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.
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.