In 1999, oceanographer Terry Sullivan and botanist Molly Morison purchased land from the historic Bagley pear orchard in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley AVA. Always called the Upper Five by the previous owners, they kept the name, pulled out the orchard, prepared the land and planted vines. They have farmed their just under four acres of vineyards organically from the beginning and were the first in southern Oregon to be certified organic in 2005.
With science backgrounds, the two originally wanted to just grow and sell grapes. One year however, their main buyer didn’t want the grapes. Taking a step back, Sullivan and his co-owner decided to start making wine from their own grapes. They farm Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Syrah and Grenache and now have an annual production of about 500 cases across a combination of four varietal wines and one blend.
On a semi-rainy April day, we wound our way to the Upper Five patio courtesy of our Ashland-based friends picking up their wine club allotment. Once there, we immediately dove in to learn more about this small vigneron (wine grower).
Sullivan has a minimal approach to farming based on biodynamic principles and makes biodynamic teas for use on the grapevines as needed. When asked why biodynamics, he shared wanting to be more proactive. He explained organic is about doing no harm and biodynamic is about actually trying to do some good. Organic doesn’t require you to do anything positive, it just tells you what not to do. They became biodynamic certified in 2018.
In the vineyard, mildew and red blotch are a sometimes problem. A bigger concern is leaf roll spread by mealy bugs. Being proactive, Sullivan reached out to California colleagues who shared they use the Lady Bird Beetle (a type of ladybug) known as a mealy bug killer to combat the pests. Although Upper Five didn’t have this pest, he proactively released Lady Birds a few times. Mealy bugs are all around them yet Upper Five does not have problems. Apparently the Lady Bird Beetles are happy to stick around.
The soil at Upper Five is siltstone-based with a clay loam texture. They generally don’t till and plants cover crops every three or so years. They actively make their compost incorporating manure from a local organic dairy plant. The higher organic matter content of the soil means it retains more water, a positive attribute these days!
As far as water, they have low rainfall (average annual is about 18.4 inches), but they’re able to mostly dry farm and irrigate by drip only in extreme conditions.
Finishing our farming discussion, I asked about the 2022 vintage, knowing it started cold and wet and ended up dry.
“2022 was the fourth-latest bud break in 20 years. The crazy thing was virtually all buds broke in one day when the temperature reached 94 F (34 C). Then the frost came. Our crop was down by about half, we usually thin a great deal so it wasn’t devastating”.Terry Sullivan, Upper Five Vineyard
Sullivan planted Grenache a few years after his other grapes. It is usually the first to bud out and the last grape picked. He does a lot of crop and shoot thinning – loosing up to half of the clusters – or it’s done by nature later in the season. For Sullivan, with Grenache, it’s an all visual process. He thinks science can sometimes become irrelevant after doing something for years and just knowing.
Their 2021 Grenache was the second vintage aged in amphora. Why the switch? He shared, “They have one tenth the porosity of a barrel and you never have to top off. The wine doesn’t oxidize and tends to have a more mineral slant. Amphorae retains Grenache freshness… makes grenache what it is, mainly about the fruit”.
The 2021 Grenache pours a beautiful medium-ruby red color, and the aromas and flavors? As Sullivan said, it’s all about the fruit and freshness: strawberry, cranberry and dark cherry with a brush of rose. Flavors of strawberry, red plum and dried culinary herbs float on a vein of bright yet soft acidity while maintaining a body of volume and weight. Fine tannins and a touch of white pepper carry the wine on after you swallow. Sassy with an elegant side. SRP: $28
Sullivan feels less is more, striving to achieve the honest expression of the fruit.
”All of our wines are fermented with native yeast and allowed to show the character of the vintage, site, and intention of the winegrower. Red wines see minimal, if any, ‘new’ oak barrels but do spend time in ‘neutral’ oak to allow the wines to soften and mature. We added clay amphora aged wines to further allow the site and fruit be expressed in the wines… we want the wine to be about the fruit, not about the ‘toast’ or ‘forest’, it’s about the land, good or bad. We strive for balanced and food-friendly wines, varietally correct and precise, but not overpowering no matter the grape. One of our core beliefs is that food and wine belong together.”Terry Sullivan, Upper Five website
Upper Five wines are made by John Grochau at his Willamette Valley winery in Amity, Oregon.
My description of the Syrah: I’m sitting at a campfire surrounded by pine trees with friends grilling vegetables and burgers for dinner. The black cherry and plum tart I made infused with bay leaf and black pepper is sitting half covered on the edge of the grill to slowly warm. A breeze comes through, wafting its sweet fruit and herb smell in our direction. Wow! And another breeze from my other side reminding me we rode horses there because of the smell of leather from the saddles. I take an eating break thinking I’m happy I squeezed lemon on the vegetables as the acidity lifts all the flavors and carries a savoriness through to a slight pine resin lingering finish. Or is that finish because my hand picked up some from the tree I’m sitting on?!? A superb sip! SRP: $28
Vinification: 40% whole cluster fermentation for added structure (Sullivan doesn’t like flabby wines!). From 14 to 18 months aging in larger format (500 liter) lightly used oak barrels.
Earth, leather and tobacco wrapped around a core of red and dark cherries and plums. That savory aspect and herbal notes on the palate meld seamlessly with a bright, orange peel-like acidity and dusty tannins. This aromatic flavor profile made me crave lamb and/or roasted veggies. Delectable example of Tempranillo! SRP: $28 (Find my Lamb Keftedes recipe here.)
(See description under ‘Growing Grenache’ above).
For amber wine (aka orange wine) lovers or anyone curious, Sullivan has one in his back pocket. Called “Hipster Doufus”, with this wine the grapes/skins macerate for two weeks, followed by fermentation on the skins. It hangs out in amphorae for a bit before bottling.
For anyone interested in visiting, Upper Five Vineyard is located outside of Talent, Oregon, about 15 minutes from Ashland and 20 minutes from Medford. For more information about the Rogue and Applegate Valley AVAs, click here.