The irony of two people who lived and worked for many years in the heart of California's grape-growing region deciding to start a winery only after relocating to a city nearly 4000 feet in elevation with a two-month frost-free growing season is not lost on Scott and Liz Ratcliff, owners of Bend's Volcano Vineyards. But as winemakers, not growers, Central Oregon's proximity to the Northwest's fine wine areas, along with a smart business plan, is helping turn that ironic move into a very bright idea.
Volcano, one of a handful of the region's "micro-wineries," permanently closed its downtown tasting room last month and will be opening a bottling and blending facility in the redeveloped Century Center on Century Drive in late October. While the tasting room was popular, the couple decided to focus on wine production instead of maintaining the shop's long hours. In addition to bottling and blending the Volcano label wine, the Ratcliffs plan to start a new, lower-priced label called "Magma," with bottles priced in the $10 - $15 range. They will also bottle their popular Sangrias and plan to also sell boxed wines.
The benefit of not having to maintain regular tasting room hours is that Ratcliff will now offer free tastings to those who schedule an appointment, instead of the previous $5 charge. Ratcliff will also give wine tastings directly from the barrel, as they are now being aged in-house.
The Ratcliffs grew up in wine-loving families and met while working as waiters in San Francisco. The Bend relocation occurred in 2001 and they barreled their first wine in 2003. Two years later, after the product was sufficiently aged and bottled, Volcano Vineyards was born. That year, they produced 250 cases of wine. Today, they are best known for their award-winning single-vineyard Syrahs and Merlots as well as their fun, easy-drinking sangrias. This year, the Ratcliffs will produce nearly 1500 cases and their new facility will enable even more growth.
The Ratcliffs, like many other winemakers based in difficult growing climates, purchase grapes from the Rogue Valley and utilize the excess production capacity of nearby southern Oregon wineries for crushing and barreling their wine. Scott, the hands-on master winemaker, oversees every aspect of the process. Using a "host" winery for production has allowed them to allocate their startup resources to the important things: namely, procuring top quality grapes and barrels. It's a business model not unusual to the wine industry, but most commonly associated with Jim Koch at Samuel Adams, the Boston-based beer maker who contracted with existing breweries to make his first lagers until building his own facility.
Liz explains that Volcano will continue to crush and barrel their premium wines in the Rogue Valley for the time being, but bottle and produce their blends and Sangrias locally. Plus, the new facility will enable them to look more realistically toward growing their company - the Ratcliffs are eyeing other larger spaces in the Century Center for possible future expansion and are in talks with local grape growers in the Culver-Terrebonne area. Century Center also increases the Ratcliff's event possibilities. The location, which recently hosted the heavily attended Bend Roots Festival, promises other new ventures, including Noble Brewing Company. With the Ratcliff's tenancy, it seems like a facility ready-made for community events.
Volcano will not open immediately with regular hours, but tours and tastings can be scheduled by appointment. Liz explains that the move is the next step on their path to their notion of an "urban winery," a facility that brings the spirit of the vineyard to a downtown setting.
"Closing the tasting room was hard," she says. "We loved being there. But it's all about manpower. It's only Scott and I. It's time to return to what we love and what is most important, and that's production." When questioned about the prospect of attempting to grow their own grapes, she confessed with a little laugh, "That's farming... and I'm a plant killer! We'll stick to what we're good at."
The Century Center
1355 SW Commerce Ave
Tasting and Tours By Appointment