Moving Past Pinot

January 22, 2010

There is general agreement that Oregon is known around the country and even outside our borders as the pinot noir state. This dates back as far as the late 1970s, when an Eyrie pinot showed well in a prestigious competition. A few years later Robert Parker lavished praise on the landmark 1983 vintage, just as many new wineries were being opened. By the end of that decade, with Robert Drouhin’s DDO project established, the reputation for Oregon pinot noir was on a strong upward trajectory.

Is this a curse or a blessing? Look at what has happened in the subsequent two decades. For starters, the geographical scope of Oregon wines has expanded dramatically. Eastern Oregon wineries in the Columbia Gorge, Columbia Valley and Walla Walla Valley AVAs are proliferating. Yet thanks at least in part to Oregon’s focus on pinot pinot pinot, some of the best eastern Oregon producers (notably in Walla Walla) have been “claimed” by Washington. Southern Oregon wineries have also experienced a dramatic growth spurt, and most are focusing on ABP wines – anything but pinot – in many instances. The state’s pinot-centric reputation does these wineries little or no good.

A brief visit to Abacela yesterday included tastings of estate-grown albariño, tempranillo, late harvest viognier and a fortified port-style wine crafted from true Portuguese varietals. In the barrel room we sampled syrahs and malbecs. Not a pinot in sight. Owner Earl Jones showed me a detailed soil map, with evidence that a fault line, running right through the middle of his property, divides it neatly into one half with the oldest soils in Oregon (more than 250 million years old; and the youngest, created just 25,000 years ago. That’s a great story, and Abacela has the great wines to go with it. But I’m not holding my breath until Oregon becomes known as the tempranillo state.

Later, at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in the Applegate Valley, I tasted grenache and syrah, along with a three-grape white blend made from equal parts of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, co-fermented. This is exciting stuff! Biodynamically farmed (as are more and more Oregon vineyards), Cowhorn’s first few vintages are turning out distinctive, balanced wines with deep colors, ripe tannins and complex, earthy flavors, despite the youth of the vines. This winery, as do many others in Oregon, holds tightly to the vigneron concept – grower/winemakers, who cultivate their wines from the ground up. This is a great story to tell, as more and more consumers look to locally-grown foods and farmer’s markets.

It seems to me that it’s past time for Oregon’s vintners and especially its marketing organizations to make a concerted effort to showcase the state’s viticultural diversity. I’m not saying forget pinot, or abandon it. Absolutely not. But find creative ways to hitch some of the other wines and strengths to the pinot bandwagon.

I’ve become especially fond of white wines from Oregon. Not just pinot gris and chardonnay, but also riesling, pinot blanc, and more rarified offerings such as albariño and arneis. They have a delicacy and floral aspect generally missing from other west coast whites. Oregon’s non-pinot reds are starting to define themselves regionally also, though the competition for such varietals as syrah is intense. It seems everyone is making syrah these days, and no one is buying it. But that’s a topic for another day. For now, I suggest that if you are a friend of Oregon pinot noir, you grab a bottle of pinot blanc or riesling from your favorite producer as well. You may be very pleasantly surprised.

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– Paul Gregutt

Mountaintop Experience

January 15, 2010

Hello there,

I think your Roussanne is amazing, and I took a bottle of it with me up to an overnight on Mt. Hood.

I ended up with a photo of it that I thought you folks may enjoy.

Thanks for making great stuff, and I hope to visit you before too much longer!

– Submitted online by COWHORN lover Dan Johnson

Thank you Dan. Send us news about your mountaintop experience with COWHORN. Shasta anyone?

– Dan Johnson

Perches 102

January 14, 2010

In Perches 102, we are examining the droppings of the raptors. Check out these bones.

Some look like entire sculls of small birds! Upon reading, I have learned that raptors often eat their competitor birds before they go after ground rodents. As you can imagine, the rodents are the ultimate goal for a farm.

To date, we have these bones and visual sitings of birds carrying snakes, but no direct evidence of rodent hunting. This year, we will be watching for that.

The primary field we will be watching is the orchard because in the orchard we have implemented a no-till program. Verses the vineyard in which we have a sophisticated tillage program that discourages ground rodents, the orchard is like a buffet of fresh young roots. Delicacies for the rodents.

I will monitor the droppings under the perches to see what they are eating. I’ll let you know!

– Barbara Steele

Perches 101

January 13, 2010

Our friend Paul has been bugging me to write about the perches at Cowhorn. He really likes the story and so do we.

The problem is that “Perches 101” was an entire year, so the story is already long at this point! If you check out Masterplan, you will see the many habitat breaks in the farm that run along the main road.

Our thinking with the spacing of these spots was that they would create a corridor from the southern uplands running the length of the farm to the north. These breaks would provide essential habitat for “beneficials,” the guys that create natural predator loops which in turn keeps the ecosystem functioning fully.

These are the kinds of analytical decisions you make when deciding how to organize a farm. Well, these are the kinds of decisions you make when you are organizing a Biodynamic® farm that you consider to be a living, breathing organism. It looked good on paper so it seemed like a good place to start!

The first year or two, we left the habitats tall with grass so that they had lots of food and cover for critters, bugs and birds. After two seasons of watching and waiting it became clear that the birds liked the bigger fields for nesting and the raptors liked the corridor of land over the ditch bank on the eastern border of the farm. Particularly, they like the knoll by Block D and the trees over the ditch adjacent to Block B.

As I was pondering this, it hit me what to do. Instead of providing a north-south corridor, these birds wanted an east-west corridor from the ditch to the river. The previous year, Martin had made a perch out of a small diameter snag in the forest. We asked him to make 5 more and then we placed them in the habitats around Blocks B, C and E.

Ostensibly, they provide a safe perch over the fields and between the forest and the river. I promise I am not lying about this next statement: it was less than 24 hours before a Cooper Hawk was using the perches! Now one year later, we have the Cooper’s Hawk, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks and a Sharp-shinned Hawk (I’m not positive on the identification of this one yet).

Local wine options grew in 2009

January 6, 2010

Consider, for example, which entries were judged the best at August’s World of Wine Festival near Gold Hill. A chardonnay? A merlot? No. The “best of show” white was an early muscat. “Best of show” red, a cabernet franc.

The other five gold medals went to a couple of syrahs, a white called albarino, a red blend and a dessert wine titled “Night Harvest.” Other local wines growing in both abundance and popularity included viognier and tempranillo.

COWHORN, THE BIODYNAMIC winery in the Applegate Valley has received several honors of note.

Its 2007 Viognier earned a 90-point rating from Wine Spectator, and its 2007 Marsanne Roussanne was mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle as one of the year’s top-20 “unexpected pleasures.”

Unfortunately, both wines are now sold out.

Meanwhile, Cowhorn’s 2006 Syrah and 2008 Spiral 36, a blend of marsanne, roussanne and viognier, were recently poured at The James Beard House in New York City and at Fortune magazine’s annual women’s summit in Los Angeles, the winery reports. The Spiral was one of my favorites at last month’s Jefferson Public Radio tasting.

– Cleve Twitchell

Soul-nurturing Wines

January 5, 2010

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden is all about respect for the land and sustainability.

From the use of multiple crops to a rejection of pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers owners Bill and Barbara Steele are earth-friendly to the core. Everything on the farm is recycled; there is no waste. This was the first winery in southern Oregon to achieve both biodynamic and organic certifications, which in the world of winegrowing means you’ve gone totally green.

It wasn’t easy for the Steeles to get to this point. When they acquired the property in 2002, its 117 acres were in disarray, with weeds and blackberry bushes everywhere. All of it required clearing and the installation of three miles of fencing to keep out the deer, bears, cougars, and coyotes. The surrounding deer fence protects the grapes and keeps out animals that tend to menace dogs. It was hard work, but never for a minute have Bill and Barbara regretted leaving their corporate jobs: He was a Wall Street analyst, and she was a chief financial officer. From pinstripes to overalls, they made the transition.

The couple grows five grape varietals originating in France’s Rhône region: syrah, grenache, viognier, roussanne, and marsanne. Bill noted that they would love to visit the Rhône region of France at some point. However, the daily demands of their farm require their attention now. In addition to 11 acres of grapes, they have planted asparagus, hazelnut and cherry trees, and black truffles, in keeping with their biodynamic philosophy of diversity. The “Garden” part of their establishment’s name is well-considered. One plant just can’t create a desired ecosystem; biodynamics takes a holistic approach to growing grapes and making wine.

For winemaking, Bill assumes the role as “assistant to the grape.” To that end, the Steeles built an advanced wine production facility to control each step of the process and to ensure that their wines are organic. As they note on their website, “Habitat preservation, water conservation, and the well-being of the Earth factor in to each decision we make. We have stewardship of this landscape and consider it our responsibility and privilege to foster its health and strength.”

They take their cues from the wisdom of nature, a sageness evident in the soul-nurturing wines they produce.