Great little town on the go

Carlton embraces wine industry, enhances community

CARLTON — It wasn’t too many years ago that the economic engines driving the city of Carlton were wheat fields, hazelnut orchards, landscaping nurseries, grazing lands and timber stands.

Even though they kept some level of commerce going, the big box stores in McMinnville were luring customers from small independent retailers in Yamhill County’s outlying towns. It appears that Carlton might be in for a prolonged economic downturn.

But the self-proclaimed “Great Little Town” was buoyed up by the wine industry, to the point where it is thriving as never before. The industry has had a more pronounced impact on Carlton than any other areas in the Yamhill Valley, including McMinnville, Newberg and Dundee.

Winegrowing in what is now the Yamhill-Carlton AVA can be traced to 1974, when industry pioneers Joe and Pat Campbell founded Elk Cove Vineyards on a hillside southwest of Gaston.

Next were Fred and Mary Benoit, who founded the Chateau Benoit Winery on a prominent hilltop east of Carlton in 1979. Purchased by Dr. Robert Pamplin in 1999, it is now known as Anne Amie Vineyards, and it has become an industry leader.

The creative Kramer family became neighbors of the Campbells in 1983. In the late 1980s, master vineyardist Dick Shea began planting his iconic vineyard east of Yamhill, and it now encompasses 125 acres.

Ken and Karen Wright’s arrived in Carlton in 1994 marked a turning point for the town. The couple already enjoyed considerable credibility, owing to the success of Panther Creek, which Ken launched in 1986.

They located their Ken Wright Cellars in the middle of town.

That location met with some resistance at first, as a longstanding city ordinance forbade manufacturing operations. Karen won over planning commissioners by explaining a winery only produced wine one month out of 12; the other 11, it simply served as a commercial outlet and produce showplace.

Ken and Karen quickly gained the confidence and respect of the community, and they went on to assume leadership roles serving to augment Carlton’s development ever since.

The formerly unused or underused storefronts along Main Street are now teeming with tasting rooms, dining establishments and retail boutiques. And the street itself has gotten an extensive facelift.

A wine tasting outlet opened by Jim McDonald in a former bank building used to have the trade all to itself. But Carlton teems with vendors today, ranging from the Barking Frog to the Noble Pig, making it has gradually evolved into one of the top wine destinations in the Yamhill Valley.

Joining this writer recently for lunch at Barrel 47, a contemporary American cuisine restaurant opened last year in another former bank building, were several Carlton leaders. Their enthusiasm over current conditions and future prospects was palpable.

They included, along with the Wrights, Mayor Kathie Oriet, City manager Chad Olsen, School Superintendent Charan Cline, Yamhill-Carlton Together Cares Director Amber Horne, Police Chief Kevin Martinez, attorney Carol Fredrick and farmer Scott Bernards.

Although an elected official, Oriet is an unpaid volunteer. She pointed out that while some of her comrades hold paid full-time positions, they devote hours to the community well in excess of their job requirements.

Ken Wright agreed, “Everyone here gives a ton of time to their community beyond their official duties. I can pick up the phone at any time and they’ll show up to help with whatever is needed.”

And he is equally generous with his own time. He is renowned for the energy and passion he displays for helping improve the community.

The town’s first and still most admirable volunteer organization is Yamhill-Carlton Together Cares. Launched in 1998, it is devoted to helping children and young adults through sports programs and other participatory activities.

One of its best-known, highly regarded elements is the Cougar Club, which provides a place and activities for latch key kids after school.

Superintendent Cline said, “This is a place where people really care about their community. They are invested in it and take that responsibility seriously. You can’t run a community school without community support, and I am happy to see so many volunteers, particularly at the grade school.”

He acknowledged, “Funding is an ongoing challenge,” but noted, “We’re developing some unique programs that promote important interaction and connectivity between Yamhill and Carlton.”

He cited the partnership with local wineries, spearheaded by the Wrights.

The high school owns 20 acres that budding horticulturists have planted in winegrapes. They plan to expand into hazelnuts and perhaps establish a nursery to propagate grapevine rootstock.

The school system also forged a partnership with Meggitt Corporation in 2012.

“Meggitt was having a hard time finding qualified employees for its McMinnville plant,” Cline said. “Their management told us that if we could help student learn how to do the kind of work they needed, they would provide adequate funds to cover the costs of the classes.”

Meanwhile, Chief Martinez, who served 23 years with the Lebanon Police Department before moving to Carlton, is working to establish an identity for his department.

“I’ve adopted a community policing policy,” he said. “We go out and get to know people, build relationships. We sponsor an open gym at the grade school.

“National Night Out is also a very good way to acquaint the community with our services. We need to make it clear that we all have a common vision.”

He said, “There are little hubs where people are taking on projects. It’s grown in the last three years or so.

“I can say that major crimes are minimal, and our interaction with the community is helping residents understand that we are taking care of them. If they need to call 911, we’ll be there to determine the level of need.”

Oriet said the community has always been proud of the fact it has been able to maintain its own police department.

Fredrick, originally from Sitka, Alaska, moved from Portland in 1994. And she has never regretted it.

“I love living in this small town,” she said. “Everyone knows you and is so friendly.”

Though she maintains her law practice in McMinnville, she often returns home for lunch.

“We could see what this town was going to become,” Fredrick said. “We planted a vineyard after we moved here, and now we’re putting in a tasting room on Main Street, where Milo’s has been. It’s called Stone Griffon.”

That observation about what it was going to become couldn’t have proved more insightful. Through the first decade of the 2000s, the pace of growth escalated rapidly.

The Carlton Winemaker’s Studio, currently home to a dozen boutique wineries, started in 2001. The Wrights bought the old train depot in 2003 and turned it into a tasting room for their Tyrus Evan line, taking the middle names of their two boys.

Wineries joining since include Cana’s Feast, Carlton Cellars, Troon and Scott Paul.

Tasting rooms have become even more ubiquitous. The lineup includes Barking Frog, Folin, Ghost Hill, Kramer, Lachini, Noble Pig, Omero, Seven of Hearts, Siltstone and Twelve.

The tasting rooms are a big draw. Local businesses benefit greatly from their presence.

But Carlton continues to rely on volunteers for signature events. Carlton Fun Days or any of the smaller events that take place almost every weekend during the summer wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for volunteer efforts. Walk in the Park serves as an umbrella for a series of tourist-oriented activities, including a summer concert series and movies in the park.

City Manager Olsen finds Carlton’s sense of community and spirit of voluntarism inspiring. “This is something many communities aspire to but rarely achieve.”

Madsen Grain is a longtime landmark in the center of town. A holdover from Carlton’s agricultural heyday, it continued operating until 2007, when the Wrights bought it from longtime owners Bob and Sharon Nistler.

Scott Bernards, whose farming family has pioneer roots, noted that at one time, his grandfather operated a creamery in the building now occupied by Scott Paul Wines.

Momentary nostalgia for the Log Cabin Tavern arose among the group during the meeting. The popular gathering spot, which burned spectacularly in 1995, stood right next door.

Despite all the activity over the past decade, the group agreed that Carlton still feels real, original and true to its roots. It remains bucolic, a rural haven with a slower pace.

Now with a population of almost 2,100, kids ride bikes all around the safe little town. They spend their summers at the public pool, which is on Main Street.

Of course, there are always some challenges that need to be addressed. For example, the local high school, more than 75 years old, is in dire need of renovation. And the city reservoir is so badly silted, the city is short of drinking water and even shorter of unclouded drinking water.

On the other hand, commercial diversity is on the rise, as unrelated businesses capitalize on opportunities generated by wine tourism.

We can’t close without acknowledging Bernards’ pride in the school system’s terrific FFA program, and his observation that grape cultivation and traditional forms of ag get along better here than any other place in the valley.

That’s not to mention the championship-level soccer teams Karen Wright has developed in her coaching capacity.

She has involved hundreds of local students, from kindergarten through high school, in her top-notch program. That recently earned her coach of the year honors from the Oregon Youth Soccer Association.

And that’s what I found out while OUT and ABOUT — in the Great Little Wine Town of Carlton.