MEDFORD, Ore. — The name Naumes has been synonymous with pears for 68 years and likely will be for years to come.
Naumes Inc. is the largest pear packer in Medford. But on steep, picturesque hillsides around the Naumes family home, just southwest of town, pear orchards are giving way to vineyards.
Laura Naumes caught the wine bug a few years ago and convinced her husband, Mike, that growing wine grapes would be profitable, a good diversification and fun.
Their first planting was of Pinot Noir on 15.5 acres of hillside below the long, paved and gated driveway that winds up around a hill to their home on top.
The ground is so steep, up to a 35 percent grade in places, that one automatically walks cautiously as not to fall. They had to buy a tractor with cleats because those with rubber tires slip on the hills.
To the north, beyond a pear block, the next 19.5 acres is about to be planted to Pinot Noir and Grenache. Drip lines and trellis are in. Hand planting will start in July.
And on the hillside to the east, a bulldozer is preparing 23 acres for planting Chardonnay next year.
“I didn’t think this wine thing would take off in Southern Oregon, but it has,” Mike Naumes said. “There’s a lot of new acreage from Ashland to Grants Pass, especially up the Applegate Valley west of Jacksonville. Some people say it’s the next Napa Valley.”
But Naumes said he’s not sure it’s large enough. One Oregon company was looking for 1,000 acres all in one area flat enough to machine harvest, but couldn’t find it, he said.
The Naumeses have a barn they may convert into a tasting room one day, but they don’t plan to get into the winery business right away. Instead, they will sell their grapes. They also plan to open a custom crushing facility in an old pear shed to serve area vineyards.
Their first grapes won’t be harvested until the fall of 2015. They’ve already had interest in the crop from Oregon and Washington winemakers who tell them the site is perfect for growing excellent Pinot Noir.
“We had people wanting to sign contracts before we even had our first vines in the ground,” Laura Naumes said.
They envision an expansion rate of 20 acres per year until they reach 200 acres.
While more than 10 percent of West Coast wineries recently surveyed by an industry expert in St. Helena, Calif., said they likely will sell within the next five years, Mike Naumes said they are in it for the long haul.
Their sons, Sean and Joe, are in the family business.
The company sold 2,000 acres of pears, cherries, persimmons, cling peaches and walnuts in the Marysville and Gridley areas of California last October. It retained 80 acres and packing and storage facilities in Marysville only because the buyer, Sun Pacific, didn’t want them at the last minute, he said. He sold, he said, because it’s tough to be profitable in California. He cited high electricity rates.
The company has 1,600 acres of pears in Medford and two pear packing lines in its own plant and three in a plant it leases from Southern Oregon Sales. Naumes has been upgrading the lines with the latest technology in weighing pears and fine-tuning their spacing as they travel through the line. The company can store up to 40,000 bins of loose pears and 600,000 packed boxes.
Naumes also owns 710 acres of pears, apples and cherries near Chelan and Pateros, Wash.