Innovators: Abacela

The following is an excerpt from Oregon Wine Pioneers (Vine Lives, 2015).

Photo courtesy Abacela. Center front founders Hilda and Earl Jones

Abacela owner Earl Jones remembers his first taste of fine wine with a clarity most people reserve for marriage proposals: “I was sitting on the third table from the front in Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, on the second floor, on the Saint Charles side of the building.” His dinner companion was an insurance salesman trying to close the deal. Between them, a bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé. “I thought, ‘Holy cow, this is good!’” The medical school student left the restaurant insured to the hilt and enamoured of wine.

Fast-forward a few decades: Earl and his wife Hilda are proprietors of Oregon’s Best Winery of 2013 (Wine Press Northwest). Their vintages win awards by the fistful. They pioneered varietal Tempranillo – Spain’s classic grape – not just in Oregon but in the United States. It’s an unlikely trail for a Midwestern farm boy to blaze, but that’s what pioneers do.

Earl was born in Michigan, raised in extreme Western Kentucky across the river from Illinois, and Missouri. His parents grew row crops: corn, soy beans, wheat, oats. “We weren’t drinkers,” he notes, “We weren’t sophisticated people.” Once a year, at Thanksgiving, he was allowed a dram of whisky. With no desire to farm, Earl set his sights on science. He got an MD from Tulane University and become a researcher immunologist. It was in California, during a ten-year stint working at UC San Francisco that he got acquainted with Spanish wine: “The best wines were Rioja. I thought Rioja must be a great grape,” he chuckles at his youthful ignorance. “I had no idea.”

He relates this tale as we study a sign on the grounds of Abacela’s sprawling Spanish villa-style winery. It looks like one of those roadside historical markers but instead of pointing out a rare bird or defunct trading post it is covered in graphs illustrating the climate differences between Bordeaux, Napa Valley, and where we’re standing in southern Oregon’s Umpqua Valley. These data may not be of interest to casual drinkers but they are crucial to the story of Abacela.

Earl Jones, photo courtesy Abacela

Earl worked out that Rioja was a place and that the grape he so enjoyed was Tempranillo. A researcher to the bone, he had more questions: what made his favourite wine great? Was it soil, climate, a winemaker’s magic touch, or some combination thereof? California grew Tempranillo but used it to make jug wine. What was the secret of his beloved Spanish vintages?

Ask how his quixotic, two-decade quest for an answer grew into the solid reality of an 80-acre vineyard producing extraordinary Tempranillo, along with a host of other varietals including Syrah, Albariño, Grenache, Malbec and Viognier, and Earl drops into a professorial cadence, parcelling out information so you can take notes.

It took four things, he says. First, his farming background. “How many immunologists in America know how to drive a tractor? That was an advantage.”

The other advantages were his research career, which meant trips to conferences in Europe that gave him a chance to taste fine wine. Next: his curiosity, which prompted him to keep asking the question even though he never got a satisfactory answer. The final piece of the puzzle was a sea-change in the medical profession. He found the rise of HMOs and the resulting restrictions on medical discretion “morally reprehensible” and decided to get out of medicine.

By now he was in his 50s, with a family to support. “What was I going to do with the rest of my life?” His criteria for the next move was simple but strict: “Something similar to scientific research. Something I would never conquer. Something that would challenge me forever.” Growing grapes was an option but lots of people did that. “Then I found out that nobody had made Tempranillo as a fine varietal wine in America.” It was a “great moment” made even better by the fact viticulturists told him it couldn’t be done.

Delighted to have found a mountain nobody had climbed, as he puts it, and convinced that all he had to do to pioneer great Tempranillo was find its elusive quality factor, Earl headed to Spain. He received familiar, inconclusive answers about soil, climate and winemaking wiles. Armed with only a Spanish dictionary, he dug into climate data. “I discovered the climate in Rioja and Ribiera del Duero, where they made the finest wines, was virtually identical and very different from Spanish regions where Tempranillo made only ordinary wine. Eureka! All I had to do was find that climate in America and most of my work was done.”

Photo courtesy Abacela

His matter-of-fact Midwestern delivery belies the fact that he was the first person in 150 years of US winemaking history to put the pieces together. Ask how it felt to crack the Tempranillo climate code and Earl’s voice slows to a syrupy drawl: “I feel good about it, down in the cockles of my heart. How many times in life can a person have an original thought, something that no one has ever thought about before?”

The only thing rarer than original thought is, perhaps, the courage to act on it. “One of the criteria for doing a harebrained thing like starting a winery is you have to be a romantic idealist,” Earl says. “And you got one here.” Other criteria include determination and being willing to follow where the dream leads. Earl was still teaching when he had his “Eureka!” moment so, after poring over climate data and pinpointing specifics like frosts, prevailing winds, latitude (which determines daylight hours) and diurnal temperature shifts, he used lecture trips to scout possible vineyard locations in Idaho, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Washington, and California. But the closest match was Oregon. Then, it was an educated guess. They almost bought property in the Rogue Valley but he reckoned the frost risk was too high. An undeveloped stretch of scrub oak savannah at the southern end of the Umpqua Valley, however, looked just right. “We wanted to buy some land, the owners were willing to sell some, so we planted some grapes.”

Again, his self-deprecating tone makes it sound like everything fell like dominoes. But really, the Jones family was running on hard work and hope. When his farmer father came to visit he took one look at the property and said, “Son, you lost your damn mind.”

Earl’s son Gregory wanted to know, “What if you fail? What if you can’t grow grapes? What if you can’t make wine? You’ve never faced anything like this before.”

“I told him: ‘You only have to face things like that if you plan to, and I don’t plan to.’”

Hilda and Earl Jones photo courtesy Abacela

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