Eola Hills adds to vineyards

Eola Hills Wine Cellars' continual quest for more and more grapes recently led the Rickreall-based business to acquire a 162-acre parcel of land off Oak Grove Road.

POLK COUNTY -- Eola Hills Wine Cellars' continual quest for more and more grapes recently led the Rickreall-based business to acquire a 162-acre parcel of land off Oak Grove Road.

"We've been blessed," said Jim Huggins, Eola Hills director of vineyard operations. "Our business has been strong the last few years. We weren't able to acquire enough fruit to meet our predictions. We've found it's a lot less expensive to produce our own grapes as opposed to being held hostage by the market. Prices are really high for fruit right now. We're hoping to control costs for our fruit.

"We were also looking for an ideal spot as a future home for a new winery as well. We think we've found that piece."

The new property, christened the Legacy Vineyard, is located near the Restlawn Funeral Home, just down the road from the first parcel planted by company founder Tom Huggins (Jim's brother) in 1982.

Eola Hills now owns, manages or leases 14 different sites for a total of about 450 acres.

Even with all those sites and acres, Eola Hills still can't grow enough of its own grapes to meet its demands.

It imports grapes from other parts of Oregon and California. Some of that is to meet needs and some of it is to obtain grapes that aren't commonly grown in the Willamette Valley.

Eola's new property basically is located on the side of a hill, with the elevation ranging from 350 to 750 feet.

Previously, it was owned by a lumber company. Step one toward turning the acreage into a vineyard is cleaning up some 400 left-behind slash piles of old stumps, branches and other timber-harvest debris.

After that, the plan is to plant 80 to 90 acres in grapes. About 80 percent of that total will be devoted to pinot noir grapes, by far the most popular in the Willamette Valley. Pinot noir grapes are the same used in the Burgundy region of France.

The rest of the plantings will be riesling and pinot gris.

"There's quite a change in elevation, and there are some soil profiles we like," Jim Huggins said. "We feel like we can grow some really good fruit there. It's very well suited for high-end grape production. With the direction of the slope, the property has every orientation you could want. We feel like we could plant five or six different blocks, and they'll all be different because of soil differences and exposure differences."

The addition is a significant undertaking for Eola Hills, which is among the top-10 largest of Oregon's 350 or so wineries. The grapes will start to go in the ground in September or October. Roughly 1,300 plants -- costing $3 apiece -- will be planted per acre. The planting process could take up to a year.

After that, depending on weather and other factors, it will be four or five years before the plants produce a usable crop. The good news is that properly cared for plants will last for decades -- as long as 70 or 80 years.

The cost to develop property for wine production is roughly $25,000 to $30,000 per acre. That does not include the cost of the land itself.

"It's quite an investment," Huggins said.

In four or five years, perhaps once Legacy produces its first crop, Eola might look at building a new winery there. Huggins said any new facility would be an addition to the current winery in Rickreall.

A combination of solar- and hydro-power could be used to provide energy for the new winery. The long-range vision also includes one or more ponds for irrigation and recreation and nature trails.

"That's the long-term dream," Huggins said. "But the first thing we need to do is plant and propagate fruit from the property."


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