ASHLAND, Ore. — John Weisinger was a minister and youth counselor before moving to Ashland to pursue his lifelong dream — founding a winery. The first grapes he planted in 1979 were Gewurztraminer cuttings a friend gave him.
The 4 1/2-acre estate vineyard, the first in Ashland and, at 2,100 feet, the highest in the Siskiyou foothills, also now grows Pinot Noir and Tempranillo.
When the tasting room opened in the spring of 1989, there were only six other wineries in the Rogue Valley.
In the early years John was the primary winemaker. His son Eric took over from 1997 to 2006 when he left for New Zealand to broaden his experience.
“When I chose this as a career, I decided that to get better I had to go. I learned more about grape growing, about management, about the art of making wine and about production — how to streamline and work smarter, not harder,” he said.
He returned in 2011 and still consults locally and in New Zealand, primarily for the April harvest. He resumed winemaking and took over as general manager.
“When I first came back, I took a fresh look at our production and changed vineyards to improve the quality of our fruit,” he said.
In addition to the original vineyard, Eric manages several others and uses 11 acres of grapes, making 75 percent of the fruit they use estate grown.
Eventually all the grapes will be estate grown.
“Then our wine will really be the taste of Ashland,” said Eric.
In August, at the time of this interview, wildfires in southwest Oregon filled the Rogue Valley with smoke. Eric said the sky reminded him of conditions from the 2002 Biscuit Fire. Smoke can have an affect on the grapes in terms of taste and maturation time, he said.
After tackling production issues, Eric turned his attention to marketing, asking questions like “What is this brand and what’s it about? What do we want to be known for?”
“It’s our 25-year anniversary, a good time for introspection. I think my job is to reshape the business for the next 25 years,” he said. The four pillars of the winery were clearly history, family, quality and locale. A new name, Weisinger Family Winery, and a new logo will be rolled out this fall.
Another change to their business model is an emphasis on the custom crush service that takes grapes from raw fruit to bottled wine. This has grown from 10 percent to 60 percent of their production in the past few years.
“What we earn off 2,000 cases of custom crush is about one-third what we make on our own wine, but the margins are higher,” said Eric.
“We have the capacity to produce as much as 4,500 cases of our wine. But, we only want to make as many as we can sell. Decisions we make today will affect our business in 2015.”
He continues to spread production out to hedge slightly and expects about 1,600 cases this year.
Even so, he notes that the southern Oregon market is growing, especially toward the reds and the Rhone varieties that grow so well there, and tourism is on the increase in Ashland.
Accordingly, he plans to increase wholesale marketing in 2014 and to grow the wine club by 25 percent.
Weisinger Family Winery
Location: Ashland, Ore.
Founder: John Weisinger
Winemaker and general manager: Eric Weisinger
Vineyard: Fifteen acres
Production: About 1,600 cases annually of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Bordeaux style blends, Chardonnay, Semillion, Gewurztraminer
AVA: Rogue Valley
Opened for business in 1988.