Maragas Winery: Old World Greece Meets New World Oregon

By: Nan McCreary

Deep in the heart of Central Oregon, strategically located between the beautiful rock formations of Smith Rock State park and the majestic peaks of the Cascades, is a gem of a winery that traces its history to the 13th century in Greece.  It’s Maragas Winery, owned and operated by Doug Maragas and his wife, Gina, and, while it sits in a New-World location, it’s wine-making traditions date back to those used by the founders’ family hundreds of years ago.

  The Maragas story began in Crete, when the island was a province of the Roman Empire, and the family started a vineyard to support the growing wine culture.   From this beginning, they farmed grapes, olives and figs for centuries, surviving the invasion of the Ottoman Empire and the occupation of Crete by the Germans in World War II.  The family still owns the vineyard today.

  The family narrative spreads to the U.S. when, in 1941, Doug’s grandparents, George and Anna Maragas, began commercially brokering grapes and making wine out of Lodi, California.  It was Anna and her stories of family history, said Maragas, that led him to winemaking. “My history inspired me, particularly my grandmother, who I was very close to at a young age,” he recalled.  “She was a head of a business, which was unusual in the early 40s.” Maragas remembers spending a lot of time with her, learning about winemaking and the business of owning a vineyard. Essentially, his grandmother was more than a loving family member: she was a mentor.

  With encouragement from Anna, Maragas left his law practice in Ohio and, after searching the country for a viable and affordable place to grow grapes, he settled on Central Oregon.  Not only did the beauty of the area appeal to Maragas, it also reminded him of Crete, with identical soil (volcanic and sandy loam) and a similar Mediterranean climate (warm dry summers and wet winters).  In 1999, he and his wife established Maragas Winery as the founding winery and vineyard of Central Oregon.

  The Maragas vineyard is located near Culver, 25 miles north of Bend.  Conditions are optimum: well-draining soil, a south-facing slope located at 2800 feet and a large diurnal range that promotes seed and berry growth and complex flavors.  After more than a decade of experimenting (with over 48 varietals), and defying naysayers who said it was too cold to grow grapes in the area, Maragas Winery is producing award-winning wines and bringing recognition to Central Oregon as an official wine region.

  Maragas’ grapes are all grown organically, just as they were centuries ago in ancient Greece. This means selecting the right grape variety for the specific region, and excluding the use of artificial fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides and herbicides. Rather, Maragas relies on hand labor to control weeds, and chickens to eat the bugs.  He also has large dogs to keep the deer out, as well as small dogs and feral cats to control the rodents.

  Honoring his Greek heritage and extending his “all natural” philosophy to winemaking, Maragas uses proven Old World techniques that have been handed down from generation to generation. “I don’t put any ‘junk’ in my wine,” Maragas told the Grapevine Magazine.  “I only use four ingredients: bacteria, yeast, grapes and sulfur. There’s a movement to make wine according to the American palate, and to use chemistry if the vintage is not quite right.  I don’t think those chemicals are good for you.”  What makes Maragas’ wines particularly unique is extensive use of barrel aging.  Maragas barrel-ages his red wines anywhere from two to eight years, longer than any known winery in the U.S.  These red wines are all natural, with no filtration or fining.  The result is wines with exceptional Old World flavor and complexity.

  Currently, Maragas is growing 24 grape varieties in his vineyard and at a contract property in Warm Springs, Oregon.  Wines for sale include five barrel-aged red wines:  Malbec, Tempranillo, Zinfandel, Cabernet Franc and a Bordeaux Blend; and three white wines: a Pinot Gris, a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged Chardonnay, and a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged dry white blend, Blanco, that includes Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris,  Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc. Prices range from $20 to $52.  Because Maragas is a boutique winery with limited production, these wines are only available at nearby limited retail outlets or by ordering direct from the winery.

  Maragas Winery in Oregon, like the winery in Crete, is still a family, hands-on operation. The winery produces 2,000 cases annually, with no more than 400 cases of any varietal.  “This gives me more control, and I love what I do,” Maragas said. All work, from crushing grapes to bottling wines, is completed onsite in the 4,000 square-foot winery. “I manage the vineyard, make the wine, and do maintenance. Our office is in the house and my wife does the books. We do it all.” Maragas employees four additional people who help with everything from pulling weeds to operating the crush pad. “I received a strong work ethic from my Greek heritage,” he added, “and we all work very hard and help with whatever needs to be done.”

  While Maragas takes his winemaking seriously, he has added a little fun to his enterprise with his comic wine bottle labels, which feature artwork from his late mother, Joanne Lattavo. The drawings are caricatures of family members and friends created during the beatnik area of the late 50s and early 60s,’ “I’m trying to be a great winemaker,” Maragas told The Grapevine Magazine, “but I don’t want people to see me as stuffy.  I think the drawings are funny, and if I can make people laugh, they won’t see me as hoity-toity.” As a further tribute to his mother, Maragas is displaying paintings from her former art gallery in Ohio in his Barrel Room at the winery.  The winery’s website notes that this may be the first art gallery in a Barrel Room in the country. 

  As Maragas looks to the future, he is experimenting with many different grapes, including Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, as well as Alsatian varieties such as Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Riesling. He is also growing Nebbiolo, an Italian red wine grape known world-wide for making outstanding Barolo and Barbaresco wines.

  Maragas, in his enthusiasm for Central Oregon, is also working to promote the area as a great grape-growing region. His Estate Vineyard, he notes, sits on the same parameters of famous grape growing from the Burgundy and Alsace regions of France, while the Contract Vineyard is on par with similar growing degree days and average growing temperatures as the Loire Valley. “Just because an area hasn’t been tapped doesn’t mean you can’t make great wines there,” he stated. “After years of experimenting, we now know that Central Oregon, in particular Jefferson County, is a fantastic place to grow traditional wine grapes.”  With global warming, he adds, the prospects are even brighter for the area.  “We have lots of people looking,” he said.  “I’m hoping we can attract winemakers who want to make great wines rather than grow grapes as a hobby or as an asset to increase grounds beauty for resorts.  There is great potential here.”

  In an area dominated by craft breweries, a growing number of wine destinations are already popping up, and, along with Maragas Winery, are part of the new Oregon Wine Trail.  And most recently, the Oregon Wine Brotherhood, an organization dedicated to promoting wines in Oregon and southern Washington, established a Central Oregon chapter, with Doug Maragas as one its supporting members.

  While growth in the area is inevitable, Maragas has no plans to expand his operations.  “We were growing,” he said, “but it took so much time that we decided to wait until our teenage daughter grows up and leaves home.” In the meantime, Maragas is content to focus on making distinctive, hand-crafted wines. He is also committed to sustainability. For example, the “corks” he uses are the first zero carbon footprint “corks” and are actually made of sugar cane.  The company also has a solar array that powers a substantial part of the operation. And finally, he doesn’t use foil around the bottle neck because it has no beneficial effect on the wine and isn’t recyclable.

  Doug Maragas, with his passion for his heritage, has created a taste of ancient Greece in Central Oregon. His tasting room, scenic and family-friendly, is a popular destination for weddings and special events.  One of his premiere events, the annual “Love of the Grape”  Grape Stomp, has become a Central Oregon tradition, a full day festival of food and wine where hundreds of visitors climb into ½ barrels and stomp the grapes with their bare feet, just like they did at the Maragas family vineyard in the 13th century. The crowds at Maragas Winery may be New World, but the traditions are clearly Old World.  And you don’t have to travel to the other side of the world to enjoy them.

For more information on Maragas Winery, visit their website at www.maragaswinery.com

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