 40 years worth of Illinois Valley climate data kept at the local smoke-jumper base, consulted the OSU Extension Service near Jacksonville where Porter Lombard had put in an experimental vineyard in 1968, and asked experts at UC Davis whether his plan to grow pinot noir near Cave Junction was feasible. With the advent of cheap PVC pipe for overhead sprinkler frost protection, it was.

Today Foris Vineyards is a 45,000-case operation that still has a boutique feel. This is largely due to Gerber’s various philosophies of growing grapes, making wine and doing business. As he walked me around the winery, he showed me a high-tech bottling line capable of both cork and foil and tin roof. Outside on the crush pad, he pointed out his aged wooden fruit bins that are still used every harvest. There’s a Gerber premise at work here: You don’t throw useful things away just because they’re old. I picked that up years before when I met him for the first time and he showed me pictures of himself as a youngster riding a tractor in 1976 and another shot of himself in 2008 on the same tractor. I had to ask him if he still had that tractor. “Nope,” he said, “I sold it.”

Here’s another Gerber axiom that pertains to winemaking parameters: “We don’t drink numbers, so our most important tool is a glass.”

Speaking of winemaking, that is now the responsibility of Stephanie Pao. A UC Davis graduate, Pao’s resume includes positions in New Zealand (Dry River in Martinborough), Oregon (Bethel Heights and Lemelson), Paso Robles (Justin Vineyards and Winery), Washington (Double Canyon), and Napa (Mondavi and Saintsbury). She made her first Foris vintage in 2017. On our windshield tour of the vineyards, Gerber showed me a darling cottage on the estate that he pitched as a winemaker’s fringe benefit. “That’s how you entice a Stephanie Pao to work here,” he said.

What is perhaps the most unexpected aspect of Foris is its presence on the national and international wine scene. The brand’s notable achievements include:

The 1994 Maple Ranch Pinot Noir was chosen to be served at a 1997 White House dinner.

Foris is one of only 52 pinot noir producers in the state — the only participating member from Southern Oregon — who annually put on Oregon Pinot Camp (OPC). The organization educates industry professionals through several days of workshops and seminars, about all things pinot noir.

Foris is exported to Canada and Japan. A New Jersey internet wine-seller listed Maple Ranch Pinot Noir in his book of the world’s 100 best wines.

For the hardy souls who care to travel out to the Illinois Valley, a gem of a winery awaits. If you plan to go, you might consider booking into the winery vacation rental, a farmhouse that sleeps several couples. The Foris website (foriswine.com) provides a link to VRBO for reservations.

I also made a stop at Oregon Caves (www.nps.gov/orca), a geological wonder only a few miles away. And while you’re on the Foris website, definitely check out Ted Talks, Gerber’s oral history of his early experiences in the wine business. He has a gift for storytelling exceeded only by his gift for producing great wines.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.