As recently as two decades ago, Carlton, Ore., was not much more than a tiny dot on a map, an afterthought, a small town in Yamhill County that was a quaint slice of Americana because of its remote location. An hour from Portland, it was a cultural backwater, a dying town with shuttered storefronts that was known as "the S-curve to nowhere."
Today -- thanks to wine -- Carlton is a lively destination with tasting rooms, restaurants, B&Bs and a diversity of businesses. In a short period of time, it has transformed itself into the Wine Capital of Oregon.
Kathie Oriet, mayor of Carlton since 2002, has watched the transformation since she arrived in the 1970s.
"Back then, it was a wonderful place to raise kids, a safe place," she said.
But its future seemed in doubt.
"There were a lot of empty storefronts."
Carlton has been an incorporated city for more than a century. It's been a logging community and has a long history in agriculture, particularly seed crops, berries, corn and wheat. And as the wine industry began to develop around it in the '70s, '80s and '90s, Carlton was mostly untouched, even as vineyards were planted in the surrounding hills.
Then, Ken Wright came to town.
Wright, arguably Oregon's most celebrated winemaker, came to prominence when he moved to Oregon from California in 1986 and launched Panther Creek Cellars in McMinnville. Almost instantly, Wright began selling out his wines on futures. Had he not taken on an investor and gotten into a legal battle that ultimately forced him to sell Panther Creek in 1994, he might never have moved to Carlton.
Just before harvest in '94, Wright was without a place to make wine. He heard about a leather glove factory in Carlton that was going out of business, so he took over the building on Main Street and launched Ken Wright Cellars.
"What attracted us to Carlton was it was far enough away from Highway 99W to provide a slower pace of life," he said. "It felt far more rural than Dundee or McMinnville. It hadn't been spoiled by franchises, which has happened to so many communities."
About the same time, Jay McDonald arrived from New York City. He had visited in 1991 and was looking for a lifestyle change.
"I'd had enough of New York," he said.
He'd long enjoyed wine as a hobby and was enraptured with the small towns of the northern Willamette Valley. He spent three weeks in late 1994, looking around Yamhill County before settling in Carlton.
"Everyone in the wine industry said, 'You're making a big mistake -- you need to be on 99,' " he said. "But 99 is a potty stop on the way to the coast or the casino. This is a destination."
McDonald bought the old bank building on Main Street and opened The Tasting Room in 1995, a wine shop that focused on such hard-to-find Oregon classics as Ken Wright Cellars, Domaine Drouhin Oregon and Bergstroem. In 1998, he created his own label, called EIEIO.
"I got really drunk, and a bunch of us were having a good time," he said with a laugh.
They thought naming it after McDonald -- or at least the "old MacDonald" nursery rhyme -- was funny. And when they sobered up the next morning, it still sounded like a good idea.
EIEIO started as a negociant label, with McDonald purchasing wine from various producers and blending it. By 2002, he was ready to start making his own wine and secured grapes from many top vineyards in the northern Willamette Valley.
For the first few years, The Tasting Room and Ken Wright Cellars were the only wine businesses in town, and visitors happening through couldn't count on a meal that amounted to much more than a bag of chips at the small grocery store. But then something happened to Carlton, not unlike what has occurred in Walla Walla, where early wineries such as Leonetti, Woodward Canyon and L'Ecole drew others like a magnet.
In 1995, Dave Grooters sold his software company in Pennsylvania to come to Oregon wine country, nudged by longtime Army buddy Nick Peirano -- owner of famed Nick's Italian Cafe in McMinnville.
"He introduced me to the winemakers and their great Pinot Noir," Grooters said.
He started as a volunteer at Ken Wright Cellars, then managed Canary Hill Vineyard for two years. He continued to work for Wright and created his own small label with the 2001 vintage. In 2003, he planted a vineyard, and in 2007, he struck out on his own, opening Carlton Cellars in an old warehouse not far from Wright's place in Carlton. For three years, Raptor Ridge Winery shared his facility, and today he rents space to J Albin, Barking Frog, Ghost Hill, Youngberg Hill and Angel Vine, all small producers.
Not far away on the edge of town, Gino Cuneo, who had been making wine elsewhere in Yamhill County, built a beautiful, Tuscan-themed winery. Now under different ownership, it's called Cana's Feast Winery. Next door, winemaker Eric Hamacher opened Carlton Winemakers Studio in 2002, now home Studio, which includes Andrew Rich Vintner, Trout Lily Ranch and Lazy River Vineyard.
Not long after, fine dining came to Carlton in the form of Cuvee. Owned by Frenchman Gilbert Henry, Cuvee's haute cuisine was an anomaly on Main Street when it opened more than a half-decade ago. But it, too, drew others, and now such restaurants as The Horse Radish, Cielo Blu and The Filling Station share Main Street with Cuvee, each offering a different niche.
In 2005, the Yamhill-Carlton American Viticulture Area was approved by the federal government. It was named for the two towns in the region, though ironically, the appellation is a horseshoe shape that surrounds but does not include Carlton or Yamhill. It is based on elevation, and the cities are below 300 feet. But it helped continue to establish Carlton as a wine destination.
Soon, more wineries were flooding in, wanting to take advantage of the critical mass that was forming in the town of 2,000. Even wineries from Southern Oregon began opening tasting rooms, including Troon Vineyards, Cliff Creek Cellars and Folin Cellars.
"It was a mystery to me why they were opening up their tasting rooms on Main Street in Carlton when they're making their wine in the Umpqua and Rogue," Grooters said. "But they like it here, and it's added another dimension of wines that people can come and get, so it's not just Pinot."
Barking Frog and Angel Vine add an even more interesting dimension, as most of their grapes come from vineyards in Washington. Angel Vine focuses on Zinfandel, while Barking Frog produces Sangiovese, Syrah and Cabernet Franc (as well as Oregon Pinot Noir).
In all, about two dozen tasting rooms now inhabit Carlton. It certainly isn't at Woodinville levels -- the Seattle suburb now boasts about 80 wineries and tasting rooms -- and that's just fine with everyone in town.
"We've tried to be a benefit to Carlton in general," Grooters said. "Not just for the tourist trade, but all the way around the city. For the most part, the town likes the presence of the wineries. We're really careful about the alcohol and the drinking and all those negative sides of it. We try and keep very clean in terms of our operations at the winery and in the vineyards. So we've been good neighbors."
Nearly everybody points to Wright as the genesis of Carlton's rebirth, and not just because of his star power. Several years ago, he and his wife, Karen, purchased several buildings in downtown Carlton. They've sold a couple, and they own others with business partners.
This has given the Wrights the ability to control growth and recruit the kinds of businesses that will attract quality tourism. They don't want every storefront to be a winery, so they have brought in such businesses as Honest Chocolates, Republic of Jam and Karen Brock Studio.
"It's important," Wright said. "For people to want to come to Carlton and stay and hang out, it needs diversity. It's important to have businesses compatible with the wine industry. We are new partners in the community with wagon train families and many others who have given back and built our community over many years."
"It's a great little town," Mayor Oriet said. "It's our slogan, and it fits us well. Now, we have basically no empty storefronts. It truly has blossomed. It's really evolved quite a bit in the past 20 years, and tourism is mostly focused on wine."
Carlton is a destination -- you don't just happen upon the town. Ample parking makes it easy to go from winery to winery. And the slower, happier pace of life is enticing to travelers and locals alike.
Thanks to the wine industry, Carlton has come back from the brink and now thrives as the Wine Capital of Oregon.
Andy Perdue is editor-in-chief of Wine Press Northwest.
This story was originally published September 15, 2011 5:54 PM.