In Oregon’s Wine Country, Family Holds Onto Oak Tradition

Dec 22, 2013

The Northwest wine industry has grown tremendously over the last few decades. That’s had a big economic impact, but that growth has also changed the region’s landscape.

In Oregon’s Willamette Valley, you don’t see a lot of oak trees anymore. Spacious oak savannas have been replaced by farms and vineyards. But one family is holding onto an old oak tradition despite the odds.

One Family’s Choice Of Oak Over Wine

Economists are predicting a global wine shortage, and that means demand for Northwest grapes will only grow.

More than 90 percent of the Willamette Valley’s native oak habitat has been leveled, much of it replaced by long, lucrative rows of grapevines. 

But the Deumling family has held onto their oaks.

The family owns 1,300 acres northwest of Salem. They manufacture wood flooring from sustainably-harvested oaks. By thinning the trees, they hope to maintain forest health.

“I feel like I have a responsibility as an Oregonian to be up here and be taking care of this place,” said Ben Deumling.

Deumling says there’s an expanding market for local hardwoods, but oaks grow slowly. They take decades to mature and the oldest trees, legacy oaks, live for hundreds of years.

Rooted In Family Legacy

On a recent cold morning, snow clung to oak branches and to grapevines on neighboring properties. The fact is oaks may never provide the same income as wine. But Deumling says it’s not about the money.

“I think a lot about legacy, and I think about the legacy that my dad and my mom have instilled in me — to have an appreciation of this place,” he said.

Ben Deumling’s father worked as a forester for German landowners before he died of cancer in 1996. His mother, Sarah Deumling, had been a housewife. But, without hesitation, she asked to be trained in forestry.

Like her husband, Sarah learned a technique called “Naturgemaese Waldwirtschaft,” which, she said, “roughly translated as nature-based forestry, which tries to manage a forest as closely as possible as the way nature would.”

Disappearing Trees

When the Germans eventually decided to sell their land in Oregon, the Deumling family secured as many acres as they did by promising to maintain the oak habitat.

Sarah says she’s glad they did. A timber company bought three other parcels and soon gave the land a permanent makeover.

“The timber company clear-cut all three the next summer, every blinking tree, and two of those three parcels are now vineyards,” she said.

Sarah says she, too, feels like she is continuing her husband’s legacy. And even her 6-year-old grandson is now showing interest. He recently asked if he was old enough to use a pruning saw.

But the trend lines are clear. Ben just hopes vineyard expansions don’t mean further loss of oak habitat.

“We’re down to the point where we have so little of our oak left that we shouldn’t be converting more of that last five percent into other uses,” he said.

‘A 21st-Century Canary In The Coal Mine’

Some of the best grape-growing lands are also home to federally-protected species, like butterflies.

Fender’s Blue Butterflies are endangered. They are no longer found on the Deumling’s property, but they thrive on a nearby wildlife refuge.

Sarah envisions butterfly habitat someday stretching from the refuge to their home.

“Long-term, it’s interesting to think of creating a corridor of patches of oak between here and there. They need to be reintroduced,” she said.

Entomologists say butterflies are a good gauge of an ecosystem’s health, like a 21st-century canary in the coal mine.

In Washington, Butterflies Among Vines

In eastern Washington’s wine-growing regions, native butterflies are already being reintroduced.

And some Oregon winemakers are doing the same. Emily Gladhart recently certified her family’s winery with the National Butterfly Association.

“Butterflies are beautiful, and many of us have childhood memories of chasing butterflies,” Gladhart said.

In fact, a nature trail crosses Gladhart’s vineyard, Winter’s Hill. She says visitors can walk through a legacy of oak trees, grapevines and butterflies.