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Spotlight: Barking Frog Winery

Ron Helbig talks about Barking Frog WinerySept. 19, 2011

Ron Helbig is a bit of an anomaly in Oregon wine country, part of a small but growing trend of winemakers who reach into Washington for warmclimate grapes in addition to the Willamette Valley’s famous Pinot Noir.

Helbig is owner and winemaker for Barking Frog in tiny Carlton, Ore., a winery he launched in 2005.

The retired Clackamas Community College drafting and manufacturing instructor began making wine as a hobby in the early 1990s and decided to turn it into a profession when he began to win awards for his efforts in amateur competitions.

Those accolades have not stopped since going pro, as his 2006 Blakeslee Pinot Noir was No. 3 in our 2008 peer-group judging of 160 Northwest Pinot Noirs, his 2006 Sangiovese earned our top “Outstanding” rating one issue later and his 2006 Crawford Vineyard Syrah was awarded a rare Platinum medal in our 2008 year-end best-of-the-best competition.

Helbig hasn’t slowed down one bit, as he recently submitted 11 wines to us for our blind tasting, earning four “Outstandings,” four “Excellents” and three “Recommendeds.”

When Helbig decided to make wine professionally, he turned to one of the best in the business, interning with Laurent Montalieu, who gained fame at WillaKenzie before launching his own SolÚna Estates brand and Northwest Wine Co. custom-crush business. He spent two years with Montalieu, working in all areas of the winery.

For Barking Frog’s first five years, Helbig made his wine at August Cellars in Newberg. Now at 1,200 cases, he outgrew that space and moved his operation to Carlton Cellars last year in time for crush. He also opened a tasting room on Main Street in Carlton, a brief walk from the winemaking facility.

“This location in Carlton has been great for us,” he said.

While Helbig makes Pinot Noir from Oregon grapes, the majority of his fruit comes from Washington, particularly the Horse Heaven Hills. He is particularly fond of Elerding Vineyard, which is about 10 miles north of the Columbia River (there is another Elerding Vineyard in the Yakima Valley).

“I love the way that vineyard is cared for,” Helbig said. “The vineyard manager at Elerding is just phenomenal.”

Because his winery is more than 200 miles away from his vineyard sources, Helbig can’t regularly check the fruit, so he must trust and rely on the grower to keep an eye on the grapes and let him know when he should harvest.

“Working with fruit a state away can be a challenge,” he said.

And being a state away also presents challenges with his label. Helbig ran into a bit of trouble with the federal government a few years ago when he used “Yakima Valley” on his wines. It turns out the agency that regulates wine will allow an AVA to appear on the label only if the wine is produced in the same state as the AVA. So instead of putting “Horse Heaven Hills” or “Yakima Valley” (depending on the fruit source), Helbig instead simply labels it “Washington,” along with the vineyard designation.

Helbig came up with the catchy name for his winery because he wanted something with a “frog” theme — go into his tasting room sometime and ask him about his brush with the law over frogs — and his research led him to the barking frog, a species whose croak sounds like a dog’s bark. As legend goes, the barking frog is a symbol of prosperity in Native American lore, an audible symbol that the environment is in harmony. He follows that logic in his own production and figures 95 percent of every wine bottle he sells is recyclable.

Since his inaugural vintage, Helbig has used a glass closure called Vino-Seal (known as Vino-Lok in Europe). It’s a product of Alcoa and is used by a handful of Northwest wineries, including Folin Cellars, Ferraro Cellar and Sineann in Oregon, as well as such Washington wineries as Northwest Totem Cellars and Syncline Wines.

“I began doing research on closures for two years before I went to work for Laurent,” Helbig said. “I read a white paper on a new glass closure, so I took it to Laurent. Coincidentally, he’d already seen it and had set up a consultation with the company.”

The following year, Montaleau began using the closure with his SolÚna brand, so it was natural for Helbig to use it when he launched Barking Frog. He loves the closure but said the only downsides are the product is made in Germany and needs to be imported and the bottle selection that goes with it is limited. But his customers adore the glass “corks,” he said.

“It has that technological ‘wow’ factor,” Helbig said. “It’s incredible. We have a bowl of them in the tasting room, and customers come in and want to buy them.”

He said he often needs to explain that the glass closure comes with every bottle and it means the bottle doesn’t need to be stored horizontally. He also is amused when waitstaff at a restaurant tries to open a bottle with a corkscrew, even when he tells them how it works.

In Europe, about 800 wineries are using the glass closures, which means most of them have automated systems. However, with so few U.S. wineries embracing the new closure, there is little equipment, so it is limited to wineries with small productions. This is a small consideration for Helbig.

“My customers don’t have to worry about the failure rate of cork products,” he said. “I’ve been so disappointed over the years with cork.”

And based on the quality of his wine, Helbig has a lot to protect.

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128 W Main Street, Carlton, OR 97111  Phone: 503-702-5029  Fax: 503-625-1368