A 'rogue' winemaker in Sherwood
Ron Helbig won an international gold medal making wine for himself; now he's making it for the public
By Anthony Roberts
The Sherwood Gazette, Oct 30, 2006, Updated Oct 30, 2006
At first, vintner Ron Helbig’s story sounds familiar.
He moved his family from California to the Sherwood area for a change of pace, left his career as an engineer to become a college professor and eventually began to pursue his passion -- making wine. The end result is Barking Frog Winery in Newberg, which will hold its grand opening November 18.
A “rogue” winemaker
So why does he call himself a “rogue?”
For starters, Helbig is using grapes from small Northwest growers who practice sustainable farming to craft a bold and complex Syrah, all while other wineries in Oregon clamor to capitalize on the growing popularity of pinot noir.
On top of that, he’s one of only two local winemakers crafting an iced Syrah, in which the grapes are pressed frozen, increasing the sugar content and creating a sweet wine.
“I’m breaking out of the mold,” Helbig said of the wines he makes. “The wines that I like are clean and food friendly.”
Barking Frog’s Tribute Syrah is one of four wines he’ll be pouring at his upcoming grand opening, along with a Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. He hopes the former could eventually become a cult favorite.
Helbig also diverges from typical winemakers when it comes to capping his bottles. While the other winemakers at Newberg’s August Cellars, which actually houses seven different winemakers, are passing their bottles through a corking machine, he’s capping Barking Frog by hand.
The typical machine doesn’t accommodate his state-of-the art glass “corks.” The small stopper fits into the mouth of the wine bottle, and is then capped with aluminum and sealed. The result is a more traditional feel than a screw cap provides but without the occasional problems of cork. Helbig said about one in 10 bottles of wine suffers impurities from cork-related problems. He is the third winemaker in Oregon to use them, though they are becoming common among European winemakers.
“With a glass stopper you’re never forced to waste a bottle of wine because of a bad cork,” Helbig explained. “Something like eight to 15 percent of all bottle have problems related to a bad cork. I’ve eliminated that problem.”
Helbig operates a little differently in other ways. For some wines, he uses a special encapsulated yeast that costs six times more than the common variety, and gives him more control over the wine fermentation process. He also bypasses large grape growers for smaller farmers that he says pay closer attention to the fruit and to the land.
Many other winemakers forgo anything that doesn’t involve making their wine, like marketing. Helbig is diving into all of that on his own. He briefly tried working with a graphic artist, but couldn’t find one who could create a label that was similar to his vision. So he created the label on his own, and is now working on marketing the wine without any outside help.
“This winery is truly a reflection of me,” Helbig said.
Roots in winemaking
Helbig hasn’t sold a single bottle of wine yet, but he started making small batches at home 15 years ago. That came after he, along with his wife Cindi, spent two decades taking weekend trips from their home near San Jose to California’s Napa and Sonoma valleys, developing relationships with vintners there.
He went from making a few bottles to making the maximum amount allowed by law for a home winemaker, sharing with friends and adding to his ample collection of wine.
Helbig befriended winemaker Laurent Montalieu of Solena Winery in Carlton, interning at his winery and learning the trade. He’s also enrolled in the winemaking program at Chemeketa College in Salem.
While Helbig is still learning about winemaking after 15 years, the wines he’s crafted have already won him acclaim. A small batch of Pinot Noir he made in 2002 from the grapes in a vineyard outside of Sherwood won him and international gold medal in its category despite it being one of his least favorite grapes.
“I want to stay small and stay focused,” Helbig said. “I’m not going to put something in a bottle that I don’t want to drink.”
Barking Frog is located in August Cellars on Quarry Road, just off of Highway 99W north of Newberg. The building actually houses seven different winemakers that share the facility and the resources. The grand opening will be Nov. 18 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., and violinist Aaron Meyer will play from noon to 3 p.m. There will be a small tasting fee and food paired with the wine. To contact Barking Frog call (503) 625-6581.