T he Spanish word “abacelar” means “to plant a grape vine.” When an erudite medical-school professor from Detroit, Michigan, decided to leave lymphocites behind and focus instead on Spanish tempranillos, he could think of no better name for his new life than Abacela.
More than two decades have passed since H. Earl Jones, now 77, and his wife, Hilda, bought 400 acres of Umpqua Valley hillsides and benchlands and began planting them with tempranillo. Producing wine from the medium-bodied red grapes, native to the Rioja region of northern Spain, had never been attempted in the United States.
Yet by 2001, an Abacela wine (vintage 1998) was the first American tempranillo ever to win a gold medal in an international wine competition.
“I had thought that it would take the rest of my life to make a fine tempranillo,” Jones said.
Jones had been a medical scientist, a specialist in cell biology. He had taught at the University of Michigan and the University of San Francisco, and by the mid-1980s was a department head at Atlanta’s Emory University. He loved his work, but he was frustrated with the bureaucratic issues affecting the medical profession. Especially, he said, “I had become disillusioned by HMOs overlaying a superstructure on physicians.”
It was time for a change. But Jones asked himself: “What would I do if I left medicine? I sought a challenge.” He found it in wine.
It’s the climate
In 1986, Earl Jones traveled to La Rioja with one primary question in mind: What made wine taste that way? Was it the soil? The elevation? What were the most important factors in producing quality wine grapes?
Jones’ model for a great tempranillo became Tinto Pesquera Gran Reserva from Bodegas Alejandro Fernandez, produced annually since 1972. For three years, Jones studied this and other wines in the Duero River valley, where grapes thrive in three different soil types above 1,500 feet. He became convinced that climate was even more important than terroir.
Assisted by his wife and by their son, Greg, now a professor at Linfield College and a nationally acclaimed atmospheric scientist, he began to search North America for the perfect tempranillo climate. In the Umpqua Valley, near Roseburg, where wines had been produced in fits and starts since the 1880s, he found a region of cool spring and fall weather sandwiched around warm summers.
Abacela became the seventh active winery in the Umpqua when the Joneses bought their acreage in 1992. (There are now about two dozen wineries.) His first commercial planting of tempranillo followed in 1995, taking cuttings from the University of California-Davis cloned from unsuccessful tempranillo plantings in California’s Central Valley.
Jones thought he had a good wine in 1998, his second year of production. He didn’t know just how good until he won the red varietal category at the 2001 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
“Tempranillo always has wonderful fruit characteristics,” Jones said as he squired a visitor around his vineyards. “Every year, a ripe tempranillo will have a cherry element, plum and blackberry. A little savory element, like sage or mint. And a hint of tobacco.”
Today, nearly half of Abacela’s annual production of 11,000 cases is tempranillo, which it offers in four different styles and two additional blends.
Of those presently available, I especially like the 2013 Barrel Select Tempranillo ($33), which earned a 90-point rating from Wine Enthusiast. The easy-drinking Fiesta Tempranillo ($23), fruity on the nose but with a dry finish, won a gold medal in the 2017 Sunset Magazine wine competition.
Abacela’s pride and joy, however, is the Paramour Gran Reserva ($100), Jones’ nearest approximation to the Spanish Pesquera.
Abacela sits at 43 degrees north latitude, identical to La Rioja. Jones, ever the scientist, has planted 76 acres with as many as 25 different varietals, and has settled upon 15 of them. Those include malbec, peppery syrah, berry-rich garnacha (grenache), smoky dolcetto, graciano, merlot and five different Portuguese port grapes, plus viognier, muscat and albariño, the latter three all white wines.
In 1999, while planting a steep new hill at a 45-degree angle, Jones discovered that his vineyards were located on a fault line where once the Oregon Coast Range had collided with the Klamath Mountains.
“Then I knew I had an outdoor laboratory,” Jones said with a smile. His flat, silt-loam benchland soils were ancient sea floor. His warmer south-facing slopes and cooler north-facing slopes provided him with seven different soils and at least five climate zones.
A popular white
Albariño is among the grapes that thrives on the northern slopes, where the grape’s natural acidity and varietal character are preserved at lower alcohol levels.
Native to the Galicia district of northwestern Spain, albariño has become Abacela’s second most celebrated wine (after tempranillo) since its first production in 2000. No other U.S. winery has a longer annual production of albariño, a soft, roundish white wine with aromas of peach and apricot.
I find Abacela’s 2016 Albariño ($21), which holds a 92-point rating from Wine Enthusiast, to have characteristically high acidity, lending some residual bitterness. I actually prefer the 2016 Albariño Private Selection ($25), with its lower acidity.
While Abacela tempranillo and albariño are widely available in local wine outlets, others — such as the Vintner’s Blend No. 17 ($18), which features 10 different grapes — may not be as easily found.
Visitors to the winery, just outside the Roseburg suburb of Winston on Lookingglass Road, will find a full selection at Abacela’s beautiful Vine & Wine Center, open just in the last few years.
— John Gottberg Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.