Eight miles west of Junction City, a half hour’s drive from Eugene, is the modest, unassuming High Pass Winery with its rows of vines descending dramatically down steep hillsides on the 20-acre estate.
At the top of a winding road, visitors park next to a charming outdoor tasting pavilion. Expansive, lush views of the surrounding coastal hills’ greenery are all around. What an awesome spot to break out the cheeses, charcuterie, and fruit you’ve brought along to pair with owner/grower/winemaker Dieter Boehm’s German-influenced array of wines. A special delight is tasting two remarkable, obscure dessert wines he has adapted from the Rhine Valley and introduced in Oregon: his 2010 High Pass Huxelrebe, luxuriating in flavors of tangerine and peach; and a full-bodied, fruity 2013 High Pass Scheurebe. Huxelrebe is a mix of chasselas and muscat grapes. Scheurebe crosses riesling with a wild grape. Boehm planted them in 1985 with cuttings from Germany.
In style and approach, Boehm is similar to his neighbor Stephen Hagen of Antiquum Farm, a few miles down the road. Like Hagen, Boehm is an advocate of self-sufficient and innovative agriculture (for example, cover crops of sub clover and tight vine spacing). His personal, hands-on approach results in some of Oregon’s best wine grapes and, consequently, its best wines, notably his strikingly expressive pinot noir and pinot gris. The High Pass winemaker’s sauvignon blanc is another must-taste experience.
“Sauvignon blanc has a broad acceptance of growing conditions, and that’s what makes it interesting,” Boehm explains. His versions, grown in Willamette Valley’s cool climate, emphasize green grassy, gooseberry flavors, in comparison with the more tropical melon tones in California.
He’s adding an acre of sauvignon blanc to the acre and a half already planted and is bemused by rabid consumer demand, especially in Portland. “They just can’t get enough of it,” he chuckles. “Anything different they go wild over.”
Like a lot of wine folks in the area, this is a family affair, with Boehm’s two daughters and wife, Fridah, joining in. Fridah, who is a rehabilitation nurse, also does the marketing and has added new energy to the hilltop winery these past two years with innovative live music and dance events. Go to the winery website for details about upcoming presentations of her popular “African Night.” Another character on the scene is the affable Conrad Pfeiffer, retired librarian and historian, who serenades guests with his lively accordion music. This brother of Robin Pfeiffer (Pfeiffer Vineyards) is a family friend and a musical mainstay at High Pass.
Looking at Boehm’s early professional life in Cold War–era East Germany, you wonder how he ever ended up in Oregon. But clues lie in the Saxony wine region along the Elbe River, flowing past his native home near Dresden.
Boehm started his adulthood attending the technical university in Dresden. He applied his computer skills and knowledge to the then-Communist country’s nuclear power plants. Among his early designs were heating units that provided warmth to urban apartment complexes.
As a bright, earnest 23-year-old writing code for power plants in the early 1970s, he remembers looking out at the bleak scene around the Berlin Wall. “My office window was right on the Wall and I could see everything,” he recalls. “It was oppressive. I wanted to get out of there.”
His parents ran a restaurant in a small East German town, and his dad came from a long line of restaurateurs. Maybe that’s why his idyllic outdoor tasting room, now run by Fridah, is such a wonderful setting for food/wine pairings.
“I fell in love with the vineyards and wines of the Elbe Valley,” he says. “When I got to Oregon I wanted to replicate that.”
“East Germany was not for me,” Boehm laughs now. He admits that, at the time, he was unnerved by East German police and paramilitary personnel always conducting close surveillance on his and other private citizens’ lives.
How he got from East Germany to Eugene in 1975 and became a successful winemaker is, as he says, “an evolution.” He leaves it at that. Boehm does say, though, that he was tempted to come here by a female friend “who happened to live in Eugene.” He followed her here from Europe, became enamored with the area, then proceeded to find a spot that reminded him of his beloved Elbe Valley.
Boehm continues pioneering German varieties that his meticulous research indicates could do well here.
Next up for Boehm? The anticipated release of his 2014 High Pass Pinot Noir Zauberberg around Memorial Day, with grapes that come from his steepest block at High Pass. It’s made from riper fruit than his previous 2010 vintage, and provides a great opportunity to taste a big, full-bodied, fruit-forward pinot noir, the likes of which you may never have tasted before. And look for the release of the 2015 High Pass Scheurebe, this time a dry one, with flavors of black current, different from the sweet 2013.
24757 Lavel Rd., Junction City | 541/998-1447 | highpasswinery.com