Geology:   From the Stars to the Seas to Your Glass

Leah Jorgensen Jean

Map of Limestone Deposits in Jackson County, Oregon from 1880 – Oregon Historical Society

One of my hobbies is learning about Quantum Physics.  I have considered many times over launching another label or product dedicated to the phenomena of energy, relativity, and the universe.  I continue to marvel at the mysteries of the universe and how everything is connected.  Astrophysicists credit the formation of all matter on earth to the death of stars.  That’s right.  We’re all made of stars.  And, everything around us originated from stars.  

Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms are in our bodies and in all matter on earth, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, which were all created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago.  All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars, and the universe was originally just hydrogen and helium, so the carbon was made later, over the course of billions of years.

“The material from a supernova eventually disperses throughout interstellar space. The oldest stars almost exclusively consisted of hydrogen and helium, with oxygen and the rest of the heavy elements in the universe later coming from supernova explosions,” according to “Cosmic Collisions: The Hubble Atlas of Merging Galaxies,” (Springer, 2009).

And, here we are, star material beings, looking at star material liquid in a star material glass.  Everything is connected.  

When I walk through vineyards, my eyes are all over the place.  Mostly, they’re gazing downward at the earth.  I love exploring the vast landscape and geology of Oregon’s “young” wine regions.  Though our vineyards are nascent compared to the Old World, what makes some of our soil series special – especially in Southern Oregon – predates some of the soil series formations in Europe.  

I had made an exciting discovery through the lens of one of my dear growers.  One of the vineyards I work with has very similar oceanic material to that of the Loire Valley.  It was certainly no coincidence that I found my way down south to produce wines inspired by my favorite region in France.

So, how is this all connected?   

Let me back up about 100 million years ago, to what was known as the Upper Crustageous Period, when much of the Loire Valley was under ancient seas of the Paris basin during the time in pre-history known as the Turonian era.  In the Middle Loire, near Anjou, chalk layers were deposited.  This rock, called Tuffeau, is chalky limestone which is made up of Bryozoa – marine organisms which lived in masses of floating colonies. Exposure to air cemented these deposits by iron and magnesium oxides – valuable elements added to the soil.  When mixed over time with sandy and flinty clays, over millions of years, the Tuffeau has created these nutrient rich soils perfect for vineyards.

Likewise, another oceanic soil series with ancient shellfish fossils is Falun – sedimentary rock formed from marine deposits laid down during the Caenozoic era, about 60 million years ago.  Thousands of tiny shells, crushed or whole, are generally mixed with sand and clay to form ancient marine soil series.  Falun is common in the regions of Touraine and Anjou, in the Loire Valley.

Image: Falun sedimentary rock found in France’s Loire Valley

Cabernet Franc grows well on the cretaceous chalks of Saumur, and throughout the Loire, as does Sauvignon Blanc, and the other many varietals that make up the varied vineyards in the region.  There are more grape varietals planted in the Loire than any other region in France – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, Grolleau, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, Chardonnay, Menu Pineau, Pineaud’Aunis, Pinot Gris, and Romorantin.  The soils and climate are perfect for such variety.

Let’s skip a stone across the pond to Southern Oregon in Jackson Country.  Back in the summer of 2015, I was navigating a handful of the vineyard sites where I source my grapes, and, after walking through a unilateral trellised block of Cabernet Franc vines new to my program, my tour guide and grower, Michael Moore, of Quail Run Vineyards, LLC, pointed out a large pile of rocks.  I wondered what that pile was about – at first, it looked like a bit of an eye sore – debris from clearing out a field for new vines.

Image: Photo of a pile of rock taken at Crater View Ranch just outside of Jacksonville, Oregon

As we approached the pile, it took me only a few seconds to see the treasure trove he was excited to share with me.  Right smack in front of the pile was a slab of rock with small white inflections feathered and embedded into the surface.  It was an ancient marine fossil!  I nearly fell over in excitement!  I was like a giddy kid in a candy store!  I climbed up the 10 foot high rock pile and explored every large and small rock – in hopes of finding a small enough sample with a shellfish imprint or fossil to take home with me – no luck.  The few rocks found with beautiful prehistoric fossils were too big to move.

Image: Ancient marine fossils embedded in rock from Crater View Ranch in the Rogue Valley.

Michael showed me a few more rocks with crustaceous imprints.  He looked at me very seriously, then, and explained these rocks were 250 million years old!  That significantly predates the soil series we’re talking about in the Old World.  We’re talking about the time of the dinosaurs!

Image: Ancient mollusk shells embedded in rock in Crater View Ranch in Southern Oregon

He pulled out his phone and played a recording by one of the state’s geologists, Scott Burns, then a professor at Portland State University.  Burns was speaking specifically about the geology in nearby Talent, Oregon, but, as part of the same soil series and the same range of what’s in both the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.  

Image: Ancient marine shell imprints embedded in rock found in Crater View Ranch.

These rocks were all originally from the bottom of the ocean!  The blue rock in one of the photos I took (posted here) is blueschist.  There are three types of original terrain in Southern Oregon that include volcanic rock, ocean bottoms, volcanic muds, and islands.  Eventually, the terrain was uplifted and turned into limestone (as in the Oregon caves), and the rocks formed were mostly blueschist and phyllite.

Image: Samples of ancient ocean bottom rock, including blueschist, found in Crater View Ranch.

These metamorphic rocks are found in orogenic belts, which are associated with subduction zones which consume crust, produce volcanoes, and build island arcs.   The formation of an orogen is part of the tectonic process of subduction, with two scenarios, where either a continent rides forcefully over an oceanic plate, or where there’s a convergence of two or more continents, creating a collision.  In the case of the Pacific Northwest, and what we were looking at, we’re talking about the first scenario.

The processes of orogeny can take tens of millions of years and build mountains from plains or the ocean floor.  Imagine the Cascadian fault line, or subduction zone.  This is the area along the coast where two plates meet – the Juan de Fuca, and the North American.  This has been in the news recently, due to predictions that the Pacific Northwest is due to expect an 8.0 – 9.0 earthquake from the movement of these two plates along the Cascasdian subduction zone sometime in the next fifty years.

The rocks we were looking at were pushed up as a result of a tectonic subduction that happened about 250 million years ago, forcing ocean rock up into what’s now the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.  When this part of the Crater View Ranch we were in had been recently cleared for new vine plantings, the pile had been examined, and the fossils and imprints had been discovered.

How is blueschist a piece of connection?  Because limestone is one of the blueschist facies.  In the Loire, sedimenary rock soil series includes several rocks, including sandstone and blueschist.

Ancient marine rock, blueschist, limestone, sand and clay, shellfish fossils and imprints… there’s something connecting these two places.  There’s a reason why there are so many wine grape varietals planted in Southern Oregon – much like the Loire Valley!  There are real connections here – even if simply just an idea, or something as complex as the universe connecting people, places, and moments.  And, isn’t that why we drink wine – to connect people, places, and moments?  I looked at Michael and I think we both had stars in our eyes.

As I stood on that pile of ancient marine rocks, looking around at the beautiful vineyard where I get some of my most coveted Cabernet Franc, all of my Malbec, and my Sauvignon Blanc – I felt connected to the universe in a new way.  The stars made all of it.  But, the earth pushed and pulled itself into these beautiful craters, volcanoes, ranges, valleys.  The earth took its star material and created habitat and life.  And, it did so in a majestic tapestry of both unique and similar forms.  For the first time, I felt validated for my crazy decision to focus on Loire style wines.  The whimsical name I had placed on my bottles early on meant even more to me now:  Loiregon

We’re not in the Loire Valley, we’re in Oregon.  But, the two places are connected.  And, it’s not simply because I wanted to randomly make Loire style wines here in Southern Oregon.  It’s bigger.  It’s because I was meant to make Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from this place and in a style that reflects the glinting mirrored ancient star material from the Loire.  

The Sauvignon Blanc from Crater View Ranch always shows distinct characters much like a Pouilly-Fumé  – with its creamy texture and hints of gunflint or smoke, or wet straw, and then floral notes of elderflower and jasmin, and flavors of flint, lime zest, melon and grapefruit.  The Cabernet Franc from Crater View Ranch is simply elegant and complex with lovely aromas of sweet rose, violets, carnations, flowering tobacco, tobacco leaf, cigar smoke and cedar; and flavors of bright fruits including juicy raspberry, black currant and plum, soft licorice and spice, black pepper, bitters and Amarena cherries.

This region is still relatively unknown. And when people talk about Oregon geology it’s mostly centered around the Missoula Floods – the cataclysmic glacial lake outburst floods that swept across Washington and along the Columbia River Gorge flooding much of eastern Washington and the Willamette Valley at the end of the last ice age – happening 15,000 years ago. And that has certainly created an exciting soil series for winegrowers to geek out about!

Still, it floors me that no one really talks about the subduction from 250 million years ago that influenced the geology of Southern Oregon. It’s really a giant omission in a great story about Oregon’s natural history!

Being the curious person that I am, I dug around (sorry for the pun!) to learn more about Southern Oregon’s geological survey and research from the time it was getting ready to become a state to the early 1900s. Scientists would survey land to estimate the value of its natural resources for creating jobs and industry. Limestone was one of the most significant natural resources documented at the time, specifically in Jackson County. Other parts of the state were reported as having negligible and low quality limestone, unworthy of quarry or industry.

Image: From Oregon Historical Society on Evidence of Limestone in Jackson County, 1937.

Image: Historical Limestone Quarry Map drawn on November 18, 1880 by I.S. Allison – taken from Oregon Historical Society.

This information is beyond exciting! And it points to the stars, as far as I’m concerned answering the why’s and how’s for connection to a Loire Valley influence for grape-growing in this little region in Southern Oregon. While much of the high-grade limestone had been quarried from this region, there are pockets and, of course, calciferous deposits throughout a fan-like span of land that stretches as far as the Cascade Range.

If you are curious to taste the influence of a 250 million year old subduction in a glass of wine, please enjoy my 2021 Oregon Cabernet Franc, my “Clos Rogue Valley” Reserve Cabernet Franc (current vintage was made from Sundown Vineyard, so you’ll have to wait until the next vintage), the 2016 “Grand Reserve” Cabernet Franc is sourced 100% from Crater View Ranch, the 2019 Sauvignon Blanc is sourced 100% from Crater View Ranch, and the 2018 Malbec is sourced 100% from Crater View Ranch.

And in your exploration, I do hope you find stars and constellations and galaxies in the glass that bring about much excitement, curiosity and delight!