From Gold Rush to Grape Crush: The Remarkable Transformation of Valley View Winery in Southern Oregon

By Published On: April 14, 2024

Credit: Valley View Winery

Eight-year-old Mark Wisnovsky wasn’t chasing fireflies in the twilight. He was knee-deep in damp soil, his small hands carefully helping his father plant the first vines on what would become Valley View Winery. His younger brother, Michael, toddled alongside, mirroring Mark’s movements with a small shovel – already captivated by the magic swirling around them.

This wasn’t just planting grapes; it was planting a legacy, a story that would unfold over decades, fueled by passion, perseverance, and some of the finest Pinot Noir Southern Oregon has ever seen.

Back to 1971, when his parents, Frank and Ann Wisnovsky, journeyed from the East Coast to Oregon. The following year, they planted the first commercial vineyard in Southern Oregon since prohibition, marking the genesis of the modern Valley View Winery. By 1976, the Wisnovskys had bonded Valley View Winery, reestablishing commercial winemaking in The Rogue Valley after a long hiatus.

The roots of Valley View Winery, however, reach even deeper, going back to Peter Britt, a Swiss immigrant who arrived during the Southern Oregon Gold Rush of the early 1850s. Britt, finding prospecting laborious, turned his talents to photography, retail, grape growing, and winemaking. In the mid to late 1850s, he established Valley View, believed to be the first winery in the Pacific Northwest. His wines soon found their way to San Francisco, with production reaching up to 6,000 gallons a year, sparking a burgeoning wine industry in Southern Oregon. Yet, with Britt’s death in 1906 and the onset of prohibition, the Oregon wine industry virtually disappeared.

Credit: Valley View Winery

Inspiration for the revival of Valley View Winery came to Frank Wisnovsky during his international travels. While working on a project in Africa, he was inspired by local plantations. His frequent visits to Napa and Sonoma during the 1960s, where he met with pioneering winery owners, further fueled his enthusiasm for grape growing and winemaking. After a bridge job in Maryland, he decided to take a leave of absence, setting the stage for the restoration of the winery in 1972.

Fast forward to today, Valley View Winery has just celebrated its 50th anniversary two years ago, it is one of the original 12 pioneer wineries in Oregon and the fourth oldest still in the same family. Perhaps the most significant recent change was the hiring of winemaker Mike Brunson, a 30-year veteran of Sonoma County, whose expertise has brought transformative changes to the winery.

The Valley View Winery estate spans 77 acres, with 35 acres dedicated to grape cultivation. At an elevation of 1500 to 1700 feet, the vineyard sits in a rain shadow, which not only influences precipitation but also significantly affects the amount of daily sunlight. This unique climate allows for the harvesting of Pinot Noir a week or two later than most places in the Willamette Valley.  The Applegate Valley is known for its large diurnal temperature variation, with high daytime temperatures quickly cooling down at night. This temperature swing allows a wide variety of grapes to fully ripen, contributing to the diverse range of wines.  

The winemaking philosophy is deeply rooted in the belief that each grape variety deserves its chance to shine. This philosophy was brought by the new winemaker, Brunson, who has seen great success in a relatively short period of time. Brunson’s approach is to avoid over-extraction and excessive use of new oak. Instead, each block of every vineyard and every variety is treated separately and individually. The grapes are mostly fermented with indigenous yeast, and the free run goes immediately into once or twice used French oak barrels. Apart from racking, the wine remains untouched until it’s ready for bottling.

Their famous Rogue Red blend has evolved over the past 30 or so years. It has almost always been a non-vintage, non-varietal blend from Southern Oregon. Although there were a few years when it had a little bit of residual sugar, that has not been the case in recent years.   When the 2021 vintage was ready for release, it was clear that the quality was much higher than in previous years. To distinguish these special wines, a new label, Domaine Rogue, was introduced to represent the highest level of wines. These are wines that may not be made every vintage. 

When Brunson first started, a significant amount of time was spent in the vineyard identifying nine distinct Pinot Noir sites. Each site was picked, fermented, and barreled separately, highlighting the unique characteristics of each. The Oshawa vineyard, located about 10 miles from the estate, was recognized as distinctly different and special, and thus, its wine was bottled separately. Two other sites from the estate vineyard were also distinct enough to warrant separate bottlings. As a result, the nine lots were blended into three separate bottlings. Unlike most wineries in the Rogue Valley, which specialize in warmer climate varieties, producing a successful Pinot Noir requires the right site, viticulture techniques, clones, rootstocks, and irrigation management.

Credit: Valley View Winery

The Rogue and Applegate Valleys, with their unique charm and affordability, are emerging as delightful wine tourist destinations. Visitors often draw parallels between these valleys and the early days of Sonoma and Napa, where the owner or winemaker personally introduced the wines. With 40 to 50 different varieties on offer, these valleys provide a diverse and down-to-earth wine experience.  Despite a slowdown in the wine industry and an oversupply of wineries in Oregon, Valley View’s future looks bright. Confidence stems from the belief that their quality wines, offered at affordable price points, will appeal to consumers worldwide. Recent export trips to Europe have validated this belief, with many importers expressing interest and admiration for their new wines.

The wines featured in the Wine Recommendations section were provided by the winery for the purpose of review. The selection and tasting of these wines were independently conducted. No compensation or incentives were provided for inclusion in the story. As always, the top priority is to provide readers with informative reporting.

Wine Recommendations

2021 Tempranillo-  a velvety experience awaits as you delve into this wine. The smooth tannins caress the palate, creating a luxurious sensation. Expect notes of mocha, dark chocolate, and blackberries. These flavors leading to a long-lasting finish

2021 Domaine Rogue Syrah- black pepper, leads the way, followed by raspberry and a touch of blackberry as well as olive to round out this wine.

2021 Domaine Rogue Pinot Noir “Quartz Vein” – the palate is silky and textured, with bright cherry,raspberry, and  cranberry. These fruit notes are balanced by a gentle acidity, providing a refreshing lift, leaving a sense of minerality.

2021 Domaine Rogue Pinot Noir “Oshala”- on the nose, bright red raspberries burst forth, accompanied by mocha and a supple texture.  As the wine graces the palate, it unfurls a long spicy finish, leaving an indelible impression. The firm structure provides a confident backbone, while the crisp acidity adds vibrancy.

2021 Domaine Rogue Chardonnay “Quercia”- vibrant citrus notes with crisp acidity, creating a refreshing sensation. Subtle hints of toasted oak add depth and complexity. This wine showcases a well-structured profile that lingers elegantly.

About the Author: Joe Campbell

Avatar photo
Located out of the Sierra Foothills of California, Joe Campbell provides color commentary as well as insight within the wine industry both from the lifestyle consumer and business segments of the industry. He can be reached via email at : joe@winebulletin.net .