September 20, 2011

A grape tradition


Leslie Pugmire Hole
Spokesman staff

Soon after Carlos Vazquez signed on as assistant winemaker at Maragas Winery he worked a grueling 21-hour “crush” at harvest time – and he loved every minute of it.
“Here I feel more a part of things; this is a more intimate way to make wine,” he says, recalling his many years working for one of the largest wineries in California, where every worker had a narrowly defined job entailing only one part of winemaking.
“Here, we all do everything, from the fields to the winemaking to the sales,” Vazquez says as he shovels grapes into a wood wine press. “When I first started working here Doug handed me a Weed Whacker and I didn’t know how to use it – I hired someone to do my own yard.”
Doug Maragas considers his establishment a boutique winery, specializing in handcrafted wines made in small batches. For the last four years he has maintained a few acres of test vines, winnowing by trial and error to the grapes that will thrive the best in the unforgiving Central Oregon climate.
This spring he’ll put all that experimentation to work, planting 18 acres of vines custom-picked for his location. The winery, located just north of the Crooked River gorge at High Bridge, received its first plantings in 2007, although Maragas established his winery in 1999, using grapes from other vineyards.
While the wine and grape family business began with his grandparents, Maragas is currently the only one in his generation to continue the tradition, and it wasn’t even supposed to happen that way.
“My grandparents worked hard at their winery and grape brokering business so the generations after them wouldn’t have to work so hard,” he says. The second and third generation Maragases earned college degrees and went into other fields, with the exception of one uncle who continued to broker grapes.
Maragas was an attorney before leaving the law to begin his winery more than a decade ago. In 2009 the winery made the first vintage with entirely local grapes, a wine that earned a silver medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Over the years Maragas wines have won numerous awards, including a gold, silver and bronze in the 2011 competition.
Aiming to keep his marketing – as well as his winery – small and targeted, Maragas has opted to sell his wines only through restaurants and his own outlets. Several years ago, he started a wine club where members can sign up for regular shipments of various Maragas wines, as well as receive discounts on future wine purchases and “first dibs” on limited release wines.
The winery holds regular events on its 40 acres north of Terrebonne, including an old-fashioned “grape stomp” over Labor Day weekend. Attendees were treated to wine tastings, including last year’s stomp vintage “Central Oregon Tootsie,” and a turn dipping their bare feet in a vat of Frontenac grapes from another local vineyard, Ranch at the Canyons.
“Once we picked these and we realized how sweet they were, we decided to blend them with syrah grapes for a dessert wine,” says Maragas. He expects to glean at least 80 cases of wine from the late-summer stomp, finished off with a hand-cranked press and fermented in a stainless steel vat.
According to Vazquez, quite a few people at this year’s stomp purchased bottles of Tootsie because they had participated in the 2010 stomp and “they felt like they were a part of something special.”
“When I started the winery, it was important to me to make the best wine I could out of what I started with; I wanted to stay with the old barrel philosophy,” says Maragas.
The new vines will be a selection of grapes planted on low, horizontal trellises to make the most of the heat from the earth.
“We can’t plant as many that way but the vines will love it,” he says. When he and his wife Gina bought the land in 2006 it was a fallow wheat farm, with depleted soil and acres of weeds. They worked the soil intensively, disking the fields and adding nutrients.
Most of his vines will be vitis vinefera, grapes more commonly found in the Mediterranean wine growing region than in the better-known French vineyards. Eventually, he hopes all Maragas wine will be made with grapes from the vineyard and other vineyards within an hours drive.
Even with the added acreage, Maragas plans to keep the winery small.
“It’s like cooking a meal for four or mass producing Twinkies,” he says. “Technically they are both food, but …”
Keeping the winery modest has two goals for the Maragas family. Right now, they work long hours from spring to late fall but winter is a slack time. With one child now in school, they try to make the most of every day – sharing living quarters in Bend with their taverna/tasting room and a farmhouse on the vineyard for weekends.
“We’ve even talked about homeschooling at some point so we have more flexibility,” says Maragas, citing no-sleep harvest weeks and long spring days readying the fields.
His assistant Vazquez has taken to the craft winery business with a vengeance. He got married earlier this month on a Monday because it was his only day off.
“It’s not work if you love it,” Vazquez says. “I keep in mind what I want my life to be and it’s not 'Hey, look at my cubicle’.”
Maragas has him beat in the dedication department, however. On his honeymoon he made sales calls to wine vendors.

If you go
Vineyard & tasting room
15523 S.W. Hwy 97, Culver
Taverna
643 N.W. Colorado Ave., Bend
maragaswinery.com

No comments: