20 Years of Change in the Oregon Wine Industry
Memorial Day of 2015 marks the 20th anniversary of the first grape plantings at Abacela. Much has changed at Abacela in these two decades and Abacela has helped change many things in the Oregon wine industry.
In 1995 there were 13 wineries in Southern Oregon but only six: Girardet, Henry Estate, Valley View, Foris, Bridgeview and Weisinger have remained in continuous operation to the present time. Abacela’s founding in 1995 thus makes it one of the oldest wineries in the region and its site-matching mantra and success with novel varieties has greatly influenced the Southern Oregon Wine Industry.
In the early days Oregon grew primarily three cool climate varieties, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Chardonnay and two warm climate varieties Merlot and Cabernet. Little attention was paid to variety-site climate matching; in fact many vineyards grew all five of these grapes in adjacent rows or blocks.
Growth and Change
Since 1995 the Oregon Wine Industry has grown rapidly. Data from 2013 harvest shows the tonnage of cool climate varieties (Pinot Noir, etc ) increased from 12,658 in 1995 to 48,969 tons while their percent of the total harvest actually decreased 1.6% (from 88.7% to 87.1%). During these 18 years tonnage of warm climate varieties increased a whopping 445% while Cabernet and Merlot the leaders in 1995 constituted only 40% of the warm climate total in 2013.
Emerging Warm Climate Varieties
In 2013, Syrah, Tempranillo, Viognier and Cabernet franc grapes, which were not grown in sufficient quantity to be indexed in the 1995 census constituted 60% of the warm climate crop. The changes started in the mid 1990s when Abacela and a few other growers begin to plant these new warm climate varieties. Abacela grew, produced and bottled some of the first varietal wines from these four grapes.
Abacela’s success with site matched Tempranillo attracted the most attention. They had not only pioneered a new varietal wine in America but the way they did it, variety-site matching, had worked in Oregon. Subsequent successes with Albariño, etc proved they were using the right tool to trailblaze a new frontier in Oregon viticulture.
Abacela’s Leadership Role in Southern Oregon
By the late 90s Southern Oregon vineyards were growing and selling alternative warm climate grapes to wineries both in their neighborhood and hundreds of miles away in the Willamette Valley. But Abacela was not growing grapes for sale to other vintners.
Abacela was willing to experiment and its operation as an estate winery that utilized the special attributes of its Fault line Vineyards created an advantage and flexibility to produce wines from any varieties that it grew. As a result Abacela is thought to have been the first in the Pacific Northwest to grow, produce and bottle 100% varietal wines from the following grapes:
- Cabernet Franc, 1996
- Tempranillo 1997 (America’s first)
- Malbec, 1997
- Grenache 1999
- Sangiovese, 1999
- Port-style Douro grapes based wine, 2000
- Albariño, 2001 (one of America's first)
- Tannat, 2008
- Tinta Amarela, 2010
- Touriga Nacional, 2012
- Graciano, 2013
Had these Abacela wines not been varietally correct and well made primacy in bottling would have had little meaning and their novelty would not have impacted the region. But these wines had excellent quality and Abacela became well known for its many Gold, Platinum and 90 plus point wines. In fact, Abacela’s 2005 South Face reserve Syrah scored 95 points in the Enthusiast Magazine and it remains today the highest rated wine ever grown and produced in Southern Oregon.
It is interesting to consider that if Earl and Hilda had chosen a flat property with a single soil type much of what they have accomplished would NOT have been possible.
Recognition and Accolades
These accomplishments, especially the pioneering of fine varietal Tempranillo and Albariño in America have inspired others in Oregon, the Pacific Northwest and across the USA to plant and produce these alternative wines. Abacela’s leadership has been recognized and many accolades have heaped on their achievements, including:
- Earl Jones named Oregon Vintner of the Year 2009 at Portland’s Classic Wine Auction
- Abacela named #4 Hot Brands in America by Wine Business Monthly in 2010
- Being chosen as the 2013 Oregon Winery of the Year by Wine Press Northwest.
- In 2015 Earl and Hilda became only the tenth recipients of the Oregon Wine Industry's highest honor, the Lifetime Achievement Award.
- 2015 Wine Enthusiast Magazine nominates Abacela for American Winery of the Year.