By Paul Omundson

Oregon teems with winemakers who are transplants from success in other careers. But Stephen Reustle’s story is especially fascinating. Who knew the creator and owner of Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards, a 200-acre estate in the Umpqua Valley with 40 acres devoted to vineyards, could shift career gears so dramatically?

It’s a welcome transformation for Stephen, a former white-collar marketer.

He graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University and created a company that helped propel clients such as Franklin Mint and Columbia House to become some of the biggest names in direct-to-consumer sales.

From the east side of his mini-valley near Roseburg, where his home and winery/tasting “cave” are located, Stephen can point out every block and lot of grapes on the far hillside where the vineyards are. He tells visitors about the nuances of each, and why they’re planted in precisely the areas they are in. Each clone and rootstock has been carefully selected to match the soil, elevation, and microclimate.

Stephens’s own intuitiveness comes into play, too. For example, the textbook formula calls for syrah grapes to be planted in warmer climates. “But if you plant them in a cooler area,” he says, “their character comes out more pronounced.”

That’s an example of the ingenuity behind all the prestigious national and international awards hanging in the hallway between the winery and tasting room grottos at his home. He’s also the first winemaker to introduce grüner veltliner to the United States, and the obscure European white wine varietal is fast gaining a toehold in Oregon, Washington, and California.

So, how does such a dramatic career change like this happen?

Stephen credits an elderly neighbor and friend, Dr. John Preece, for his introduction to the wine world. “He was my stand-in father after my dad died,” Stephen fondly recalls. The prominent retired physician had an intense passion for wine, and he told Stephen that if he wanted to make a good impression on marketing clients he ought to understand and serve world-class wine to them.

“So I did,” Stephen recalls with a wide smile.

But it was his love of motorcycle touring that eventually led Stephen to become a pioneer in producing Oregon wine.

In the 1990s, he enjoyed bike trips through Europe. While traveling the Alps on one of those excursions, he stopped at a restaurant in Austria. He asked for a bottle of the restaurant’s most expensive wine. It turned out to be grüner veltliner, an acidic, fruity, food-friendly white wine indigenous to the area but unknown to the visiting American biker.

“I had never heard of the stuff,” Stephen remembers. “I was a little perplexed because by that time I thought I knew just about every wine in the world.” But he was impressed.

After he sold his company, Stephen researched and learned everything he could about the wine. In 1997, he took a few years off to start morphing into a wine grower/maker. He bought the Umpqua property, a small valley that reminds him of the Burgundy countryside, in 2001 to start his current venture from scratch.

Today, his original half-acre of grüner veltliner (first vintage, 2005) has expanded to four acres, and that’s just one of 14 varietals he grows.

If you get the chance, try his 2015 Grüner Veltliner Dolium. Its name references ancient Roman wine vessels called “dolia.” Stephen produces his grüner veltliner in a large, egg-like concrete structure similar in shape and material to the dolia used 2,000 years ago. While other wines age in oak or stainless steel containers, this grüner veltliner is fermented and aged completely in cement receptacles, “resulting in a wine with a mineral character and bright, clean acidity,” he says.

More than a vineyard

Stephen and his wife, Gloria, have created a visual feast of delights for visitors. It’s well worth the pleasant hour-long drive from Eugene to explore the grounds and enjoy the wines.

The property’s main pond is rimmed with dock houses, where guests can drink in the idyllic scenery and enjoy royal mute swans swimming by. There’s a cozy amphitheater that has seen the likes of Natalie Grant and Brandon Heath, a charming courtyard, an observation deck, and delightful gardens.

But the real reason for coming here?

The cave. Hollowed into the side of a hill, the cave welcomes you in through medieval-looking doors. Cautiously walk down a hall flanked on each side by oak barrels, with biblical art on the floor, walls, and ceiling. Three adjacent “catacombs” are where you’ll enjoy your sips. It’s a fantastic experience, and underscores a quote from Ecclesiastes 9:7 that’s on every cork of Reustle Prayer Rock Vineyards bottles: “Drink your wine with a happy heart.”

960 Cal Henry Rd., Roseburg