CULVER, Ore. - Sometimes a pioneer earns early recognition outside his hometown. So it was for Doug Maragas, who opened the first winery in Central Oregon in 2003.
He entered the first wine he made with local grapes in the 2011 San Francisco Chronicle competition and won a silver medal. The grapes for the winning 2009 Maragas "Beat Red" were stomped by friends and family then pressed with an old style manual ratchet basket.
Maragas comes from a family of Greek winemakers. His grandmother founded the U.S. business in 1941 in Lodi, Calif., brokering grapes and making wine.
"She taught me that you don't have to be where grapes grow to make wine," Maragas said.
While he planted test grapes on his 40 acres off Highway 97 north of Redmond, he started making wine with grapes from southern Oregon and the Columbia Valley, sometimes blending them with local varietals like Muscat.
"Eventually we want to source all our grapes from Central Oregon," he said. "Here at 2,800 feet elevation we have a shorter growing season than Walla Walla. We can successfully grow all the Northern French and German varietals,"
His 21-acre vineyard has Pinot Noir, Pinot Munier, Chardonnay, Muscat, Pinot Gris and Riesling.
Another site in nearby Warm Springs, under contract to Maragas, has 40 acres of Bordeaux varietals - Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot as well as Zinfandel. That site, at 1,500 feet elevation, has a longer growing season than Walla Walla.
Maragas was a Portland lawyer when he decided a winery would allow him to spend more time with his family.
"Having to pay for proven grape growing land was very expensive," he said.
So he bought land in Central Oregon and started learning how to work with the volcanic, sandy loam and rocky soil. Conditions here, so unlike the Willamette Valley, demand even costlier infrastructure investments of underground drip irrigation, frost protection and constant rock excavations.
Although advised to plant hybrids, Maragas wanted to plant the traditional vonifera grape that would be of most value to consumers, and he wanted to adopt organic practices. He planted a 2 1/2-acre test plot with 40 different varieties of reds and whites.
The vines are head trained, not trellised.
"That makes them hardier, like a small tree. Production is less, but it fortifies the plant so it can withstand the weather," said Maragas.
He discovered the ideal planting spacing is eight feet between plants and 12 feet between the rows.
To counteract noxious weeds, a special problem in the High Desert, he uses agricultural fabric, which also conserves water.
Even the piles and piles of rock serve a purpose. They are placed in between the vines to anchor the fabric against the wind and to conserve the daytime heat during the night when temperatures can drop as much as 40 degrees in five hours.
"We're a craft winery. It's not about maximum yield; it's about maximum quality. We hand pick all our grapes to preserve the best," said Maragas
He makes Pinot Noir, Cab Franc, Zinfandel, Pinot Gris, a Merlot-Cabernet blend, Chardonnay and Muscat. All the Chardonnay is barrel-fermented and -aged. The reds are barrel aged for 3 to 5 years.
The wines sell for $20 to $45 a bottle. Maragas said they've been growing well with a 40 percent increase in sales last year.
"It usually takes a winery a decade to break even," he said. "This fall is our 10-year anniversary and we're right on track."
Location: Culver, Ore.
In Central Oregon near Smith Rock Park, 10 miles north of Redmond
Owner: Doug Maragas
Vineyard: 40 acres, 21 acres in Pinot Noir, Pinot Munier, Chardonnay, Muscat, Pinot Gris, Riesling. 40 acres under contract in Warm Springs with Bordeaux varietals and Zinfandel.
Production: Pinot Noir, Merlot-Cabernet blend, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Pinot Gris, Zinfandel, Chardonnay and Muscat. About 2,000 cases.
AVA: Not yet established. Central Oregon Winegrowers Association.
Established in 1999. First wines sold in 2003.