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Growing Rogue

Medford's Porter Lombard makes wine unlike anyone.

Porter Lombard's laboratory is dim and cluttered, its shelves packed with mismatched bottles of purple and red fluid surrounded by knives, beakers, notebooks, plastic tubing and one giant wooden spoon. Even if you go to the smallest of the 150 Willamette Valley wineries open for tours Thanksgiving weekend, you're unlikely see anything quite like this. And there's no chance you'll taste anything like what's in the bottles stacked in Lombard's musty "wine room." This is wine you cannot buy; wine that, to the best of his knowledge, no one else has even tried making. He calls it Takelma noir, and it's bottled biodiversity.

A retired professor of viticulture at Oregon State University, Lombard, 82, has been called "the father of the modern Rogue Valley wine industry." With a short beard and shock of gray hair, wearing jeans and a T-shirt covered in buttons for various liberal causes, he looks like an agitator of some stripe. And maybe he is. It was Lombard who planted an experimental vineyard in Medford in 1967, showing area farmers that it was possible to grow grapes like chardonnay, merlot and cabernet sauvignon.

Those European grape varieties once grew at the bottom of the gentle slope that leads up to Lombard's airy modern home on the outskirts of Medford. Back when Lombard's winemaking hobby followed a traditional track, he had some success, winning a few county-fair ribbons that hang in his laboratory. He ripped them out to make room for something that might be a little crazy. He's making wine from a native American grape that no one—not even the people at the vaunted viticulture and enology program at the University of California, Davis—has tried making into wine. 

That grape is Vitis californica, the California wild grapes that grow thick along streams along the Pacific Coast from Southern Oregon to Los Angeles. Lombard's Takelma noir came from a cutting taken in nearby Bear Creek and is named for the Indian tribe that lived in the Rogue Valley until the 1850s, when gold was discovered and they were sent off to a reservation.

There is a good reason no one else has made wine from this grape, but it's not because it's inherently flawed, in the way that eastern grapes like Concord, Niagara and Catawba have an unpleasantly sweet and gamey flavor called "foxiness."

"As wine, I'd say it's closer to a European variety," Lombard says. "It doesn't have that foxiness. It does have—I don't know how to explain it—more of a leathery flavor to it. I think it's interesting."

At first, Lombard's leafy vines were decorative. A decade on, those first vines are now six inches thick, providing ample shade to the pergola where he and his wife dine al fresco during Southern Oregon's long, dry summer.

"I first tried hops on the pergola," Lombard says. "But the second year we had the hops in, the spider mites just took over, and I thought, well, I don't want to deal with this, so I thought I'd put grapes in. But European grapes would have required spraying to prevent mildew, which wouldn't be good for an eating area."

Then, on a whim, he decided to make wine from his shade grapes. He had no idea what to expect. "I was encouraged that it was interesting wine," he says. "But the yield is really low. Looking at the clusters, you see maybe one or two berries."

As a horticulturist, Lombard is qualified to fix that problem. He's tried girdling the vines and applying gibberellin, a plant hormone that regulates growth, which causes the fruit to enlarge. He's convinced several  winery owners to plant a few rows to see how it fares in various microclimates. He's had some success increasing yields, but it remains an experiment in progress.

According to the records he neatly etched in the notebooks stacked in his wine room, Lombard's European grape yield worked out to between 10 and 20 tons per acre. He's hoping he can get between 3 and 5 tons per acre of Vitis californica.

For now, this is his problem. But Thanksgiving—wine time for Oregonians—is an apt occasion to remember we never know when the genetic diversity in Lombard's garden and the numbers in his notebooks might be pressed into service.

Thanksgiving marks the day when Europeans settling on the ruins of an Indian village decimated by epidemics of imported disease were saved from starvation by better farming techniques. A few centuries later, the Europeans faced their own, more trivial, cross-continental plague. In the 1850s, enthusiastic botanists brought American grapes to France, a land of Vitis vinifera grapes unprepared for scourges of the New World. Phylloxera, a tiny insect that preys on the roots of grapevines, spread from the cuttings and destroyed vast swaths of Europe's wine country before vineyards fought it off by grafting their vines onto American rootstock.

Today, almost all wine is produced from these Frankenvines, with American roots and European fruits. Some European wines have never been quite the same. Cognac is made from a totally different grape now. A 140-year-old pre-phylloxera cognac, made from grapevines originally planted by the Romans, only vaguely resembles our best cognac from the last century.

Lombard, of course, knows this story. I ask him about it as we sit at his kitchen table with two glasses of Takelma noir, which I found to be briery and bone dry to the point of astringent, with the subtle ruggedness of wild blueberries.

“Well, I don’t know about all that,” he says. “I just think it’s interesting wine.” 

DRINK: For information on Thanksgiving weekend open houses in the Willamette Valley, go to willamettewines.com.