Software consultant turned wine grower Jim McGavin smiles broadly as he escorts a visitor on an impressive 360-degree stroll around the latest gem at his Walnut Ridge Vineyard, a charming year-old tasting room up on a little knoll, patterned after an actual 1760s New Orleans saloon. The saloon is an old French Colonial–style structure that he and his wife, Wendy Golish, stumbled upon during a visit to New Orleans, their favorite city away from Oregon.
“We wanted it to have a lot of character and style,” Jim says of the tasting room as he points out an oil painting of the original building prominently displayed inside.
The steep pitched roof, dormers, reclaimed timber, gas lamps, and a wonderful wood-burning fireplace inside the tasting room all make for a great setting.
Outdoors, the surrounding view is glorious and bold. The tasting room is encompassed by views of Walnut Ridge Vineyard and the coastal foothills and forests beyond.
“It’s such an amazing experience to drink wine where the grapes are grown, and something we really want to share,” Jim says with passion.
Their 80-acre site had an existing vineyard when they bought the property in 2000. The two budding growers more than tripled the vineyard’s acreage and reconfigured it to wine grapes that thrive well in the southern Willamette Valley’s cool, unpredictable weather.
Today, Walnut Ridge grows pinot noir, pinot gris, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and gamay fruit that is prized by Oregon winemakers. New plantings of pinot blanc and riesling will be in production in 2018.
During a four-year search for an ideal rural home, Wendy took her husband to a bed and breakfast in McMinnville for his birthday, and he found a book about growing wine grapes in Oregon. “Hey, I can do this,” Jim remembers thinking. The B&B owner lent him the book, and McGavin proceeded to evolve from white-collar businessman to dirt-on-boots grape grower.
As so often happens, locals helped out. In this case it was Dieter Boehm, owner of High Pass Winery, ,and Chris Shown from Brigadoon Wine Company, who helped plant Walnut Ridge’s acclaimed Emma Block.
Walnut Ridge Vineyard is one of a coalition of six vineyards in the area that make up the Prairie Mountain Wineries group (prairiemountainwineries.com).
The other five are Brigadoon, High Pass, Pfeiffer Vineyards, Bennett Vineyards & Wine Company, and Benton-Lane Winery. All are owned by families who live on the grounds, grow their own grapes, make their own wine, and have tasting rooms.
At Walnut Ridge, Jim and Wendy have their own special ace in the hole.
That ace is winemaker Jerry Sass (Sass Winery, Salem). Jim has become a respected grower (this year’s sole recipient of the LIVE Award for Excellence in Sustainability), and also continues on as one of Oregon’s most respected winemakers. The two families got acquainted when Sass first started buying grapes from McGavin. Then, in 2010, Jim and Wendy became partners with Jerry and his wife, Susan, in their Sass Winery.
Today, their close partnership and friendship results in an array of Sass wines, with the label prominently mentioning Walnut Ridge as source vineyard.
The two epitomize how a grower and a winemaker can work closely together, as both friends and individual artists, and combine their respective strengths to produce highly acclaimed wine. With perseverance and luck you might get to try their gamay noir before it quickly sells out. But their array of pinot noir wines is just as appealing, as are their chardonnay, pinot gris, pinot blanc, sauvignon blanc, and riesling.
The key? Jim and Jerry walk the vineyard and dialogue. “We come together early in the process each year,” Sass explains. “We don’t wait until pre-harvest. I look at the numbers in the lab to some point,” he adds, “but the key for Jim and me is being out there in the vineyards. There’s so much you can learn marching up and down the rows.”
Now is a great time to experience their rather awesome collaboration, available to you every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday at the delightful French Colonial tasting room. Plan on a 30-minute drive from Eugene to Walnut Ridge.
Walnut Ridge | 94739 Turnbow Lane, Junction City | 541/998-2606 | walnutridgevineyard.com