Growing grapes by the moon

June 20, 2008

Barbara Steele remembers that in 2002 Southern Oregon only had one wine tasting room. Now there are 58, she said.

But Barbara, 46, and her husband Bill, 47, did something beyond building an outdoor tasting room to set their vineyard apart. The Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden, snuggled next to the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains in the Applegate Valley, is Southern Oregon’s only certified biodynamic and organic vineyard and farm.

“Most people know what organic is,” said Barbara. “Biodynamic goes one step further.”

Like organic farms, biodynamic farms steer clear of artificial chemical use. But, according to Demeter International, the world’s only biodynamic farm certifier, a biodynamic farm is managed as a living organism.

“It’s truly based on the oldest principles of farming,” Barbara said.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher who founded the Waldorf education approach, developed the biodynamic system in 1924. He taught that treating the soil as a living organism would help to ward off pests and diseases.

Steiner created special tea preparations to be sprayed at certain times of the year and for various treatments.
One elixir, called Preparation 500, begins with cow manure fermented in a cow’s horn. The horn is later buried in the soil.
“Thus, the name of our vineyard,” said Barbara.

The seasons, phases of the moon and even the zodiac are used to schedule vineyard tasks.

“The way this has gotten played in the media is very woo-woo,” she said. “But since the beginning of time, farmers have farmed by the cycles of the moon. Steiner developed this system because he thought people were losing their connection to food.”

That connection is what keeps Bill out in the vineyard.

“I’m constantly out there walking around, looking and listening,” he said. “When you have that connection, you know when plants are happy and when they’re stressed.”

But Barbara also noted that their farm takes full advantage of technological advances in the agriculture industry. That includes a science lab inside the wine production shed.

“We’re constantly testing and monitoring so it can alert us if there are any problems with the wine,” Bill said.

Cowhorn path

The Steeles, who also own property in Ashland, met in college at Berkeley. She studied political economics and he majored in conservation and resource studies. They both went on to receive MBAs.

Bill worked as an analyst on Wall Street for 17 years, and Barbara worked for a financial think tank. But in 2002, they decided it was time for a career change and bought what was then known as the Straube Farm.

The neglected 117-acre farm didn’t have roads, fencing or irrigation.

“It did have 20-foot tall blackberries, weeds and squatters in the house,” Bill said.

After extensive soil testing, the Steeles determined they could grow either hay or grapes.

“What can we say? We like wine,” he said.

The Steeles brought on Alan York, a biodynamic vineyard consultant with clients in California, Chile and Italy, to help with the operation.
Barbara said, “With a biodynamic system, you let the soil tell you what should be planted, not the other way around.”

So 90 soil tests, dug six feet deep, helped them to determine where and which grapes, fruit and nut trees and vegetables should be planted.
“That’s why all of our roads are curved,” Barbara said.

The Steeles grow Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne-Roussanne, Grenache and Syrah grapes and just released their first bottles last year. The wines, ranging from $18 to $32, are available at the Ashland Food Co-op, Chateaulin Restaurant in Ashland, New Sammy’s in Talent and will soon be sold at the Harry and David store in in Medford.

Cowhorn sold 40 cases of wine last year and anticipates selling 750 cases this year, Bill said.

“We’re shooting for 1,800 cases next year and think we’ll max out in the 2,200 range by 2010,” he said.

Jason Doss, co-owner of Chateaulin Restaurant, carries two Cowhorn labels and said the Steele’s vineyard offers some of the better wines from Southern Oregon.

“I love that they are organic and biodynamic,” said Doss, adding that his patrons anticipate the release of their wines and continue to purchase them.

“I think that’s the best compliment, when someone tries it and ends up buying six bottles to a case of their wine.”

– Michele Mihalovich