Greg Jones On The Future Of Southern Oregon Wine
Forbes.com by Joseph V. Micallef
Abacela Winery, in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley, recently announced that Dr. Greg Jones, the son of founders Earl and Hilda Jones, would become the new CEO of the 26-year-old family-owned winery.
Greg Jones has been a world-renowned atmospheric scientist and viticultural climatologist for the past 25 years. He has held research and teaching positions at Southern Oregon University and most recently, Linfield University.
For more than twenty years, Dr. Jones’ research has firmly linked climate change to fundamental biological phenomena in vines. His groundbreaking work has influenced the wine industry across the globe. Greg also has lifelong ties to the Oregon wine community and has played an ongoing role in his family winery and vineyards at Abacela.
Located in the Southern Oregon Umpqua Valley appellation, Abacela was founded in 1994 by Earl and Hilda Jones. The estate comprises 463 acres of rolling Oak savannah, with 76 planted to vines, and monitored with three weather stations, 24 individual temperature sensors and 40 soil moisture probes. Abacela was a charter member of the Carbon Neutral Challenge, and the family has dedicated 300 acres to wildlife conservation and habitat.
In light of his new appointment, recently I sat down with Greg Jones to talk about the state of Oregon’s wine industry and in particular the wineries of Southern Oregon.
JM: You have spent a quarter of a century in the Oregon wine industry as a scientist, educator and as a member of a wine producing family. What’s the most significant change you’ve seen to the wine industry in the Willamette Valley and in Southern Oregon. Which change has impacted you personally the most?
GJ: Growth is the most significant change. The second is recognition. What has impacted me the most as a scientist is that when I started giving talks internationally, Oregon was not well known. Over time as the state’s industry grew, more research came out about what we were doing, and consumer recognition all together grew the interest in my research and in the state.
JM: Southern Oregon grows a wide variety of grape varietals. That diversity reflects partly the variety of soils, aspects, altitudes and microclimates that characterize the Southern Oregon environment. It’s also typical of the experimentation typical of developing wine producing regions. What varietals do you think will ultimately emerge as Southern Oregon’s signature wines or do you think it is too early to make a prediction?
GJ: By the best estimates we have, Southern Oregon grows over 70 varieties of grapes for wine production. This is both due to the geography/climate and to producer interest in what they want to grow. I don’t think this diversity is necessarily a bad thing, it just makes the marketing/messaging more important.
I doubt that Southern Oregon will ever hone in on one or two key varieties. However, I do think that a portfolio of red and white varieties will continue to develop over time. Currently Viognier and Albariño have risen to prominence for whites, but other whites are showing promise. For reds, Malbec, Syrah, Tempranillo, and Merlot are dominant and likely to remain so but others are doing well too.
JM: Looking around the world, what wine producing region do you think is most similar stylistically to Southern Oregon?
GJ: Interesting question as the current diversity of production also produces a diversity of styles, which is hard to match in the wine world.
While I do not have complete evidence of this, I firmly believe that there are likely only a small handful of regions that grow the diversity of varieties that Southern Oregon does. This is clearly evident in Europe, where over hundreds of years regions became focused on a few varieties mostly through laws that were meant to be regionally protective and to produce less inter-region competition within countries.
Take for example Burgundy, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay reign. These two varieties can be grown in many other locations in France, but by law they are limited to Burgundy or to other styles in other regions (Champagne). Areas that likely produce a wide mix of varieties and styles are much more likely in the new world of wine, such as Australia or South Africa.
Another way to look at this is to think of what a region like Rioja in Spain might look like in the absence of laws and regional frameworks that have developed to limit the varieties approved for use there. I believe that the region could/would likely be growing a wider range of varieties and making a wider range of styles than it does today.
JM: Pinot Noir is not just the predominant grape varietal planted in Southern Oregon, it amounts to two times as much acreage as all other varietals combined. Putting aside the handful of cool climate sites that produce world class Pinot Noir wines, most of the Pinot Noir grapes produced in Southern Oregon are destined for low cost “bulk” bottlings of red or rosé Pinot Noir wines. Do you think it has been a mistake for Southern Oregon producers to focus on Pinot Noir wines instead of pursuing other varietals more extensively?
GJ: First, I want to say that there are some very good Pinot Noirs produced in Southern Oregon and I think that they will only get better.
Second, I think this is mostly an economics issue. In any industry, there will always be the intent to capitalize on successes, take the hard seltzer craze, once White Claw took off it was copied by nearly every other major beverage producer. So, it was with some of the plantings of Pinot Noir in Southern Oregon.
I think this was attempting to address an issue of having few entry price point Pinot Noirs from the state. Without lower priced wines, it is difficult to move younger or new Oregon Pinot Noir consumers up the ladder to mid and higher-level price points. What some did in Southern Oregon with larger plantings of Pinot Noir was to simply address a need in the marketplace, which in turn helps the overall industry.
JM: Is there a discernible style to Southern Oregon Pinot Noir or is it premature to speak of a regional characteristic?
GJ: A Southern Oregon style of Pinot Noir is still evolving, but does show some fairly wide characteristics from some of the cooler (elegant) to warmer (lush) producing areas. I think it would be unwise to try and categorize it into one type though, as the variations in terroir and fruit grown are the magic that producers are enamored with. I believe we should embrace the differences.
JM: Putting aside the impact of local environmental factors, Southern Oregon wines, stylistically often fall between Northern California (Napa, Sonoma) and Oregon’s Willamette Valley wines. As a general rule, cool climate varietals like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling tend to ripen sooner and often have higher sugar levels, while warmer climate varietals like Grenache, Tempranillo or Merlot often express cool climate characteristics. Is that a fair statement? What would be a more nuanced view of the style of Southern Oregon wines?
GJ: Partially, I think this has more to do with balance vs style for the varieties grown in the regions. The driving climate factors from your examples of Napa/Sonoma to the Willamette Valley are all about the length of the growing season and magnitudes of temperatures.
Southern Oregon has shorter growing seasons than Napa/Sonoma and a slightly longer growing season with more heat than the Willamette. But the point is that varieties perform best when the growing season is about six and half months long, ripening when the days get shorter but still experience relatively warm days and moderately cool nights.
These are the natural queues for the vines to ripen fruit to balanced composition. When growing seasons are too long, then ‘hang time’ has to be used to manage flavor development relative to early sugar development and acid loss. Also, when growing seasons are too short or have lower heat accumulation, then ‘hang time’ has to be used to manage flavor development and adequate sugar levels.
The best description of this that I know is ‘ripeness clocks’ which have four characteristics that are running simultaneously but at different rates—sugar accumulation, acid respiration, phenolic ripeness, and fruit character. Too warm or too cool and the clocks are out of balance. This is why it is critical to find a growing season that is neither too long, nor too short, but that has reasonably consistent heat accumulation for the varieties of interest. I believe that Southern Oregon has this type of growing season for many of the varieties grown in the region.
JM: Southern Oregon produces several warmer climate white varietals. The two best known are Albariño and Viognier. In particular, Viognier really shines in Southern Oregon. Are these two varietals the most likely to become the regions signature white wines? What about some of the Rhone varietals like Marsanne or Roussanne or even Grenache Blanc?
GJ: I agree with you on Albariño and Viognier but also see Marsanne and Roussanne playing a supporting role like they do in the Rhone, but others such as Grenache Blanc, possibly Verdejo, Vermentino, and Fiano becoming important.
JM: Oregon’s climate has been getting warmer. Do you believe this is the result of a long-term change in climate or the result of cyclical climate trends? From a practical standpoint, how much can the industry compensate through changes in vineyard management and vinification, for example, different canopy management, clonal selections, different production techniques before a warming climate fundamentally changes the character of the region’s wines?
GJ: Climates have been warming across the western US, including Oregon, and yes this is due to climate change. However, cyclical climate variability is still at play. For example, our current drought conditions over the western US would be with us anyway due to how the region’s climate variability operates but climate change tends to accentuate aspects of climate variability.
From what our observations and modeling show, events such as this year’s extreme heat wave in the PNW, the extreme drought over 95% of the west, and last year’s dramatic wind event (leading to fires and smoke) would have all occurred due to climate variability. It is just that climate change altered aspects such as the magnitude, the length of the events, and even spatial location of the events.
There is overall little doubt that the Earth is warming and that human interference in the Earth’s energy balance through greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, desertification, urbanization, and ocean acidification are all contributing factors to climate change.
But climate variability is at play as well. All indications point to the fact that if the Earth continues to warm at its current rate, by the end of the century the impacts of the warming on climate extremes and climate variability will increase substantially.
I think the wine industry has tremendous mitigation potential, helping to lower overall impacts through soil and plant management, energy and water use, and considerations in the entire farm to consumer pathways of wine products.
I also think that on-farm adaptive potential is huge, based on our increased understanding of genetic material (varieties and clones) and changes in vine management. Plus, growers/producers are constantly adapting to both environmental conditions, if they didn’t they would not be in business for very long, adapting to climate variability and change over the short and long term is no different.
JM: Thank you.