Earl and Hilda Jones — medical scientists with a predilection for research — never thought their explorations would lead them to studying grapes. But sometimes, that’s how curiosity and creativity work, especially here in Oregon.
The hypothesis that drove a winemaker
Earl Jones grew up in the Midwest and graduated from Tulane University in 1965. Engaging in a career of Academic Medicine and research at Emory expanded Earl’s worldview through conferences; travel expanded his discovery of food and wine. Exploring European wine culture was mesmerizing, and Earl gravitated toward the Spanish varietals that he found compelling.
Regional experts said that there was only one region that can properly grow Tempranillo grapes, and the underlying reason was the soil. World Tempranillo experts said the grape couldn’t be grown anywhere else, only in a specific region of Spain. It had been this way for centuries. However, during one of their trips to Spain, Earl met Alejandro Fernandez, a wine expert whose grandfather made Tempranillo 100 miles from the region where the soil was said to be perfect.
That wine was excellent, yet not in the same soil area. World wine critics raved about this wine in 1982.
Earl tasted the first bottle in 1986 and was enchanted. Earl was intrigued about this outlier, a good wine from a different soil in a country where a very specific soil was attributed to the best Tempranillo – and yet he was experiencing a wonderful bottle from a different soil base.
That was what convinced Earl that there was opportunity elsewhere, that the soil wasn’t the only contributor to good wine. If there are other variables such as climate that could enable another location in Spain to grow terrific Tempranillo, why not similar climate elsewhere? Earl formed a hypothesis that he wanted to test; the climate was the actual key to great Tempranillo, more than a single soil type that wine experts extolled for years.
This was a turning point in Earl and Hilda’s lives; they loved medicine and science but were becoming disenchanted with the business, politics and systems emerging in medicine at that time. Their passion for wine and for research supported work on their evolving hypothesis that they could grow great Tempranillo beyond one small area of Spain.
Earl and Hilda and their family made a tremendous leap based on his hypothesis. It was a big decision to move away from solid positions in medical research and move with their family, whereby uprooting their lives to plant new roots for themselves and the Tempranillo grapes.
Climate Science is the Key
Guided by science, Earl started collecting data and knowledge. Grapes are fastidious, needing a correct growing season and the proper amount of solar generated heat, and Tempranillo grapes needs hot weather for their 6 1/2 to 7 month growing season.
Earl investigated locations knowing that Tempranillo had been grown in California, but had not performed well. The wine was inferior in CA, often blended; no one had produced a single bottle of Tempranillo that says “vintage” on the label. Earl also looked into the Southern Regions of Spain where it’s hot too long, and Tempranillo doesn’t do well. Armed with that knowledge, he was confident that he could find a similar ideal climate such as Spain’s Ribero del Deuro.
In Earl’s mind there was always a major professor’s mentoring: “When you get an idea the idea enables you to develop a theory, read everything you can…but don’t make the mistake of trying to find the answer. Do the experiment.”
With his mind full of data and science Earl started with New Mexico but there were too many undesirable variables like high levels of frost, a short growing season, too much heat in the middle of the summer, and a suboptimal altitude level. They read about Colorado and the Pacific Northwest, and although the South of France was an early candidate, Earl and Hilda didn’t want to leave their family of five children far away and move overseas.
Their son Greg wanted to study climate science and aspired to a PhD in hydrology. Greg changed his focus to atmospheric science in part because of the passion his dad had about climate. Decisions about climate and soil characteristics were dichotomous; books were available, but not helpful. So Greg became the first viniculture climatologist, which proved to be pivotal during the early data collection. With Greg’s help they found the perfect plot of land in Roseburg, Oregon.
Finding a home in Douglas County
The climate envelope is a near perfect match in Douglas, Jackson and Josephine counties, east of mountains. The question was where, within that climate envelope, was the best piece of land.
Earl delved into the problem systematically with topographical maps in order to learn where there would be minimal fog. He realized local airplane pilots knew the climate better than most, and he hired them to fly him over the areas where it’s always sunny, and the fog clears in the morning.
Armed with both topographical maps and his recently acquired knowledge from the flights, Earl drove to find the perfect location- a plot of land near Roseburg, Oregon.
In the early 1990’s, due to the economic conditions, land in and around Roseburg was more affordable than Earl had anticipated. Thus, he purchased more than initially planned, which was great, but they arrived operating on a shoestring. The shoestring budget was a result of the 3 year discovery into the right growing region, plus the additional 9 months to identify the land, all the while having no income. Yet they drove on, based on a great deal of belief that they were on the right track based on the tremendous amount of research they had done.
With the location acquired, Earl turned his focus to finding the perfect vines.
The only source of Tempranillo grapes was California, a place where the grapes had not grown well. Earl asked a winery for all the Tempranillo cuttings they could sell him. And since no one wanted them, he secured them all – 4 acres’ worth in the first year. It was a great accident of timing that the vines were available. Earl increased his planting to 12 acres, and then added 3 more.
Starting small, they nurtured each vine, learning as they grew. It is said that entrepreneurs work 100 hours a week or more, and Earl, Hilda and their children can certainly attest to this. But the land and vines they cared deeply about allowed them to start a new chapter in their life.
Building a Winery
With the vines planted, Earl began to focus on developing the winery. They were welcomed as the 7th winery in the Umpqua valley and the 13th winery in Southern Oregon. Many wineries were starting blends, and some made wine from their own grapes or purchased grapes.
No one but Earl grew Tempranillo at the time, and they chose the name Abacela. Few in the area had heard of Tempranillo, much less grown the grapes.
Coming from the Eastern US, Oregon was new to the family, but from a wine standpoint they were early founders in Southern Oregon. They dove in by learning all of the different valleys and varieties specific to each area in Southern Oregon. In the early years, the land and the winery drained the money reserves, and as with all new wineries, didn’t give back a return on the investment for several years.
To ease the financial burden, Earl secured a part time job practicing dermatology in Roseburg. There wasn’t much managed care and private practices, like the partnership he joined, were still available. Balancing a job while nurturing the vines to a point where they could produce enough grapes to make wine, and bringing this new wine to potential buyers, was tough going. Eventually the demands of balancing both the medical career and the growing winery led to Earl making the decision to devote all of his time to the Abacela.
The town of Roseburg was very accepting of Earl. His patients loved him and it was a bittersweet time at noon on July 22, 2004, his last day in practice, when a particular patient wanted to be the last patient he saw. That person is currently 97, and still remains in contact with Earl.
By their third year on their land in 1995, and all the vines were in the ground. In 1997 Abacela produced 238 cases of Tempranillo, and that wine was excellent. Earl had planted vines that for 100 years didn’t produce good wine in California, but by bringing them to the right climate, his original hypothesis was validated.
Chances and Challenges
There were obstacles and difficulties along the way. When they first planted, people couldn’t pronounce Tempranillo, not even the wine people who thought Earl was “temporarily” planting something. At Abacela he also planted Albarino, a Spanish white, as the climate is permissive for those vines as well. In Spain the Albarino is grown in cooler climates than Tempranillo. Recognizing that the hills on his land have a north side that is cooler, they chanced planting Albarino on the North side of the hills, and are now gathering acclaim for their Albarino wine.
The operations side of being a vintner was new to Earl and Hilda as well. They had to learn business, make hundreds of decisions, study and learn from experts and trial and error. The Abacela exclusivity provided a cash flow allowing them to learn the business. The winery was also unique at the time, and continues to be. They did some marketing for Abacela and the wines, however sadly a big potential opportunity for publicity was missed as Earl’s parents passed in 2001, the same summer Abacela entered a SFO international competition and took first place for all Tempranillo. Earl and Hilda could not take advantage of the accolade.
As of last year there are 57 Oregon wineries that grown Tempranillo, Earl started the Oregon Tempranillo alliance and 45 of the 57 vintners have joined. A new national association has over 100 members ,and currently there are about 250 Tempranillo producers in the USA. Earl and Hilda host interns from US, France, Spain, and New Zealand that come to Abacela for harvest and to work the summer.
As elder statesmen are heralded in medicine, in wine, Earl is the grandpa. Abacela has 5 interns now from Burgundy, Bordeaux, the Aranda del Deuro, a Sister city to Roseburg, and students from OSU and UCC. While 57 producers mean a lot of competition, the increased knowledge and collaboration are big positives. Organization members get together in growing numbers to talk about the wine, network and collaborate. Greg travels to wine conferences and educates vintners while he runs his own consulting business, and teaches at Southern Oregon University.
Decanter magazine in December 2016 listed the 50 most influential people in wines, and Greg Jones was given accolades in many issues. Someday his son Greg will take over the business of Abacela, keeping it a family corporation. The experiment is an ongoing learning process, and a wonderful success. That sip of wine from an outlier winery in Spain led to the question – why was the wine so good in a different soil?
That question and the eventual answers led to a life change for Earl and Hilda, but one that has led to a remarkable success in the Umpqua Valley.