Planting the Vineyards
The Joneses hypothesis of matching Tempranillo to an American site climate, like that of its nativity, became their mantra and was used to select all plantings in Fault Line Vineyards. When the Joneses arrived in the Umpqua Valley most Oregon vineyards grew only the five international grape varieties, Riesling, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. The Joneses disregarded what was grown locally and planted Tempranillo and other grape varieties they thought fit their site climates.
The Vine Materials
In November 1993 they obtained budwood (shoots for grafting onto rootstock) of a Tempranillo clone (called Clone 1) from Porter Lombard at the Southern Oregon Regional Experimental Center in Jacksonville, OR. The University of California Davis sold them their entire supply of two additional clones
Criteria for evaluating a new varietal wine
since there was no interest in California for this variety. A nursery grafted the shoots onto rootstock for planting as dormant vines in the spring of 1995. Most Rioja wines, including Tempranillo, are blended with small percentages of complementary grapes, so the Joneses ordered Grenache, Mazuelo and Graciano vines.
Then, the to be farmers waited. Scientists can boss around chemicals in a lab, but not grape vines. Earl and Hilda were on Nature's timetable now. The dormant vines would arrive at the vineyard site in spring of 1995. Meantime, they had a family to move.
The Joneses had roots East of the Mississippi River but the future lay 2700 miles West. In the first few months of 1994 they put their house on the market, quit their jobs, rented a place in Oregon, and prepared for the biggest adventure of their life. With daughters Hanna, 12, and Meredith, four, they packed a Ford F350 crew cab pick-up, hitched up a trailer, and drove towards the sunset. The adopted the 150 year old Oregon Trail slogan; Oregon or Bust!
They arrived in the Umpqua Valley on July 29, 1994 and faced 463 empty acres. There was nothing on the land, not even a road. When Earl's elderly father came to visit he took a long look at the scrub-covered hills then said: “Son, you've lost your damn mind.”
Earl didn't necessarily disagree. “One of the criteria for doing a harebrained thing like starting a winery is you have to be a romantic idealist,” he says.
Romantic visions weren't going to get vines in the ground though. That needed elbow grease. Hilda's dream of living on a farm abruptly became reality. Instead of handling pipettes and slides in a sterile lab Hilda was pulling out stock fence, grubbing up blackberry bushes, and helping ready the land for planting.
The First Planting
Earl and Hilda planted Abacela's first vines on Memorial Day 1995. One-third of the planting was Tempranillo, the rest were varietals equally unusual in the Pacific Northwest. It was a exhilarating moment after ten months of preparatory toil, but it was more than a moment; the grueling work of getting 10,000 individual vines into 12 acres of ground was ahead. Then came the nail-biting wait to see how the vines grew.
As good scientists, they looked to peers for advice but nobody else was growing these varietals. They were pioneers... and they were exhausted. To their delight the vines grew well and then went dormant that autumn, a sign they were settling into their new home
The vines did so well in 1995 that the Joneses spent the summer of 1996 in a flurry of trellising, pruning and vine training. In 1996 they haarvested enough fruit for an experimental foray into winemaking. Armed with a how-to book and science based intuition Earl made 36 cases of Cabernet Franc – Abacela's first commercial wine. Thirteen-year-old Hanna's illustration of the sun shining over the vineyards became the label art (and remains the iconic label to this day). On receiving approval from the Federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) Abacela became Oregon Bonded Winery number 206. The Joneses were officially in the wine business.
To find out, they schlepped their Tempranillo and another couple of varietal bottlings to the Oregon State Fair where their wines garnered several medals. Next stop, Portland, where they wooed restaurateurs by pouring the Tempranillo first, and telling them where it came from second. Their Tempranillo quickly became a cult hit
There were 21 entries in the Tempranillo category. Nineteen from Spain's best bodegas plus Abacela and one other American wine. Bronze would have been an extraordinary achievement. Silver unprecedented. Imagine the stunned silence when the judges awarded Abacela Double Gold Medal and first place. An unknown American vineyard and self-taught winemaker producing his 2nd Tempranillo from third leaf vines had gone head to head with some of the finest Tempranillo wineries of the Old World – and won. That validated their hypothesis.
The following year Doug Frost, founder of the Jefferson Cup, which pits award-winning wines against each other in a 'best of the best' challenge, requested the '98 Estate Tempranillo for the 2002 competition. It finished in the top 10% of some 300 Gold Medal winning wines, confirming their theory that climate is the secret of great Tempranillo.
Success with Tempranillo leads to Expanded trials with other Varieties
Abacela Grenache Vine, Clone 2
Malbec is native to southwest France, specifically Cahors and Bergerac, where it is still cultivated. Bordeaux winemakers have traditionally used small quantities of Malbec to soften Cabernet Sauvignon, but it is never the dominant grape in classic Bordeaux. After the great springtime freeze of 1956 in Bordeaux Malbec soon become the principal red grape of Argentina, where it is bottled as a varietal wine. Abacela has two clones of Malbec planted to various soils and microclimate defined blocks for a total of seven acres. Wine characteristics: Malbec produces wines of medium to full-body with moderate acidity and medium-short to long-term aging capacity.
Tannat is native to the Basque country in southwestern France where it is the main component of blends in the Madiran region and it is also grown and gaining note in Uruguay. Abacela has two clones grown in three separate blocks that total 1.8 acres. Its first commercial release in 2008 was well-received and vine age or farming improvements have increased its quality. It appears to be one of Abacela's future stars. Wine characteristics: Produces a medium-full to very full-bodied wine with moderate to high acidity and medium-long to long-term aging capacity.
Abacela cultivates five traditional Portuguese varieties: Bastardo, Tinta Amarela, Tinta Cão, Tinta Roriz, and Touriga Nacional used in making Port. These varieties were initialed planted in small blocks at strategic locations that take advantage of Fault Line Vineyard’s complex soils, slopes, and warm southern exposures to optimize and synchronize ripening. These grapes are co-fermented as a cepage to produce a Port wine that is medium-full to very full bodied. If the fruit and structure in a vintage are good, the wines are aged in neutral barrels for 12 to 24 months and bottled as a vintage style Port. Abacela’s Vintage Ports have excellent quality with long-term aging potential.
Experiments with the Port from years that were not as stellar led to production of a Tawny Port in 2008 and 50 percent of the volume was released after five years in barrel as a 5-year tawny. The second half of the 2008 volume was bottled after 10 years in barrel and released in 2018 as a 10-year tawny that in Portugal is referred to as a Colheita.
Tinta Amarela and Touriga Naçional also make interesting red table wines which as you might guess lead to expansion blocks and these varieties are now bottled in increasing quantity annually.