ROSEBURG, Ore. — Abacela Vineyards and Winery makes headlines for its pioneering work with Spanish grape varieties and award-winning Tempranillo and Albariño, but for founding winemaker Earl Jones much of the story surrounding his winery in Oregon’s Umpqua Valley starts with family.
His son, Greg Jones, now famous beyond Oregon for his work involving global climate research, helped locate data that led to Lookingglass Road where his folks established Tempranillo vines 20 years ago. There’s daughter Hanna, who drew Abacela’s timeless label at the age of 13 and followed that up more than 15 years later by designing the tony tasting room.
The constant, however, has been wife Hilda, who combines Southern hospitality and charm with underlying grit. Earl, 75, can chuckle now as he looks back upon Memorial Day weekend of 1995 — when planting commenced at Fault Line Vineyards in Roseburg.
“You should ask Hilda about that. She can give you a more terse summary,” he said with a hearty laugh. “We planted 10,000 vines that spring — 12 acres. The first day, we worked all day and only planted 300 vines. We both couldn’t believe it. Our backs were breaking with the watering. It took us forever to get the 12 acres planted.”
Last month, we sat down with Earl Jones at his home in the Umpqua Valley near the Wildlife Safari and the town of Winston.
Here’s the interview:
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Abacela celebrates 20th anniversary of abacela
The Joneses made it impossible to forget that time, going so far as to name their winery for an old Spanish term that refers to planting a grape vine. Their success and the demand for Abacela wines led to 77 acres of LIVE-certified, Salmon Safe vineyards across several unique sections. Annual production stands at about 6,000 cases.
“We have almost 28 acres of Tempranillo now, so I’d say it’s about 40 percent of our total,” Jones said.
This past winter, the Oregon Wine Board recognized the work performed by Earl and Hilda with their industry’s highest honor — the Lifetime Achievement Award. Greg and Hanna were on hand for the Oregon Wine Industry Symposium dinner in Portland, and the etched decanter Earl and Hilda received sits on the wet bar of their home overlooking Abacela.
“To have that kind of recognition, we couldn’t believe it — to be called up to the podium to receive the industry’s highest award,” Jones said. “It was a great moment for Hilda and I. When we started this, we didn’t think we were going to be doing anything of this level of importance when we came to Oregon. We just came here to try to grow Tempranillo.”
It stems from Tempranillo
A thirst for the wine made from a grape native to Spain prompted Jones to leave the field of dermatology research and move his family from the Gulf Coast. Research performed in collaboration with Greg, who grew up in the Bay Area as a professional chef, led them both to down new paths.
“Greg was focused on hydrology, and I was focused on a change of careers to learn about viticulture and enology — particularly about viticulture because we weren’t going to come to Oregon and buy Tempranillo from someone already growing it,” Earl said. “Nobody was growing it.
“I kept asking Greg for data about atmospheric conditions, and he eventually changed his major, in part to funnel the data to us,” he continued. “We sorted through airport weather records from 1934 for so many Western cities and European cities trying to understand climate structure as it applied to the grape that we were focused on — Tempranillo.”
Twenty years ago, the Joneses blazed the trail for Tempranillo in Oregon. And even though Yakima Valley grower Mike Sauer planted Tempranillo in 1993 at his Red Willow Vineyard, the grape has not caught on in Washington nearly to the extent it has in Oregon, where it ranks No. 8 in terms of production.
“Tempranillo is sold in 46 winery tasting rooms in Oregon,” Jones points out. “People can now produce it correctly. It used to be, ‘I’ll have a Tempra-NELLO.’ And now almost everyone knows it’s Tempra-KNEE-O.”
Defining, describing Tempranillo
Tempranillo’s home turf on the Iberian Peninsula is in Spain’s Ribera del Duero and the Rioja regions, and the wines produced from each area are different for various reasons. Jones likens Tempranillo produced in the Umpqua Valley to those in the former.
“The fruit up here tends to be a darker blackberry, black cherry element to it,” Jones said. “That’s much more like what you see in the Ribera del Duero. Rioja wines are so much more difficult to evaluate because they blend so much. Rioja wines are always softer and elegant. You don’t know how much Grenache, Carignane or Graciano is in those wines.
“In the Ribera del Duero, they don’t use much blending, and most of us here in the Northwest don’t use that much,” he continued. “We’ll use a bit of Petit Verdot to tone the acid. Our wines taste more like the Ribera and the structure is more like theirs. That’s the way I see it. Our 2009 Tempranillo — that wine would be recognized as Ribera del Duero by almost any Spaniard.”
“People used to say that Spanish Tempranillo was the answer to France’s Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon. You just pick the time to drink it,” Jones said. “Young, and it’s got the power of Cabernet. Let it age, and it becomes Burgundian.”
Earlier this year, the recently released Abacela 2012 Fiesta Tempranillo ($23) — at a production level of 1,400 cases — won a gold medal at the 2015 Great Northwest Wine Competition. The flagship 2011 Barrel Select Tempranillo ($32) is at half the production and comes with the suggestion to cellar for at least five years before opening. The 2011 Tempranillo Reserve ($60) spotlights the South East Block in that now 20-year-old Cox’s Rock planting. Its barrel program is 90 percent new French oak, and production is tiny at just 53 cases.
“I like to pair Tempranillo with something that absorbs the tannins of a young wine,” Jones said. “A lot of foods will do that, but something that has a high fat content such as meat. Some fish will even work pretty well. I had a sea bass with Tempranillo in Atlanta, and I thought the chef must have made a mistake. It was the effect of the fat in the sea bass pulling the tannin level down, and it was a fruit explosion in your mouth. I’ll never forget it. It was a wonderful evening, and I was so doubting the chef’s skill, but he proved his point.”
A match made in heaven, however, might be a traditional pairing with jamón ibérico — ham from acorn-fed black Iberian pigs that’s been cured for several years. Wafer-thin cuts of this ham produce a sweet, salty and rich meat that melts on the palate. Think of it as pork candy, and a mature Tempranillo makes for a treat.
In special vintages, which seem to come at four- to five-year intervals, Abacela will produce a Gran Reserva-style Tempranillo, which Jones brands as Paramour from reserve lots of no more than 10 percent. Its debut was the 2005 Paramour, and he only recently released his 2009 Paramour ($100). Wenzl has picked out the barrels for a 2013 Paramour. In hindsight, Jones believes the 2000 vintage may have produced a Tempranillo worthy of such designation.
“I wasn’t far enough,” Jones said. “I’d never made a glass of wine until I came here, so in my fifth year, my conception of what we could do had not evolved to appreciate the wine that I had in the barrel.”
Research of Tempranillo clones
Jones spent years in medical research, and he’s poured his passion for science into viticulture and enology, particularly with clones of Tempranillo.
“We had 10 clones here, and we still have nine of those,” Jones said. “Clone 1 is one of those either you love or hate. From a viticultural standpoint, you have to learn how to grow Clone 1 or you don’t get a very large harvest. I don’t know that any of the other clones are superior to Clone 1, but if you don’t farm it right, all the other clones are superior to Clone 1. It’s a fickle issue.
“Of the other clones, there’s no question that the Duero selection — Clone 12 — is very good, and then Toro Clone — Tinta de Toro — Clone 11, is excellent,” he continued. “It’s a little bit different fruit profile and interestingly, it ripens just a day or two ahead of the others. Toro, that section of Spain, is thought to be be slightly warmer than it is than in say the Ribero del Duero.”
Clone 2 has become workhorse at Abacela, particularly in the 23-acre Cobblestone Hill parcel and it factors significantly into the award-winning Fiesta Tempranillo.
“We used to call that our ‘Cuvee’ because back at that time we purchased some fruit from some of our neighbors up here,” Jones said. “Our sole goal there is to make something that could be drunk younger, without the need for four or five or six years of bottle age. One of the keys to that was growing Clone 2 on what we call West Slope. It’s a 4-acre block with a gentle west slope that doesn’t get a lot of morning sun. It’s a cobblestone area with a lot of fine-cracked rock, and the fruit coming off of that always is fruitier than and less tannic than any other block on our ranch. So that is the core of the Fiesta Tempranillo. We have been producing that wine since 2002, so it’s in its 13th year.”
More than Tempranillo
Grenache and Malbec are virtual mainstream varieties at Abacela, which has proven to be a garden spot for other grapes that call the Iberian Peninsula home. In 2001, Jones launched a Port-style program which he dedicates to the five traditional Port varieties — Tempranillo (aka Tinta Roriz), Tinta Amarela, Bastardo, Tinta Cão and Touriga Naçional.
“Of course,” Jones said with a smile. “We wouldn’t do anything differently.”
He does, however, bottle Tinta Amarela as a standalone table wine for his wine club, just as he does Tannat, which he began producing on its own in 2008. This year, for the first time after growing it for two decades, he’ll release a Graciano.
“I don’t know if we didn’t understand the grape or didn’t know how to grow it,” he admitted.
It’s obvious that Jones and Wenzl have Albarino dialed in, an experiment that began in 2001.
“It’s a beautiful refreshing wine, and aromatic, too,” Jones said. “We’re really proud of our Albarino.”
Abacela’s plantings of Albariño stand at 11 acres and a production of about 1,500 cases. For the 2012 and 2013 vintages, about 10 percent of that production went toward Albariño Robles — a wine barrel fermented in American oak.
“This will be our 14th year of producing Albariño,” he said. “When we first planted it, we limited the planting to one-half acre, thinking that it couldn’t possibly work here, but we planted that half acre on the north side of a hill, keeping it out of the intense sun, and it did work.”
Daughter designs Vine and Wine Center, brand refresh
Next year will celebrate the 20th year of winemaking at Abacela. In 2017, it will be 25 years since the Joneses purchased the Cox family homestead for Abacela. Then, 2018 will recognize the work that went into the 1998 Tempranillo that first put Jones, the Umpqua Valley and Oregon on the world map for Tempranillo as it received a double gold medal and scored higher than any Spanish Tempranillo at the 2000 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
As the Jones family celebrates these milestones, it has taken an opportunity to refresh the brand Hanna created. The story surrounding its origin and the transition is a bit reminiscent of the child’s artwork of a schoolhouse that served as the label for L’Ecole No. 41 in the Walla Walla Valley. Just as Marty and Megan Clubb sought to take their famous winery to the next level with a redesign, so too do the Joneses.
“Hanna was 13, and that was her mind’s-eye image of our hillsides here at Abacela,” Earl said. “We like the label. Everyone liked it, and over these 20 years it’s become quite iconic. We thought that after 20 years, we wouldn’t do away with what Hanna did, but we wanted to take that and evolve it into a more complex label design.”
Hanna’s inspiration continues to live on throughout Abacela, stretching from the silk-screened labels for the white wines and Grenache rosé to elegant paper labels for the higher-price red wines. They all are poured and sold at the Vine and Wine Center built four years ago as a stage for private technical tastings, wine club events accompanied by live music, casual evenings complemented by wood-fired pizzas and antipasta plates for drop-in customers, and winemaker dinners with visiting chefs. Fault Line Vineyards serves as the backdrop, and it all fits deliciously according to Hanna’s drawings and designs for the building as part of senojDESIGN.
“She has a thriving interior decoration and design business in Portland,” Earl said proudly. “She has a lot of talents — like her mother.”