Tuesday, March 04, 2014

A Good Foundation...

by Corey McTaggart

Southern Oregon Wine-making Legend Sarah Powell Lives On

Teetering on the uneven grass floor in stilettos and a little black dress through a tent filled with over seventy wine tables, one caught my eye.   I had heard that name before.  I managed to walk up with some difficulty and reintroduce myself to another known figure in the Southern Oregon wine industry.  Larry Richie is a tall, distinguished looking man who has represented some of the finest brands in our local trade for years.  Now he represents one label:  His personal friend, Sarah Powell, who lives on in the wine that bears her name and in the Sarah Powell Memorial Viticulture and Enology Scholarship Endowment.

Rocking back on my heels to keep my footing while balancing purse, plate, and glass, I asked Larry to remind me of the details surrounding Sarah’s legacy.  Sarah Powell studied enology and viticulture for a year at the Lycee Agricole de Macon-Davaye in Burgundy, France.  She devoted time to making wine in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Washington State (at Hogue Cellars).  She earned her degree in Fermentation Science at the University of California, Davis.

 Sarah accepted the role of winemaker at Foris Vineyards Winery in the Illinois River Valley of Southern Oregon in 1991.  She recalled that visitors were often surprised to learn that the head winemaker was a woman.  However, Sarah stood out in a then male-dominated profession, known for her respect and appreciation for the challenges that the terroir and microclimate here have to offer.

To make the most of rocky, shallow soils and a short growing season, she dropped fruit and harvested only 2 – 4 tons to the acre.  Yields this low are uncommon in Southern Oregon, although she had observed this level of cropping more frequently in France.  Sarah believed in ripe, rich and concentrated wines.  Her extreme standards were met with varying degrees of acceptance by vineyards in contract with the winery, whose owners were often greeted by surprise visits from an adamant Sarah.  She often insisted that the fruit stay on the vines through rain, cold or hail to obtain that ultimate ripeness she was seeking.  She would start with excellent fruit and add expert blending, gentle handling, traditional methods, and patience.  It was a frustration to her that Northern Oregon had most of the press due to many more wineries in that area than the south of the state.  She tirelessly promoted the ripe, warmer-weather Southern Oregon wines as complex, lush, and able to be aged for decades.

Some of Sarah’s favorite wines were Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  Many vintages of her Pinots were featured at the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon.  Her ‘94 Foris Maple Ranch Pinot Noir was served in 1997 at a White House Dinner.  She was honored with the James Beard Award for winemaking in 1994.

Sarah went on to become the original winemaker for RoxyAnn Winery in 2002 and established the Sarah Powell Wines label there in 2003.  She died in 2004 of cancer at just 42 years of age.  In remembrance, her family continued her label, partnering with local vineyards and winemaker Laurent Montalieu, a close friend of Sarah’s in the Willamette Valley. The Sarah Powell Memorial Viticulture and Enology Scholarship Endowment was recently established by Sarah’s father William J Powell and her stepmother Leona Dater.  Summit Distributors of Medford, Oregon and Sarah Powell Wines are both committed to funding the endowment.  They each donate $1 of every bottle SPW 2008 Pinot Noir sold.  Harry & David, the premier local seller of pears, known worldwide, promote the product in their scopious wine shop.  The funds help Southern Oregon enology and viticulture students with expenses related to wine internships or exchange programs through Umpqua Community College’s Southern Oregon Wine Institute. The 2008 Pinot Noir is my last taste of the evening.  A beautiful crystal-clear deep ruby color is dazzling as the subtle aromas of dark chocolate, licorice and black raspberry waft from the glass.  On the palate, plum and cinnamon stick finish with a distinct lingering of cherry.  A rich and lovely wine.  A rich and beautiful story.  I shake Larry’s hand once again in gratitude and turn away with a warm heart and a smile, more inspired than ever to put away the high heels for awhile and pull on my old pair of vineyard boots.


This is really a great article about a very special person. Thank you for writing it!

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