It was a triple at the 20th Platinum Judging for young Trella Vineyards, but considering who makes the wine for Umpqua Valley growers/doctors Stephen and Susan Williams, those three Platinum awards didn’t come as a surprise.
And while Terry Brandborg crafted those wines, which came into last fall’s competition riding a long trail of gold medals, the farming done by the Williams family along the base of the Callahan Mountains near Roseburg, Ore., shows foresight and skill with Tempranillo and Grüner Veltliner.
“If Terry decides at any point to retire, we’ll figure out some way for him to make our wines on the side,” Stephen said. “We think he’s a genius, and he’s really done fabulous work for us.”
The combination of Williams family grapes and Brandborg’s winemaking led Wine Press Northwest to select Trella Vineyards as the 2020 Oregon Winery to Watch. They teamed up for Platinums with a 2016 Tempranillo, 2016 Grüner Veltliner and 2016 Gewürztraminer, but it’s been a story in the making since 2007 when the Williamses arrived in Southern Oregon to practice medicine.
Stephen is an oncologist and hematologist from the University of Texas-San Antonio who completed residency at Johns Hopkins with a fellowship at Georgetown. Susan, an orthopedic surgeon and spine surgeon, graduated from Stanford, earned her doctorate at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and went on to George Washington University.
“Best-case scenario is that when you meet us it is in the tasting room,” Stephen quipped. “And Susan is clearly the brains of the operation. She has two degrees from Stanford and is a very talented surgeon.”
Soon after her fellowship at Sinai Hospital in Baltimore, they set their sights on Oregon as the place to raise their family. They purchased 80 acres on the other side of the hill from historic HillCrest Vineyard, close enough to town that the commute to their separate practices is about 10 minutes.
“We started off the search in the Portland area, but a recruiter suggested we look here,” Susan said. “It is just so beautiful when you drive into Roseburg the way it is nestled in the mountains.”
Neither of them grew up in wine country — Stephen is from North Texas and Susan grew up in New Jersey — but they soon found themselves visiting tasting rooms throughout the Umpqua Valley.
“We would pass all these vineyards on our way to work and started getting interested,” Stephen said. “We went to them all and made friends. We have 500 bottles in our cellar, and they are all from a 10-mile radius of our house.”
They struck up relationships with Stephen Reustle of Reustle-Prayer Rock Vineyards, Earl Jones of Abacela and his son, famed climate researcher Greg Jones, who toured the future home of Trella Vineyards.
“He gave us the bad news on what we couldn’t do, and Sangiovese was among those,” Stephen said.
They established their vineyard in 2012, planting half of their 7 acres that first year.
“Our first real legitimate harvest was going to be in 2015, and it was that summer — with grapes on the vine — when we said to ourselves, ‘What are we going to do?’ ” Stephen said.
Brandborg’s reputation as a hired gun was attractive.
“One day on my lunch hour, I pulled into a parking lot and cold-called him,” Stephen said. “It was fortuitous for us because two years earlier he might have told us we were too small for him.”
Stephen tends the vineyard with his father. Their two daughters and son, ages 10, 12 and 13, help out during harvest. At this point, they don’t plan to grow beyond 1,000 cases, and Brandborg seems comfortable with the arrangement.
“Obviously, they are very sharp people,” Brandborg said. “I don’t have anything to do with their grape growing, but the fruit we get from them makes my job very easy. And they are very nice people as well.”
Trella Vineyards showcases the diversity of the Umpqua Valley in delicious fashion. They grow clone 1 and clone 2 Tempranillo, and their Pinot Noir is a 50/50 split with Pommard and Wädenswil. There’s also Malbec, Pinot Gris and Grüner Veltliner.
Not from their estate is the award-winning Gewürztraminer. That is grown at historic Bradley Vineyard and Anindor Vineyard in the tiny town of Elkton, just around the corner from Brandborg’s winery, and his work with that aromatic grape earned praise from New York Times columnist Eric Asimov.
Gold medals for their 2016 Tempranillo included a best-of-class award at the Monterey (Calif.) International Wine Competition. The 2016 Grüner returned best of class at SavorNW Wine Awards, a double gold at East Meets West Wine Challenge in Sonoma and platinum at Monterey, while the 2016 Gewürz was gold at SavorNW and best white at the Astoria Seafood and Wine judging.
And rather than ask folks to drive out to their vineyard, the Williamses invested in historic downtown Roseburg for a tasting room on Jackson Street, which they opened in 2018. Along the way, they also purchased the shuttered Roseburg Beauty College, a 6,000-square-foot building that’s a couple of blocks away and near Paul O’Brien Winery.
“We have a great relationship with those guys, but that space is too big for a tasting room for us,” Stephen said. “But we would love to see that turn into a really nice restaurant or perhaps a brewpub. There’s no reason that Roseburg, Oregon, can’t be another Walla Walla where you walk from place to place, and the potential for that is really exciting. We’ve got our day jobs, so we can take a very long-term view and approach to this.”
In the meantime, Stephen and his father, Michael, remain hands-on with the vineyard.
“I’m spending most of my Fridays all year long doing farm work back at dawn on Saturday,” he said. “And it’s very therapeutic and invigorating to be out there every harvest.”
Brandborg points out, “Stephen’s mom and dad come out to deliver the grapes, and when Stephen and Susan come out to taste, they bring their kids with them, so it’s fun and a family situation.”
Stephen adds, “With the three kids, It’s going to be a battle royale for who is going to have the palate to take this over when I retire.”
In looking back, the 20th annual Platinum Judging proved to be another showcase for Brandborg at a variety of price points. In addition to the awards for Trella, his winemaking led to a Platinum for the Monte Ferro 2016 Pinot Noir, as well as the Brandborg Vineyards & Winery 2017 Coastal Cuvée, an aromatic white that leans Alsatian.
"I always want the customer to get the recognition," said Brandborg, who received Wine Press Northwest’s Oregon Winery of the Year award in 2015. "It's nice to see them doing well and know that you've had a hand in it, and it's good for our region. By helping to build upon the reputation of the Umpqua, it benefits everybody."
ERIC DEGERMAN is co-founder and CEO of Great Northwest Wine. Learn more about wine at GreatNorthwestWine.com.
642 SE Jackson St.
Roseburg, OR 97470
This story was originally published March 27, 2020 4:56 PM.