Pedal and sip in the Applegate Valley
Two days in the saddle in Southern Oregon wine country.
By Kim Cooper Findling
The Applegate River winds leisurely through the heart of Southern Oregon wine country — a varied landscape of family farms, thick forests and steep, rocky hills. My husband, Todd, and I pedaled down narrow North Applegate Road early on a dry summer day, a fragrant breeze in the air. We’d set out for our first day of riding, and we were already thirsty.
We’d traded the arid high desert of Bend for an August weekend of cycling and wine tasting along the Applegate Valley Wine Trail, a string of nearly 20 wineries and acres upon acres of vineyards in the Applegate Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area).
In terms of Oregon’s 21 AVAs, the Applegate is lesser known. But in the last decade, it’s been showered with increasingly enthusiastic accolades. In fact, Wine Enthusiast magazine has listed Southern Oregon’s six AVAs among the best in the world. We’d heard word of jeans-and-T-shirt-clad winemakers themselves pouring an astonishingly diverse selection of wines in quiet tasting rooms, and we wanted to taste it for ourselves.
As rookie road cyclist, I had also hoped the sparsely traveled roads, scenery and built-in reward of wine tasting would encourage me along for these miles in the saddle. We’d planned two day trips from the central hub of the tiny town of Applegate, one to the northwest and the other to the east, each a modest but reasonable 12 to 14 miles round-trip.
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden – John Valls
Day One: Northwest Loop
The terrain here is dramatic and steep as it climbs away from the river, and the valley roads can be winding and narrow. But we also found them to be relatively flat. I pedaled behind Todd, getting into a rhythm and finding my stride.
Our first stop was Troon Vineyard‘s Tuscan-style tasting room, the valley’s second-oldest winery, established in 1972. Zinfandel is the specialty wine here, but Troon’s varietals are diverse. This is true of most Applegate wineries — this AVA is known for a Mediterranean climate that supports a wide variety of wine grapes. We ordered a flight that ranged from Sauvignon blanc to Malbec, savoring the array of flavors. The summery Syrah rosé, with its glowing light orange color, pleased my palate. Todd, on the other hand, preferred the light and smooth Sangiovese. We kept our tasting portions to a minimum, planning for the journey ahead.
Hopping back on our bikes, we pedaled northwest to our next stop, Rosella’s Vineyard & Winery, a little winery with an eclectic mom-and-pop feel — Rosella’s is aptly named after the owner’s mother. In the tasting room, decorated in colorful paintings and glassware, we were greeted by Rex Garoutte, who identified himself as “owner, chief cook and bottle washer.” As he poured the robust and oaky 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, he explained that his was the third winery in the valley, with the first vines planted in 1982. Since then the winery count in this AVA has expanded to 19 — welcome growth, in Garoutte’s opinion. “We were at the saturation point with business from the locals,” he says, “but more wineries have brought more visitors to the valley.”
Next door, down a long gravel road we navigated carefully, is Schmidt Family Vineyards. Parking our bikes by a fountain, we wandered onto the grounds strewn with Adirondack chairs, sunflower lawn art, and a large lawn for weddings and events. Inside the grand open-truss building, we sat at the semicircle bar and chose a light lunch from the Italian-inspired dining menu, which included antipasto plates, flatbread pizzas, calzones and salads. While peering through the wall-window at the lush Applegate landscape, I sipped the deliciously floral and off-dry Viognier.
We visited Schmidt’s on-site, succulent-filled greenhouse and budding rose garden before returning to our wheels and pressing on as the sun dipped in the sky. We finished the loop, returning on North Applegate Road, past a historic cemetery and charming farms, south to Applegate.
Day Two: There and Back
In the late morning, we climbed on our bikes and headed east on Highway 238 for a there-and-back ride. Before it was known for wine, the fruitful Applegate Valley was known as an early pioneer settlement. In 1843 Jesse and Lindsay Applegate forged a southern route to the Oregon Territory, and subsequently, many settlers chose to homestead here. The terrain as we cycled east was more open and less rugged than the day before, marked by wide swaths of farmland. I’d become more comfortable with pedaling on the road’s shoulders. I thought about how we were likely traveling about the same poky speed as the settlers did in their covered wagons, an unhurried pace to soak in our surroundings.
We crossed a short bridge over the Applegate River to Red Lily Vineyards and its large barn-style tasting room. The wines here are Spanish-influenced, and Red Lily famously serves their tasting flights in test tubes. We sipped Tempranillo and noshed on a cheese platter at a table on the banks of the Applegate River, vowing to come back on one of the summer evenings that Red Lily hosts live music.
Farther down the valley, we cycled into LongSword Vineyard, a small farm in a wide, flat valley that also serves as a landing point for hang gliders off of nearby Woodrat Mountain. As we parked our bikes, we were treated to the sight of a colorful glider floating in to a gentle stop right next to LongSword’s bright blue building. A nearby chicken coop released a friendly free-range rooster that followed me to the bright yellow doors. The tiny winery may only make 1,000 cases of wine a year, but they are remarkably precious wines. The owner’s niece, who runs the tasting room, told me that LongSword aims to turn out wines that are “unique but approachable.” I loved the crisp, zippy, sparkling Chardonnay. The sparkling rosé was also surprising and yummy, a Viognier/Pinot blend with a spicy, fruity touch.
We pedaled just a short distance farther to visit another winery, but it was closed. Word to the wise: Many family-operated tasting rooms have limited hours, and even the hours posted on their websites aren’t always accurate, so call ahead to ensure the winery will be open when you arrive. Thankfully, scenic detours abound — we continued on to get a glimpse of the tiny historic town of Ruch, home to around 850 people and known for its pretty little school, which celebrated its 100th anniversary a few years ago.
As we retraced our earlier route west toward the town of Applegate, I thought of the evolution of this little valley from pioneer homesteads to world-class vineyards, and how that unpretentious, roll-up-your-sleeves spirit lives on. I knew I’d feel previously unknown leg muscles the next day, but I couldn’t think of a better way of touring this rustic wine region — at the peaceful pace of a bicycle tour.
Plan a Tour
Road Cycling: It’s best to possess a moderate level of skill and confidence on a road bike for riding in the Applegate Valley. The roads here are narrow without much of a shoulder. Thankfully, you will likely experience light traffic. Most of the route is flat, but there are some slight hills to navigate. Some of the wineries are accessed by gravel roads, which can be a challenge for a road biker’s skinny tires. All of the main roads are paved. Find maps and more about local wineries at ApplegateWineTrail.com.
Ride Responsibly: As with any other road vehicle, riding a bicycle under the influence of alcohol isn’t just dangerous — it’s illegal. To safely (and legally) enjoy your cycling-wine tasting tour, be sure to pace yourself, dump leftover wine in the spittoon (the bar bucket) and stop to eat mid-ride. Have more questions about Oregon’s cycling laws? Check out the official bicyclist’s manual.
Bike Rentals: Rent a road bike and get some local touring info in Jacksonville at Cycle Analysis or Open Road Bicycles. Ashland has several bike shops too, including Bear Creek Bicycle and Ashland Mountain Adventures.
Lodging: Applegate Valley itself offers very limited lodging options. More options are available in Grants Pass, Jacksonville, Medford and Ashland. Each of these communities offers a range of options from hotels to bed and breakfasts to boutique inns. You’ll find excellent dining and outdoor-adventure options in these towns too.
Tasting Room Hours: Because they are quite small, most of the wineries in the Applegate Valley offer limited tasting hours, especially in the cooler months.