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Early pioneer efforts make region a top wine destination

It’s hard to believe the 2022 harvest will be Eric Weisinger’s 41st vintage. Perhaps it’s easier to understand when realizing Weisinger Family Winery is the oldest winery in Ashland.

John Weisinger planted the first gewürztraminer grapes in 1978. When I sat down for a conversation with Eric, he informed me that he and his wife, Julie, had pulled up an old gewürztraminer root and hung it in the tasting room with a plaque commemorating that original planting.

Now, 44 years later, Southern Oregon wines, including Weisinger’s, are world-renowned, winning awards nationally and globally. Coming up on 35 years in 2023 for the winery and tasting room, Eric said “Sometimes, I feel a little tired.” But then he thinks back to what the winery was like in those earlier days.

“When my father was the same age as I am now, it was 1994. The winery had just opened in 1988, and I think about where things were, production-wise, what this place looked like and the reach of Southern Oregon wines.

“Now at 53, it’s in a whole different place, and that sense of feeling tired goes away real quick. My father would love to be sitting where I am right now, but he started it. He got it going, and that’s the hardest thing.

“I realized at a certain point that people thought he was crazy. They said it won’t work; you can’t grow grapes here, and no one is ever going to come to Ashland, Oregon, for wine. But when he became successful, people started following in his path, and he wasn’t called crazy any longer. He is considered a pioneer.”

Southern Oregon is now in the top destinations for wine regions, largely thanks to those early pioneer roots.

Eric spent years in California, Oregon, New Zealand and Australia honing his craft. Today, he’s recognized as an excellent winemaker, which I imagine is one of the reasons Weisinger’s has grown so quickly.

When he returned in 2011, he brought one custom-crush client with him. That year, they produced about 20 tons, around 400 total cases. Ten years later, in 2021, they were at 7,800 cases from 170 tons. In 2022, they’ll do about 10,000 cases, and 70% is custom-crush.

“This year, we had to turn people away,” he says, “or couldn’t produce any additional for them.” But Weisinger’s plans to break ground for a new facility by April 2023, which will provide capacity for 13-14,000 cases.

Another spring project is grafting over the 2005-planted pinot noir with grenache. Eric says he gets about three times the amount of grenache grapes to pinot. “It just grows better in our vineyards.”

Eric jokes, “sorta halfheartedly that I don’t have a job; I have a lifestyle. I’m living work, and that’s fine.” When asked what he would do if he could do anything he said, “I’d make wine, just differently.” He means that’s all he would do — just concentrate on making great wine.

So that original gewürztraminer is finding new life, and a new color — orange. The 2021 is set to come out in early autumn as an orange wine. Modern, a little apricot zing on the tongue, rare. As Eric says, “Maybe this is the future of that ‘gewürz’; maybe this is its most interesting expression. Twenty-five cases — that’s it.”

Maybe. But whatever the number, don’t miss it.

Reach Paula Bandy at pbthegrapevine@gmail.com and connect with her on Instagram at @pbthroughthegrapevine