Fine Vine

December 30, 2009

COWHORN Vineyard & Garden of Jacksonville has had plenty to boast about recently. The boutique “biodynamic” winery has drawn praise from Wine Spectator and the San Francisco Chronicle, and its wine has been recently poured at the James Beard House in New York City and at Fortune magazine’s annual women’s summit.

Sea Change?

December 28, 2009

Over the holiday I’ve continued tasting new releases, wrapping up a lot of new wines from Oregon in particular. I continue to be convinced that the 2007 vintage was not universally a write-off for pinot noir – some vintners made very good wines. But 2008 is stellar for white wines, virtually without exception.

Yesterday the tasting moved south, to the Applegate Valley in southern Oregon, and the biodynamic wines of Cowhorn. Cowhorn is a new producer, and it took me a moment to connect the name with the biodynamic approach. But it took no time at all to appreciate the quality winemaking, and especially the focus on balanced wines, with moderate levels of alcohol and a restrained use of new oak barrels.

On the excellent Cowhorn website you’ll find a “Masterplan” graphic showing not only the vineyards, but also such things as a flowering insectory, a compost pad and chicken condos. It’s clear that owners Bill and Barbara Steele (who both left careers in finance) are serious about every aspect of organic farming, not just grapegrowing. In fact, the full name of the business is Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden.

The first wines to be released include a pair of syrahs, a white Rhône blend, a viognier and a grenache (the only wine I did not taste). The 2006 syrah, from second leaf vines, is a lovely bottle, with fresh, sweet blueberry and blackberry flavors, streaked with licorice and pepper. The 2007 syrah has more exotic scents and baking spices. Both wines were picked at relatively low brix and fermented with native yeast. They sell for $32.

In 2008 a pair of white wines were added. The viognier is exceptional – rich without being heavy, mixing melon, peaches, pineapple and lime-ade flavors with fresh acids (no malolactic) and good texture. The other white, named Spiral 36 (I have no clue what that refers to) is a roughly equal blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, also biodynamic, native yeast, no malolactic, moderate alcohol. Both these wines sell for $18.

It is a real pleasure to find a new winery doing such excellent and thoughtful work right from the start. I hope to visit Cowhorn on my swing through Oregon next month. Meanwhile, I encourage you to visit their website and make the acquaintance of these wines, which are among those pointing the way to a long-term sea change in the way wine is grown and produced in this country.

– Paul Gregutt

Barb’s Secret Santa

December 25, 2009

I love living in Southern Oregon! I had a magic Christmas experience this year. I was in Ashland the week before Christmas running some errands when I was overcome by the desire to listen to some holiday Dean Martin.

I stopped in the Music Coop to inquire about their supply of Dino. Specifically I said: My love of Christmas carols knows no bounds and I am looking for Dino!” To my delight, I found both Dean Martin’s album and the Rat Pack Christmas album.

As I was checking out, I asked what the wonderful blues carols were that were playing in the store. They told me it was the Allen Toussaint album and to my surprise, the proprietor had checked to see if it was available for me. He told me that he would have a copy for me, as a gift, by the following day!

He was very polite when offering it to me, saying that I was under no obligation to accept it. Quickly, a member of his staff answered for me reminding him that I walked in saying, “My love of Christmas carols knows no bounds!” Sure enough, the next day I was delighted by the sounds of carols New Orleans style.

Thank you Music Coop for spreading generosity in spirit and in action.

– Barbara Steele

Is there a place for organics on upscale restaurant wine lists?

December 23, 2009


Like organic foods twenty, thirty years ago, wines produced in organic, Biodynamic®, as well as vegan and sustainable fashions are emerging out of the fringe elements of commercial taste, and becoming more significant by the day. Like all wines, they give us pleasure as alcoholic beverages, make our food taste better, and sweeten our outlook on life. But exactly what, besides health and environmental issues, are the attributes that make these wines worth the attention of wine buyers and sommeliers in fine dining restaurants?

If anything, the supernova speed in which the world of wine has expanded in recent years has resulted in this: a boring, dreary sameness. Twenty years ago it was assembly line chardonnay and white zinfandel; fifteen years ago, industrialized merlot; and during the past decade or so, the proliferation of just-another-cabernet and syrah, shiraz, schmiraz… one after another, all tasting the same. Lord help us if this starts to happen with pinot noir.

But one thing about organic and Biodynamic® wines: there is a tendency towards uniqueness rather than sameness. When you grow and make wine from the premise of exerting the least amount of intervention that might blur the distinctions of grape and site, you almost cannot help but produce something different, almost every time. And if there is anything a highly competitive restaurant wine buyer or sommelier is concerned about, it is finding wines of truly unique qualities, reflective of grape and terroir, that differentiates his or her restaurant.

So to the question of whether there is a place for organic wines in upscale restaurants: whether you realize it or not, organics already play an important role in fine dining wine lists because many of the world’s finest winemakers already produce their wine that way.

If anything, what organic and Biodynamic® wines lack in the vast majority of upscale restaurants is identification as such: organically conscious restaurant guests can hardly appreciate a wine’s organic-ness when most restaurants still do not bother to include descriptions on their wine lists. It’s still a rare wine list that tells you if a wine is dry or sweet, light or heavy, let alone organic, Biodynamic® or vegan.

The first steps to take towards merchandising to organic-conscious restaurant guests, then, are:

1. Group organic as well as Biodynamic® and vegan wines into their own wine list categories

2. Take a pro-active stance towards sourcing and placing organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines on your wine list; particularly those of the quality and style that meet your standards, price points and culinary needs.

3. Do your sourcing based upon an intelligent measure of your clientele (if, for instance, a large number of your guests are indeed high percentage organic food consumers – particularly those who buy from upscale retail stores like Whole Foods, Balducci’s, or Dean & Deluca – then it would make sense to put a stronger emphasis on high quality organic wines).

4. When listing organics, it would behoove you to explicate the basic distinctions among the various, often overlapping categories.

Re the point #4, these are the basic categories under which most organic wines fall:

Wines Made From Organic Grapes
These are wines made from grapes farmed completely without the use of pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, soil fumigants, or other chemicals. In the U.S. certified organic grapes must meet standards established by the USDA’s National Organic Program. In California even stricter standards are set by California Certified Organic Farms (CCOF); stipulating requirements such as no bio-engineering or iodizing radiation, and encouraging the use of composting, cover cropping and beneficial insects.

In France, and 79 other countries other than the U.S., an estimated 70% of the organic certification is administered by ECOCERT. In Italy, organically grown wines are labeled with the designation Viticoltura Biologica; and in Spain, Agricultura Ecologica. In Oregon, organically grown wines come with the seals of Oregon Tilth; in Washington St. the seals will say WSDA Certified Organic. In New Zealand, the leading certififying organization is Bio-Gro, and in Australia it is Australian Certified Organic.

Organic Wines
In the U.S., Organic Wines must not only be made from 100% organically grown grapes, they must also be vinified totally without the use of added sulfites. The USDA’s NOP (National Organic Program) specifies that even naturally occurring sulfites (found in every wine, organic or not) must be under 10 parts per million.

Wines Made From Biodynamic® Grapes

Biodynamic® wines are not only farmed organically, they must meet even higher standards of sustainability by following specified preparations that help connect the “dynamic” relationship between everything in the universe, biological and spiritual. Most of these principles are based upon the homeopathic farming methods established by an Austrian philosopher named Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s; and today, certified internationally by The Worldwide Demeter Association (in the U.S., by Demeter USA; and in France, by Biodyvin). While many aspects of biodynamic viticulture (like the burying of manure stuffed cow horns in the vineyard) might seem a little loony, contemporary proponents are very comfortable with most of its practicalities; such as use of on-site produced compost and manure, the emphasis on ecosystem diversity, incorporation of animal life, and even cultivation according to “natural” cycles (i.e. solar and lunar calendars).

Biodynamic® Wines

Biodynamic® Wines must be made from Biodynamic® Grapes, while meeting higher standards of vinification defined primarily by use of natural (rather than cultured) yeasts, zero additives (like sugar, tannin and acid “adjustments,” and bacteria to start malolactic fermentation), and restricted use of sulfites at bottling (for dry wines, less than 100 parts per million).

Vegan Wines
Wines meeting vegan standards must be vinified without the use of animal products; particularly filtering and fining agents such as egg whites, casein (a milk protein used to soften wine), gelatin (removes bitter phenolics) and isinglass (derived from fish swimbladders). Instead, vegan wines are typically clarified by non-animal products like bentonite clay.


In years past, most of the organic and Biodynamic® wines restaurateurs have deemed worthy of inclusion on fine dining wine lists have been European: all-time classics like Domaine Tempier in Bandol, Zind-Humbrecht and Domaine Ostertag in Alsace, Château de Beaucastel, Domaine de Solitude and M. Chapoutier in the Rhône Valley, Mas de Daumas Gassac in the Languedoc, the controversial “Gang of Five” of Beaujolais’ grand crus, the incredible Domaine Leflaive and Domaine de la Romanée-Conti in Burgundy… and more, much more.

During the past year (2008) I have been making a concerted effort to taste as many organic, Biodynamic® and vegan wines as possible, and have found even more of very good to exceptional quality by producers who, if not nearly as well known as Frog’s Leap let alone DRC, are certainly as good and worthy as the non-organic brands commonly found on wine lists. Wines that I, for one, would drink anytime, any day, anywhere:

Frog’s Leap, Rutherford Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley, California; organic grapes)
Ceago, Clear Lake Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic®)
Saracina, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (Caliornia; organic grapes)
Patianna, Mendocino Sauvignon Blanc (California; Biodynamic® )
Source-Napa, Gamble Vineyard Sauvignon Blanc (Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Holmes, Sauvignon Blanc (New Zealand; organic grapes)
Pircas Negras, Torrontés (Argentina; organic grapes, vegan)
Morgan, Double L Vineyard Chardonnay (Santa Lucia Highlands, California; organic grapes)
Paul Dolan, Mendocino Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Chardonnay (Napa Valley, California; organic grapes)
Del Bondio, Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; organic grapes)
Sky Saddle, Harms Vineyard Napa Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Porter-Bass, Russian River Valley Chardonnay (California; Biodynamic®)
Cowhorn, Viognier (Applegate Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Bonny Doon, Le Cigare Blanc (Arroyo Seco, California; Biodynamic®)
King Estate, Domaine Pinot Gris (Oregon; organic grapes0
Domaine Leflaive, Macon-Verze (France; Biodynamic®)
Pierre Morey, Meursault (France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vacheron, Sancerre (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Francois Chidaine, Montlouis Clos du Breuil (Loire River, France; organic grapes)
Nicolas Joly, Savennierès Les Clos Sacres (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Vigneau-Chevreau, Vouvray (Loire River, France; Biodynamic®)
Domaine Ostertag, Pinot Blanc Barriques (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Zind-Humbrecht, Pinot Gris (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder, Benefizium Porer Pinot Grigio (Alto-Adige, Italy; Biodynamic®)
Meinklang, Grüner Veltliner (Austria; Biodynamic®)
Marcel Deiss, Engelgarten (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Dirling, Riesling (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Pacific Rim, Organic Riesling (Columbia Valley; organic grapes)
Pacific Rim, Wallula Vineyard Biodynamic® Riesling (Columbia Valley; Biodynamic®)
Marc Kreydenweiss, Gewürztraminer (Alsace, France; Biodynamic®)
Emiliana Natura, Gewürztraminer (Valle Cachapoal, Chile; organic grapes)
Ca’ del Solo, Muscat (California; Biodynamic®)

Paul Dolan, Mendocino Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Quivira, Wine Creek Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Tres Sabores, Napa Valley Zinfandel (California; organic grapes)
Ceágo, Redwood Valley Camp Masuit Merlot (California; Biodynamic®)
Freemark Abbey, Sycamore Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon (California; Biodynamic®)
Casa Barranca, Arts & Crafts Red (Central Coast, California; organic wine)
Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Marcien (California; Biodynamic®)
Neal Family, Wykoff Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family, Fifteen-Forty Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Neal Family, Second Chance Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (Atlas Peak, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Frog’s Leap, Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Tres Sabores, Perspective Cabernet Sauvignon (Rutherford, Napa Valley; organic grapes)
Rubicon Estate, Napa Valley (California; organic grapes)
Clos Roche Blanche, Touraine Cabernet (Loire Valley, France; organic grapes)
Nuevo Mundo, Cabernet/Carmènére Reserva (Maipo Valley, Chile; organic grapes, vegan)
Pircas Negras, Malbec (Famatina Valley, Argentina; organic, vegan)
Organic Vintners, Mendocino Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes; vegan)
Casa Barranca, Laetitia Vineyard Arroyo Grande Valley Pinot Noir (California; organic grapes)
Alma Rosa, La Encantada Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir (California; organic)
Brick House, Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergstöm, Bergström Vineyard Pinot Noir (Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Bergstöm, Bergström de Lancellotti Vineyard Pinot Noir (Chehalem Mountains, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Sokol Blosser, Dundee Hills Pinot Noir (Oregon; organic grapes)
Cooper Mountain, 5 Elements Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; Biodynamic®)
Cooper Mountain, Life Pinot Noir (Willamette Valley, Oregon; organic wine, Biodynamic® grapes)
Maysara, Jamsheed Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Maysara, Estate Cuvée Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Maysara, Delara Pinot Noir (McMinnville, Willamette Valley; Biodynamic®)
Alois Lageder, Krafuss Pinot Noir (Italy; organic grapes)
Joseph Drouhin, Chorey-Les-Beaune (France; organic grapes)
Marcel Deiss, Burlenberg (Alsace; Pinot Noir; Biodynamic®)
Weingut Michlits, Pinot Noir (Burgenland/Osterreich, Austria; Biodynamic®)
Kawarau Estate, Central Otago Pinot Noir (New Zealand; organic grapes)
San Vito, Chianti (Toscana, Italy; organic grapes, vegan)
Badia a Coltibuono, Chianti Classico Riserva (Italy; organic grapes)
Meinklang, Zweigelt (Austria; biodynamic)
Clos Abella, Priorat Porrera (Spain; organic grapes)
Organic Vintners, Tinto (La Mancha, Spain; organic grapes, vegan)
Bodegas Iranzo, Vertvs Tempranillo (Spain; organic grapes)
Mas Estela, Quindals (Emporda, Spain; organic grapes)
M. Chapoutier, Crozes Hermitage Les Meysonnieres (Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)
Gemtree, Tadpole Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Gemtree, Bloodstone Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Gemtree, Uncut Shiraz (McLaren Vale, Australia; organic grapes)
Ventura, Syrah (Lontué Valley, Chile; organic, vegan)
Emiliana Novas, Limited Selection Carménère-Cabernet Sauvignon (Colchagua Valley, Chile; organic grapes; vegan)
Emiliana Coyam, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Emiliana, Gê, Los Robles Estate (Colchagua Valley, Chile; Biodynamic®; vegan)
Beckmen Vineyards, Purisima Mountain Vineyard Syrah (Santa Ynez Valley, California; Biodynamic®)
Beckmen Vineyards, Santa Ynez Valley Purisima (California; Biodynamic®)
Jean-Paul Thévenet, Morgon Vieilles Vignes (Grand Cru de Beaujolais, France; organic grapes)
Domaine Tempier, Bandol Cuvée Classique (Provence, France; organic grapes)
Domaine de Villaneuve, Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Rhone Valley, France; organic grapes)
Marc Kreydenweiss, Perrières (Costières de Nîmes/Rhone Valley, France; Biodynamic®)

Elizabeth ROSE, Napa Valley Pinot Noir Rosé (California; organic grapes)

Pizzolato, Prosecco (Italy; organic grapes)
Jeriko Estate, Mendocino Brut (California; organic grapes)
Domaine Carneros, Brut (California; organic grapes)

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– Randy Caparoso

Musings on Bears

December 16, 2009

The first clue was the scent. A BLM ranger told me a few years ago that once one smells bear droppings, one often doesn’t forget.

So, when I smelled it earlier in the week, I paused and looked. I was in the northeast corner of the farm where we have the most wildlife activity. Nothing looked out of place though.

A day or so later, we saw the half eaten squash. It was really obvious from the size of the bite that this was eaten by a BIG set of teeth! Even given the clues, it was still a surprise the next morning when Vince radioed into the office that he was attempting to escort an adolescent bear out a farm gate!

From my observations, Vince is really gentle with animals and exercises a lovely touch with them, be it snakes, bugs or dogs. So, with concern for Vince’s safety, we felt confident that he was the best guy to handle this COWHORN job.

I guess the little guy was pretty scared – Vince said he literally ran right up the tree to a spot about 50 feet above ground. When Bill and I checked the tree later that afternoon, he was still there.

By morning he had moved on, I hope to safe territory. At COWHORN, we discourage interaction with the wildlife preferring instead that the critters maintain a healthy fear of humans. We love their presence, but from a distance.

– Barbara Steele

Earthly Consciousness

December 7, 2009

Last blog, I wrote about examining the naked vines. It was an analytical piece concerning the practicalities of fine wine growing. I have grown to love the analytics associated with fine wine growing so it is with pleasure that I wrote that entry.

But when I came back to it, I felt a twinge of remorse. Another day passed and I didn’t feel better. An apology is necessary. I walked out into the vineyard to talk to my plants. Lest you think I am nuts, I am clear on the point that they will not talk back to me!

I’m not so sure however that they cannot hear. So yes, I talk to my plants (and my dogs and the trees…). l told them I was sorry for exploiting their nakedness, sharing with the internet world how they look in repose.

They are beautiful vines, to be respected and admired for their gift to us. It is with gratitude that I share their lives with you. I am only their steward and I stand in respect of their generosity. Thank you Mother Earth.

– Barbara Steele

Winter Vines

December 2, 2009

In a previous blog, I wrote about how the fall provides a window into the general strength of the vineyard. Now in winter another picture emerges. The vines are dormant now – their naked canes laying on the trellis. Now we can see the success of our vineyard plan from the previous year. In winter last year, we determined a plan for the growing season in 2009. We set metrics for ourselves concerning irrigation, canopy growth and management, among other things. During the growing season, we felt great about our practices! All of our goals were attained. That means things like canopy height were achieved before our target date or that we had uniform leaf coverage over the fruit. But it’s a funny thing about a row of healthy looking plants that are all leafed-out and pretty with fruit: you tend to only see all those pretty things! In winter, we can truly see how each vine grew. You can see the size of the each shoot, for example. This is critical because the shoots help feed the fruit. If you have been to our tasting room, no doubt you have heard Bill say that we want “uniformly ripe fruit because in the glass, under-ripe plus over-ripe does not equal ripe.” A small shoot next to a large shoot does not equal the wine we want to pour!

– Barbara Steele