By Janet Eastman
PORTLAND — If attendance at this year’s Oregon Wine Industry Symposium is any indication of interest, consumers can expect a greater selection of local wine and more tasting room events from producers now energized by new marketing data.
The two-day conference and trade show at the Oregon Convention Center that ended Wednesday drew a record crowd of 1,500 attendees and 133 businesses hoping to sell them equipment or services.
People from 20 of the Rogue Valley’s large and small, old and new vineyards and wineries sat through seminars on new approaches to grape growing, winemaking and making money selling wine.
Wine consumption in the United States has increased since 1994 despite two recessions, according to conference speaker Rob McMillan, who founded Silicon Valley Bank’s wine division. Although Oregon has less than 1 percent of the premium market, he said the state can increase its share because of its reputation, supply and competitive prices.
The $3 billion wine industry in Oregon has “virgin territory” to explore if distribution gaps are filled in, agreed Tom Danowski of the Oregon Wine Board, the nonprofit trade organization that produces the annual symposium. The first five events were held in Eugene and the past two in Portland, which is in the Willamette Valley, where 74 percent of the state’s grapes are grown.
“There are more people from the outside willing to evangelize about Oregon wine,” Danowski said, pointing toward representatives from Amazon.com, which launched an online wine business late last year. Large, mid-size and small wine producers pay Amazon 15 percent of sales and more to market wine that the winery then ships to customers.
Del Rio Vineyards, which makes pinot noir, claret and pinot gris from 205 acres of vineyards in Gold Hill, was one of the first to sign on to Amazon’s program. Winery marketing manager Lindsey Zagar said she hopes to boost the label’s national visibility and have online sales beyond the winery’s website.
Marilyn Hawkins, an Ashland-based marketing professional and new wine producer who sells $10 bottles of Late Bloomer gewürztraminer through house parties, attended a seminar on direct sales in which one of the speakers was Eddie Black, Amazon Wine’s sales manager.
“If a winery can’t sell everything through a tasting room, wine club or retailers, it might be worth taking a look at Amazon and paying their fees,” said Hawkins.
Speaking on the importance of the Oregon wine brand was Ted Baseler, the president of St. Michelle Wine Estates, which sells $561 million a year of its Washington labels Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest as well as Oregon’s Erath and Napa Valley’s Stag’s Leap.
He called Oregon an “underdog” that could capture more of the premium wine market by combining efforts with Washington state and Idaho to draw wine tourists, critics and retail buyers north from California, and by continuing educational and research efforts to improve the quality of grapes and wine.
Oregon’s wine market is growing faster than Washington, California, Italy and France, he said. The state’s 463 wineries sold more than 2 million cases of wine in 2011.
Baseler added that it is important for Oregon to be known for growing a variety of grapes at different prices from distinctive growing regions across the state. “Everyone can’t sell $100 bottles of wine, but high ratings from wine critics provide a halo over $20 bottles,” he said.
Conference-goers also crowded into a hall to hear Wall Street Journal wine columnist Lettie Teague say that Oregon is “universally recognized as a wine region.” Later, she said that Oregon’s established and nascent producers “share a spirit of cooperation,” which adds to the industry’s “dynamism” and is not typical of most regions.
In between sessions, attendees talked to equipment, irrigation and software vendors.
Terry Sullivan grows organic grapes on six acres in Talent and bottles small amounts of sauvignon blanc under the Sullivan-Steele label and tempranillo under the Upper Five Vineyard label. He spent time at the California-based Durate Nursery booth, getting information on grenache clones and rootstock.
He said he can make an additional $2,500 a year by planting six extra rows of the right variety of grapes. For a small producer, that “can make a different in a full tractor repair,” he said.
Earl Jones of Abacela, which has 77 acres of vines outside of Roseburg, discovered a 33-inch bin for picking grapes that cost less than the standard 24-inch bin. “This means the same footprint enables picking teams to put almost 50 percent more grapes in the same load, and to process more and store more at less cost,” he said.
Oregon has 900 vineyards, and more acreage is being planted, said Jones’ son, Greg Jones, a Southern Oregon University professor and climate expert who has been advising the region’s grape growers since the late 1990s.
Greg Jones told conference-goers that this year’s growing season should have favorable conditions like last year’s, rather than in 2010 and 2011, when pest, disease and cold weather made it difficult to harvest ripened grapes.
The Rogue Valley produces about 16 percent of the state’s grapes and the Umpqua Valley 7 percent, said Jones.
With additional vineyards, it may become economical for more Rogue Valley grapes to be harvested by machines. Currently, only Del Rio Vineyards and Bridgeview Vineyards — which has 300 acres of vines in the Illinois and Applegate valleys — use harvest machines.
After hearing about advances in mechanical harvesting, Liz Wan of Serra Vineyards and Marketplace in Grants Pass said, “Concerns regarding labor shortages and changes in our climate suggest that we may have more reasons than ever to adapt.”
Herb Quady, an Applegate winemaker, grape grower and vineyard management company owner, was one of a panel of experts talking about drought stress in vineyards.
He also attended a microbiology seminar in which enology experts from University of California, Davis and the Australian Wine Research Institute showed that it is now possible to track and identify vineyard- and winery-specific microbiota.
“This has changed some of my attitude toward native yeast fermentations,” said Quady.
Medford growers John Pratt and Shari Eaton attended a viticulture class offering a breakthrough in measuring water in grapes to gauge irrigation needs and berry ripeness when it’s time to harvest.
Not wanting to miss new information on viticulture, enology or marketing, Kurt and Laura Lotspeich, who grow grapes and own Trium Wine in Talent with their son, Dustin, 29, divided up to cover the symposium’s three focuses.
Mike Wisnovsky of Valley View Winery in Jacksonville says the marketing sessions reminded him of the importance of telling tasting room visitors the history of his family’s 40-year-old business. He may produce a multimedia display “to create an emotional attachment to our vineyard and wines.”
Heather Goodwin of Belle Fiore Estate and Winery, which is opening its tasting room in Ashland in March, attended marketing classes to learn more about how to explain Belle Fiore’s wine and enhance customer experience.
The best part of the symposium for Chris Martin, who owns Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass and is the past president of the Southern Oregon Winegrowers Association, was the turnout from Southern Oregon growers and producers.
“If we don’t make our presence felt and our voices heard, we will be underserved,” he said. “It is imperative that we are a part of these industry events. It assures that we are not left behind in terms of new thinking, winemaking, business, viticulture and most important, advocacy for our spot at the table.”
Reporter Janet Eastman can be reached at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.