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Oregon wine community reflects on life of Elkton’s John Bradley
ELKTON, Ore. — John Bradley’s three decades of winegrowing helped blaze a trail in Oregon for what became the Elkton American Viticultural Area.
This spring, however, the close-knit wine community embarks on its first vintage without Bradley, who died unexpectedly earlier this year. He was 65.
“It was a true shock to us and all in Elkton,” winemaker Terry Brandborg told Great Northwest Wine. “In no small measure, John was the glue for all of us.”
Bradley, who founded Bradley Vineyards, died suddenly Jan. 22 from abdominal blood clots related to cancer that had spread rapidly. His involvement in the region went beyond wine, and the memorial service Jan. 31 was held at the Elkton High School gymnasium. The town’s population is 194, but twice that many people attended and paid their respects.
“For the first time in 31 years, he won’t be around to talk with people about what he created here,” said his son Tyler. “It’s going to be a bittersweet season. We’re lucky to have so many people wanting to help, but we’re still hurting.”
Bradley’s many civic-minded activities in his adopted hometown included serving on the Elkton School Board, and his vision for viticulture proved to be remarkable as other winemakers and grape growers followed his template for success with cool-climate grapes in the Umpqua Valley.
Elkton wine industry sprang up around Bradley
Elkton was known primarily for its sports fishing along the Umpqua River, but it now also is home to four wineries — Anindor Vineyards, Bradley Vineyards, Brandborg Vineyard & Winery and River’s Edge Winery. Per capita, it might be the largest collection of wineries in the country.
Last spring, Brandborg and Bradley collaborated to produce a 2012 Riesling that was the first wine bottled using Elkton Oregon AVA on the label. At the time, Bradley told the Oregon Wine Board that he could only have dreamed of such an achievement.
“But attitudes change and all these years later, here we are,” Bradley said. “The Brandborgs have such a reputation for exceptional Riesling. It’s appropriate their wine is Elkton’s first bottling.”
Fortunately, Linfield College researcher Rachael Cristine Woody, archivist for the Oregon Wine History Archive, sat down with Bradley last summer and interviewed him as part of a continuing project that’s supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Wine Board.
“John was one of my favorite interviewees, and his passing was shocking and sobering,” Woody said. “John’s role in the Oregon wine industry, and many in Southern Oregon for that matter, should be more well known.”
Elkton, 35 miles from the Pacific Ocean, is the wettest location in the Umpqua Valley AVA – averaging more than 50 inches of rain per year. However, most of the precipitation occurs during the cold season. It is frost-free and dry during the critical stages of the grape-growing season.
“It is indeed an ideal little microclimate for grape growing,” Bradley told Woody. “In 1983, it certainly wasn’t a groundbreaking type of thing, but now these are old vines by Oregon standards.”
Bradley helped with background for Elkton Oregon AVA petition
Renowned climatologist Greg Jones, professor of environmental studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, conducted most of the research and wrote the petition for the Elkton Oregon AVA. It was the 17th for the state and the sixth for Southern Oregon.
“He was always very positive in his support of my work,” Jones said. “I remember back in 1999-2000, when I was doing a GPS and grower survey in the region, he said, ‘Finally someone is doing some research for us!’ He helped me then through his insights into the Elkton region and grape growing in general.”
Ken Thomason was the first to plant vinifera in Elkton, starting in 1972, creating Black Oak Vineyard and Elkton Vineyard. Cuttings from those vineyards were used to create Bradley Vineyard.
“He was using three-wire Scott Henry (trellis system) when we first got here, and then Patty Green convinced him to drop to three canes instead of four,” Brandborg said. “It’s basically a California sprawl with 7 by 11 spacing, created by the needs of his tractor width. Yes, somewhat unconventional by today’s ideals, but it certainly works for that site.”
During the Linfield College interview, Bradley talked about the independent nature of folks in the Oregon wine industry and seemed a bit bemused by the common references to the “romance” involved with growing grapes and making wine.
“When you are out there at 5:30 in the morning spraying grapes trying to keep powdery mildew at bay, you are going, ‘Yeah, this is pretty romantic, you know?’ ” he chuckled. “It’s a lot of work. You can’t emphasize that enough to people.”
Once farmed Elkton’s 3 oldest vineyards at once
More than a decade ago, Bradley ended up farming Elkton’s three oldest vineyards at the same time. The opportunity came about after St. Louis-based scientists Mike and Vonnie Landt bought the Thomason sites and built River’s Edge Winery in 2000.
“I met John when I bought the two vineyards from Ken Thomason, and I needed someone to care for them until I could relocate from mid-America,” Mike Landt said. “John did a great job of nurturing the vines and basically taught me everything I know about grape growing in the process. I took over management of the vineyards in 2004, but not before I had cajoled John and Bonnie into starting their own winery.”
The annual production of Bradley Vineyards ranged from 1,000 to 1,500 cases.
“John was an incredible figure,” Brandborg said. “In no small measure, he is an important reason that Sue and I ended up in Elkton. After our first drive through after the Steamboat Conference in 2001, we drove up to Bradley, but he wasn’t there. I later got his phone number and talked to him at length from my kitchen table in San Francisco, and we hit it off right away. Two weeks later, we were back in Elkton and found the property that we bought.”
Ironically, the Brandborg remarkable mountain-top home includes a view of Bradley Vineyard, which is five miles due east.
Navy veteran arrives in Elkton in 1970
Bradley was born in San Mateo, Calif., where he became an avid swimmer and enjoyed raising horses, sheep and poultry as part of the national youth development group 4-H. After high school, he trained as a farrier and sought a career in ranching before serving two years in the Navy.
At that point, Bradley looked for land in Oregon, settling in 1970 in the fishing and lumber town of Elkton. In the meantime, Bradley turned an old farm house with view of the Coastal Range into the home which became the setting for the marriage ceremony with Bonnie in 1978.
He became a home builder throughout Douglas County, and in 1983 he decided to plant a vineyard with the help of his brother, Richard. His rural background and experience with gardening gave him enough confidence to start and stay with it.
“I probably wouldn’t advise that to people because that was before drip irrigation was an mainstay in the vineyards yet,” Bradley told Woody. “It was very expensive then. And grow tubes? No one even thought of that yet. You were told you could expect grapes in five years, but I managed to drag it out a couple of more years because of lack of experience.”
In the early ’80s, the construction business dried up for Bradley, but he found grape growing to be a fit for him and Bonnie, who continues to teach special-needs children at North Douglas Elementary School in nearby Drain.
“It was a good lifestyle choice for me at the time,” he said. “I wasn’t working. The economy was horrible. Our family was young. I could be home. My wife was working. I could get the kids out the door in the morning for school, and I could be here when the bus came here in the afternoon. We avoided the whole daycare thing that everyone needs to do or is forced to do.”
There were several wineries in the Umpqua Valley when Bradley began producing commercial grapes, and Girardet Wine Cellars, Henry Estate Winery, HillCrest Vineyard and LaGarza — now Spangler Vineyards — continue to operate.
“It’s growing so fast that people really have kind of forgotten when it started and how it got here,” Bradley said. “When I planted the vineyard, I knew so many people in the industry. Now I don’t know hardly any of them. In the Umpqua when I first planted, there were six wineries, and now there are 30 — probably more. I don’t even know. I’ve lost track.”
Chris Lake, director of the Southern Oregon Wine Institute at Umpqua Community College, points out that Bradley also got involved early on with the Roseburg-based grape growers’ group that evolved into the Oregon Winegrowers Association.
“The OWA has helped craft some of the most innovative legislation in the nation supporting the rights of grape farmers,” Lake said.
New York Times praises Gewürz using Bradley fruit
Bradley Vineyards grew to 25 acres along Azalea Drive, just south of Elkton, and he farmed Baco Noir, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Noir and Riesling. He produced two styles of Riesling, single bottlings of Pinot Noir and Baco Noir, a pink blend of Pinot Noir and Riesling, and a fortified Baco Noir, which he called Bijou Noir.
At one time, his list of customers included Bridgeview Vineyard and Winery, Henry Estate, LaVelle Vineyards, Patricia Green Cellars and River’s Edge. When Brandborg arrived, more Bradley Vineyard fruit stayed in Elkton.
The Brandborg 2007 Gewürztraminer, made with Bradley fruit, topped a New York Times tasting staged in 2010 by Eric Asimov. And at $15, it was the least expensive in that judging of 20 examples of Gewürztraminer made in the United States.
“John was very proud for us to get that recognition for our wine with his fruit,” Brandborg said.
Landt says that when the group started the AVA petition process, owners of all eight commercial vineyards — now there are 12 and four wineries — agreed that earning appellation status would benefit everyone.
“I’m excited about it,” Bradley said last summer. “I’ve said it, and it’s been kind of our catch phrase in marketing is that Elkton is at the north end of the Umpqua Valley. We are the cooler part of the Umpqua Valley. We are kind of unique unto ourselves because of our coastal influence, this little gorge that runs out to the coast.
“It’s great that we get some recognition from that (AVA) because when you say you are from the Umpqua, of course the big wineries — Abacela, Henry, Melrose, HillCrest — jump out to most people. We’re deserving of our own little moment here. … I think we can monopolize on it to a degree and tout it and be proud of that.”
Bradley Vineyards launched wine program in 2003
In 2003, he began to produce award-winning estate wines under the Bradley Vineyards label, including his 2009 Riesling, which won top honors at the Umpqua Valley’s 2012 Greatest of the Grape Wine Competition.
Landt recalled when Bradley the grape grower became a winemaker.
“As a result of a miscommunication, a winery refused to take delivery on a truckload of Pinot Noir that John had already picked,” Landt said. “The next morning, he calls me up and suggests that I had finally persuaded him to start a winery business, and that he would be right down to my winery to get the process started.
“Unfortunately, all my small fermenters were full, so we needed to use a 2.5 ton red wine fermenter tank to do his grapes. That meant destemming the grapes into a harvest tote, and then dumping the full tote into the tank. On my first dump, John got too close to the tank and got his rubber boots full of must when the tote sloshed over the top.”
Regardless, the time and care that Bradley devoted to his vineyard would also show in the bottle.
“His wines were always consistently very good,” Brandborg said. “For instance, a couple of years ago his Pinot took best of show at SIP in McMinnville. And he always delivered very good, clean fruit to us and was always willing to lend a hand or give advice or lend equipment when needed.”
Bradley made time to help Elkton youth
And his generosity to help went beyond the wine industry. During the years, the Bradley home served as a foster home and also welcomed foreign exchange students. He also was active in youth programs in the Elkton area, so his passing will create ripples.
“That first vintage got John thoroughly committed to winemaking, which continued until the few days before his death,” Landt said. “The intervening years have seen a dozen new vineyards planted in our AVA, and John was an enthusiastic source of support for everyone. We are going to miss his even-tempered, reasoning voice in our community. He didn’t even swear when I dumped that (grape) must into his boots!”
Last month, Bonnie poured Bradley Vineyards wines in McMinnville. Next month, Bradley Vineyards will be open for the Umpqua Valley Winegrowers Association Barrel Tour.
“Yes, we are trying to keep the vineyard and winery going,” she said via email. “John’s dream needs to continue.”
Tyler, 29, who works in Indianapolis at the corporate headquarters for Angi, said his dad occasionally spoke with him about returning home to take a leading role in the business. That was 10-15 years down the line, but the timeline has changed, Tyler said.
“I think Dad helped establish a pretty amazing little nook of Oregon wine country, and the outpouring of support for our family has substantiated his work,” Tyler said. “The funny thing is how little he would care how much his work has been substantiated. It really spider-webbed out of something greater than he or we thought.”
Bradley is survived by Bonnie, sons Dennis and Tyler, daughter Rachel and granddaughter Morgan. The family requested that in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Bradley’s behalf to the Elkton Future Farmers of America and the Elkton Community Education Center.
Plans are being made for a public celebration of his life during this summer in the vineyard.