Carrying the Torch: Multigenerational Winemaking in the Rogue Valley

Most Oregon wine history follows a familiar arc: Maverick enthusiast sees potential where others don’t, takes a risk on planting grapes in a brand-new place, slogs through years of uncertainty to eventually emerge with a cellar full of delicious I-told-you-so wines. But as the industry matures, a different kind of story is emerging: adult children who step into their parents’ shoes with new ideas and a new perspective.

Several of the Rogue Valley’s most iconic wineries are now in the second generation of family ownership. With the benefit of generations of experience, this new guard is charting a fresh direction while building on the foundations their families laid down decades before.

Valley View Winery

In 1972 Frank Wisnovsky planted the first vines at what would become today’s Valley View Winery. In doing so, he was picking up a long-laid-down baton. More than 100 years earlier, pioneer Peter Britt had planted wine grapes on his property in the historic town of Jacksonville, naming it Valley View for its sweeping views of the Rogue Valley. So Frank thought if Peter could do it, why couldn’t he?

“The fact that Peter Britt had grapes here was a huge influence for my dad,” says Michael Wisnovsky, “because it showed that grapes could grow here, could ripen here and could be successful at making good wines.” Valley View Winery’s first vintage was made in 1976, and the winery opened a tasting room in 1978, laying the early groundwork for the Southern Oregon wine industry. But in 1980, Frank died unexpectedly, leaving the vineyard and winery to his wife, Ann Wisnovsky. Michael was just 12 years old. 

As a young man, Michael wasn’t convinced that his future would lie in the cellar. He went off to college, got an economics degree from UCLA, set up job interviews with investment banks back east and prepared himself for a career in the fast-paced world of finance. “I was in an interview with Merrill Lynch in the World Trade Center, and the HR person said pretty much point blank, ‘Why do you want to live in New York when your family owns a winery in Oregon, and everyone in New York wants to have a winery in Oregon?’” says Michael. “And I couldn’t really answer that question. So I came back.”

Today Michael and his brother, Mark Wisnovsky, run Valley View Winery together. Michael manages sales and marketing while Mark oversees the vineyard and winery. Together they’ve started a distributorship, created new brands, launched a custom crush division and started exporting to Japan. Fifty years in, Michael still feels optimistic about the future of Rogue Valley Wine. “This is a really good place to grow grapes and make great wine.”

Weisinger Family Winery

When Eric Weisinger was 11 years old, his dad, John, put him to work planting almost an acre of Gewürztraminer. “I recall it very distinctly, and I didn’t really enjoy it,” says Eric. “I thought, this sucks. This is just not any fun. Why am I doing this? This is dumb.” Then he laughs. “But, of course, I got over that.”

It was 1978, and those vines were among the first to be planted in the Rogue Valley in generations. The cuttings had come from another viticulture pioneer, Frank Wisnovsky (of Valley View Winery), who was eager to help John Weisinger realize his dream of making wine in his new home in Ashland.

It didn’t take long for Eric to get on board with his dad’s vision. “I made my first wine at the age of 16. I made it out of pears — it was kind of a pear pet-nat,” says Eric. “It wasn’t very good, but I drank every bottle I made.” He committed to winemaking as a 25-year-old and began working not just one but two harvests each year: one in the northern hemisphere, one in the southern.

In 2011 Eric stepped into his current role as owner and winemaker, shepherding Weisinger Family Winery through a rebrand and growing production to about 2,000 cases of wine each year, plus a thriving custom-crush business. But that Gewürztraminer? It’s not going anywhere. “I just can’t ever pull it out,” says Eric. “It’s part of our history as Weisinger Family Winery, but it’s also part of the history of viticulture in Southern Oregon.”

RoxyAnn Winery

Siblings Chad Day and Crissie Olson are the second generation of winemakers in their family, but the fourth generation to farm the 200-acre Hillcrest Orchard Estate. When Reginald Parsons, Chad and Crissie’s great-grandfather, first purchased the property in 1908, it was an apple orchard. In the 1930s, he started converting it to pears.

But in the mid-1980s, commercial pear prices began to fall. By 1997, searching for a new venture, Chad and Crissie’s father, Jack Day, planted 20 acres of cabernet sauvignon and merlot on the slopes of Roxy Ann Peak. At first those grapes were simply a new crop on the existing farm, sold to winemakers up north. But in 2001, the vineyard’s primary client said Jack was growing more fruit than he could buy — and wouldn’t he like to try making his own wine, anyway?

“We always laugh that in 2001 my dad would have enjoyed a glass of merlot with ice cubes in it,” says Chad. “It wasn’t part of our family culture.” But what began as a retirement project quickly spiraled into something much more substantial. After a stint managing major construction projects in Seattle, Chad began to wonder if making wine might be more rewarding than building skyscrapers. In 2012 he decided to make the journey back to his family home in Southern Oregon.

“When I showed up, my dad literally and figuratively threw me the keys and said, ‘Chad, welcome back, let me know if you have any questions.’ It was trial by fire. But I had a lot of people to fall back on with many years of experience.” In 2019 his sister left a career in accounting to join him. Today RoxyAnn Winery makes almost 15,000 cases of wine each year, including cabernet and merlot from those same grapes planted in the 1990s.

“I love this property, and I love how it brings the community together,” says Crissie. “The bonus is that we also make really great wine. I’m so lucky to get to come here every day and to continue what our father created.”

– Margarett Waterbury