Exploring Southern Oregon: Visiting Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Meadow Estate Vineyard & Winery, and Paul O’Brien Winery

Say hello to my new big friend -- the playfully decorated concrete fermenter at Reustle Winery.
Say hello to my new big friend — the playfully decorated concrete fermenter at Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards.

Umpqua Valley, OR — Wine-growing here dates back to the 1880s, when German immigrants who once worked for St. Helena’s Beringer Vineyards (the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa), planted the first wine grapes in this valley.

More than 30 wineries now make their home here, producing more than 40 varieties of wine.

On a recent trip to Oregon, I had a chance to visit three of them, courtesy of Travel Oregon.

Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards

Few wineries in Oregon boast their own wine cave. Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards in Roseburg does, and boy, is it a sight to see.

The wine cave built on the side of a hill, one of the few such winery caves in Oregon.
The wine cave built on the side of a hill, one of the few such winery caves in Oregon.
Part of the cave's ceiling.
Part of the cave’s ceiling.

Stephen and Gloria Reustle, husband-and-wife owners, added theirs in 2008. It was built by the same man who made the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland, which gives a hint to its Old World-style taken up a big fanciful notch.

Inside this cave are ornate crystal chandeliers, formidable walls that look like stone but are actually carved concrete, and even a ceiling fresco that looks like it straight from the Sistine Chapel only this was air-brushed. And don’t miss the concrete wine tank in the corner painted to look like Humpty Dumpty’s cousin.

Stephen Reustle had a successful career as a CPA, then started his own marketing firm on the East Coast. When he sold that company at age 46, he decided to start a new chapter as a farmer. Today, at age 69, this jack of all trades is not only the winery’s winemaker, but its vineyard manager, too.

Avocado toast.
Avocado toast.
Steak with crispy yucca.
Steak with crispy yucca.
Flourless chocolate cake.
Flourless chocolate cake.

As we enjoyed a lunch of avocado-goat cheese toast, beef tenderloin with crispy yucca, and flourless chocolate cake, on the patio overlooking his 200 acres with goats, sheep, alpacas, and Scottish Highland cattle, he explained how his became the first winery in this country to grow Gruner Veltliner.

Growing up working on apple and peach farms, he always enjoyed working the land. While he first considered growing wine grapes in the Anderson Valley in Northern California, he was attracted to the Umpqua Valley for its nascent wine industry. When he moved here in 2001, there were only seven wineries.

A longtime motorcycle aficionado, Reustle was riding through the Alps in the 1990s, when he stopped at a restaurant where he tasted Gruner Veltliner for the first time, and promptly fell for the iconic Austrian white grape.

He was thrilled to discover that thanks to the Umpqua River’s cooling effect, the grape could be grown here. Today, 40 acres of the property are planted with 14 varietals, including Gruner. The winery produces 8,000 cases of wine annually, almost all of it sold only at the winery or through its wine club.

The sparkling Gruner.
The sparkling Gruner.

There are 15 full-time employees, including he and his wife. When harvest rolls around, he does something unique: He asks church groups and charities to send volunteer teams to pick the grapes, and he pays them the prevailing wage that he would a laborer that is then donated to their organizations. When the grapes come in each day, the volunteers are rewarded with a gourmet lunch with wines. So far, those efforts have raised more than $250,000 for various local groups. They also get bragging rights when those vintages are released, knowing they helped picked the grapes that went into those bottles.

And what wines they are. A large glass cabinet in the cave showcases the awards the wines have won. Its 2021 Gruner Veltliner Green Lizard even won “Best White Wine” at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. It’s juicy with pear, lemon, orange, and lime and loads of minerality.

Award-winning wines.
Award-winning wines.

Its smooth, French-style 2021 Syrah is known internationally, and also won a gold at the Chronicle competition.

Its 2022 Matrix, an easy-drinking blend of Chardonnay, Semillon, Roussanne, Muscat, Viognier, and Riesling is modeled after the ever-popular Conundrum, which uses the same varietals for its blend created by the Wagner family of Caymus Vineyards.

Reustle also is one of the few U.S. wineries to make a sparkling Gruner. The Addie’s Sparkles is made in the traditional champagne method and is aged on lees for a year to create a fruity and zippy yet rounded bubbly with an undercurrent of minerality throughout.

Stephen Reustle says his happy place is atop his tractor in the vineyards — and it sure shows in his wines.

Meadows Estate Vineyard & Winery

Dexter Meadows readily admits that he and his wife Marilyn never intended to own a winery or to sell wine. Indeed, he used to imbibe all of three glasses a wine a year.

But the couple are doing just that with Meadow Estate Vineyard & Winery in Oakland, OR, joining the fewer than 1 percent of U.S. wineries that are Black-owned, according to a recent CNN story.

When the Georgia commercial real estate industry that they were in crashed in 2019, they decided to head west. Dexter Meadows grew up on a farm in Alabama and was itching to get back to that way of life.

An old barn on the property that may one day become a gift shop and events space.
An old barn on the property that may one day become a gift shop and events space.

He found the perfect place on this 100-acre spread on what was long ago a winter base camp for Native Americans, then a stage coach stop between Portland and San Francisco. The Cramer family purchased it originally in 1996 and started planting vines. But when they were ready to retire, they put it up for sale.

“This place has two houses on it. One was a rental, the other an Airbnb. None of that was appealing,” Dexter Meadows says in half-jest. “Growing grapes, making wine — that wasn’t appealing, either. All of this was an accident.”

But it has since grown on them as they oversee the the production of 1,000 cases a year of Rhone and Bordeaux-style wines that are sold primarily at the winery.

Although still in commercial real estate in Southern California, Dexter Meadows says his wife is at her most joyful talking to visitors in the tasting room. And Dexter found he actually enjoyed the challenge of learning a new business.

There are 17 acres planted with Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, and Merlot. In the future, they may plant Riesling, as its his wife’s favorite.

The tasting room.
The tasting room.
Meadows Estate wines.
Meadows Estate wines

The 2016 Pinot Noir took home a silver in the 2022 Los Angeles Invitational Wine & Spirits Challenge. It has more weight than many Oregon Pinots, and is redolent of black cherries, currants, and a touch of coffee.

The 2021 Bella Vin, a blend of Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer and Viognier, is incredibly aromatic with hints of white flowers, apricots, and a touch of sweetness. This is the wine you want with spicy Thai food or zesty summer barbecued pork.

Their life here may have been by fluke. But they relish it now. “The wine community in this valley has offered help in every way,” Dexter Meadows says. “We all help each other out. It’s been phenomenal.”

Paul O’Brien Winery

Don’t make the mistake of asking for Paul O’Brien at the Paul O’Brien Winery in downtown Roseburg. Because there isn’t one.

On the wall at Paul O'Brien's tasting room.
On the wall at Paul O’Brien’s tasting room.

Instead, the name is an amalgamation of its two winemaker owners and friends, Dyson Paul DeMara and Scott O’Brien Kelly, who met while working at Robert Mondavi Winery in the Napa Valley. Kelly was the director of wine-making there. DeMara once owned a winery in the Napa Valley, too, and now also is the owner and winemaker at Hillcrest Vineyard, Oregon’s oldest estate winery.

Kelly used to fly-fish in this region, so when the circa 1939 Hansen Chevrolet building came available, he and DeMara jumped at the opportunity, becoming the Umpqua Valley’s first urban winery. They kept the original floors, as well as a ceiling fan dating to the 1960s, in the soaring space.

Today, they produce as much as 8,000 cases annually, made with both estate-grown and purchased grapes.

The current rose release is the darkest hued the winery has ever made.
The current rose release is the darkest hued the winery has ever made.

At the tasting bar, they do something unusual: They have visitors taste the red wines first, before ending with whites and roses, the reverse of every other tasting I’ve ever done that traditionally starts with the lightest wines and proceeds to the weightier ones. The reasoning is that after tasting reds, your mouth is coated in heavy tannins, so why not refresh the palate with acidic, more refreshing wines at the end? Once you try it, you get how it makes great sense.

The 2021 Paul O'Brien Pinot Noir.
The 2021 Paul O’Brien Pinot Noir.

Start with the 2017 Cask 11 Tempranillo, rich tasting wine full of blackberry and bramble notes, then proceed to the 2016 Il Rinnegati, an homage to Super Tuscans with its blend of 65 percent Sangiovese, 31 percent Merlot and 4 percent Syrah. It’s big yet elegant with an almost soy sauce-like umami backbone.

Savor the 2022 Rosato that’s 100 percent Sangiovese. Crushed then allowed long skin contact, this is the darkest rose the winery has ever made. With an almost light cranberry color, this juicy wine is alive with strawberries and bright acidity. It’s a sip you’ll want to enjoy all summer-long — and beyond.

More: Exploring Southern Oregon: The Steamboat Inn

And: Exploring Southern Oregon: Long Walk Vineyard

And: Exploring Southern Oregon: Fine-Dining at Mas

And: Exploring Southern Oregon: Alchemy Restaurant and The Winchester Inn

And: Oregon’s Abbey Road Farm

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