Botanical Sanctuaries

September 30, 2010

Though grapevines occupy a special place in our hearts and minds, and may be integral to our livelihoods and health, they’re also a major agricultural crop that takes up large swaths of land. In many ways, this is a positive trend, since perhaps land transformed into vineyards is acreage that won’t go towards poorly planned development in years to come. On the other hand, standing forests, grasslands and native plants have been sacrificed to make room for grapes.

The potential exists to transform vineyard properties into more diversified landscape without sacrificing grape yield. Botanical sanctuaries, insect nurseries attracting beneficial bugs, and edible, native or medicinal “plantscapes” can be alternatives to the grapevine monocultures of today.

Thoughtful and well-conceived land use can also offer a range of marketing opportunities, goods and services enabling winery customers to become more acquainted with the vineyard and species that live and grow there. Moreover, customers may exhibit more loyalty toward a good steward of the land who restores riparian corridors and minimizes use of synthetic herbicides, for example.

Some grapegrowers dialing into sustainability practices are already on their way to implementing a more diverse polyculture — where pollinators such as butterflies and hummingbirds can be seen — from which cash crops, value-added food, herbal and bee products, crafts and, of course, quality wines can permeate the community.

Planting and selling varied crops can also help a vineyard owner weather a bad grape year. Though some winery owners may object to having a range of products other than wine in the tasting room, others with adequate space appear to benefit from merchandising assorted novelties.

Living in Ashland, a part of Oregon with a more southern exposure, I can’t avoid mentioning an iconic California winery, Benziger, based in Glen Ellen. Watching sheep graze — and fertilize — the vineyards, and checking out potentially endangered pollinators buzzing around their insectary garden, the Benziger family has successfully turned sustainable winemaking into a tourist attraction, without seeming uppity or “eco-righteous” and without sacrificing profits.

Fortunately, I don’t have to travel nearly so far as Sonoma in order to see these kind of practices; Cowhorn Vineyards & Gardens is producing some of Oregon’s best wine and is becoming its own self-styled botanical sanctuary. A Demeter-certified Biodynamic property, Cowhorn’s mission is in no small part restoring and preserving biodiversity, and its owners, Bill and Barbara Steele, take pride in the practice.

According to the Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Association’s website, within Biodynamics, the farm is considered a “self-contained individuality.” Integral to that one-ness, however, is the complex web of countless organisms, many of which come with the property, for better or worse.

I visited Cowhorn, only a stone’s throw from the Applegate River, to walk the land with Bill Steele. We started along the irrigation ditch, which he’s successfully reclaimed from meddling Himalayan blackberries — no easy task — that are now giving way to emerging irises and other native plants.

Like many vineyards, Steele’s land isn’t entirely dedicated to grapegrowing, though he’s expanded fruit production, recently planting more Viognier, which also goes into their white blend, Spiral 36.

From the ditch, we walked towards the asparagus patch. Asparagus in late summer doesn’t at all resemble the diminutive shoots we eat in the spring. As an example of the profit potential of vineyard diversity, Cowhorn harvested close to three tons of asparagus in 2010 from a two-acre block. The asparagus is showcased and retailed at one of the premier produce shopping destinations in Southern Oregon, the Ashland Food Co-op, for $4.95 per pound. Cowhorn’s wine sits only a cheese display away from the produce section.

The fact that Barbara is planting a medicinal garden caught my attention, not only because medicinal plants are part of my work, but also because they’re functional and often beautiful and exotic.

From the medicinal area, we walked through a small, diverse orchard with a fruiting chestnut, and a nearby plot where they’re hoping to grow truffles under hazelnut trees. According to Steele, the soil pH is suitable for such an undertaking and hazelnuts are a good medium for truffle production.

Botanical sanctuaries adjacent to vineyards don’t have to follow anyone’s rulebook, though as with any agricultural endeavor, growers are at nature’s mercy. Growing food, culinary herbs or native plants may be a goal, but there are many non-native, non-invasive, medicinal, fiber and other “utilitarian” plants that serve their human sponsors in countless ways. In order to find them, in fact, one doesn’t have to leave the environs of the Applegate Valley.

Horizon Herbs is a great source for native, rare and very unusual medicinal and edible plants and seeds. They’re based in Williams, only several miles from Cowhorn, as the crow flies. In addition to Horizon, Herb Pharm and Pacific Botanicals are other exemplary local land stewards and medicinal herb growers and processors who don’t cultivate grapes, but can teach vineyard owners much about biodiversity and value-added products.

At this point, sustainability won’t go away. Whereas 10, 20 years ago, many folks viewed the movement as a nice idea, now it’s mainstream and gaining steam. Biological diversity is a well-recognized cornerstone of sustainability and food security, and finding a marketing niche in diversified plantscapes may be a worthy idea for a vineyard near you.

Michael Altman is a freelance writer and nutrition instructor at Southern Oregon University and College of the Siskiyous in Northern California. He maintains a clinical nutrition and herbal medicine counseling practice for various conditions and can be emailed at

Biodynamic Duo

September 29, 2010

The folks at Wine Enthusiast magazine have rated and reviewed two more COWHORN wines. Our 2009 Spiral 36, a blend of Marsanne, Roussanne and Viognier, earned a rating of 90, and the 2008 Syrah 74, our most recently released Rhône-style red, received a 91. We couldn’t ask for much better news to energize Bill, Barbara and the whole COWHORN crew just before harvest season.

We’re just the assistants to the grapes around here; so the real props go to Mother Nature for making our wine fine. Aside from a little pruning and picking, we really can’t take credit for much more than helping the grapes get from the field to the barrel and the barrel to the bottle. The pleasure in your glass is a product of a process as old as the origins as life itself. We’re just lucky enough to get to taste the wines first and live on the farm!

The new ratings, along with reviews that even we haven’t seen yet, will appear online in Wine Enthusiast’s searchable wine database at beginning December 15th. Only a small selection of wines reviewed and rated make their prestigious print publication, and you can bet we’ll be down the Bloomsbury Books newsstand in December buying up a few extra copies if we get some ink offline.

Truffle Update

September 28, 2010

As their third growing season comes to an end, the truffieré is looking great! The trees are large enough to stake and are starting to take shape. As well, we have begun managing the block for the future underground truffle crop. Take a look at this irrigation around the tree. The lines are placed in a thick mulch of compost and wood chips.

These will help protect the soil from heat and cold. Also, the double irrigation line will provide uniform water in the bed. Our plan is to provide a ground environment similar to forest floor where truffle grows in the wild in Oregon. Hopefully, this setup will provide an environment that encourages truffle fungi while the trees continue to grow and develop.

– Barbara Steele

Biodynamic farming; quasi-religious hocus-pocus or not?

September 26, 2010

Niklas Jörgensen, a Stockholm-based blogger who focuses on Portuguese wines, posted a great interview with Boivinum winemaker Christoph Röper about biodynamic and organic wines. Niklas is “mad about Madeira” with a blog devoted exclusively to this unique region.

When Nicklas asked Christoph about the basics of biodynamic wines and what distinguishes them from organic wines, he said “I’d like to quote Cowhorn Vineyards in Oregon since it can’t be expressed better.”

» Read full interview on Mise en bouteille


September 18, 2010

COWHORN will be in good company at The KI, a futuristic eco event in October 2010 on San Francisco’s historic and proposed self-sufficient Treasure Island. The innovative, smart-living experiential lifestyle event will showcase clean tech cars, electric motorcycles, eco fashions, home designs, appliances and furnishings, to modern, inspirational films, health and wellness, new technologies and smart-living solutions.

What makes The KI even cooler for those of us in Southern Oregon is that it features a few of our local favorite green brands including Brammo electric motorcycles, Organic Nation spirits, and COWHORN wines. The event creators Jerry Jensen and Susan Purkhiser also call the Rogue Valley home for much of the year.

If you’re in the San Francisco Bay Area from October 22-24, we encourage you to experience the finest in innovative design, automotive, fashion, media, art, technology, food, wine and everything beautiful that embodies sustainable living.

Harvest Update

One phrase I recently heard is “veraison is the ignition of harvest.” Veraison is the term used for when the grapes gain color. As with everything at Cowhorn, we measure, monitor and evaluate veraison. We like it to be consistent and quick. This year, everyone is talking about the cold year. No doubt, May was cold.

The rest of the year, however, has been a different story. In particular, September has been fantastic so far, offering moderate days and warm nights. That means the grapes are ripening evenly (no stress from heat spikes) 24 hours a day (no frosty nights). Veraison this year was both consistent and quick!

– Barbara Steele

Artichokes, Year 2

September 17, 2010

These are the new choke plantings! After successfully testing varieties and planting placement last year, the new seedlings were planted in late August of this year.

As well, a red and yellow blooming habitat break was planted behind them. Next year there will be nectar for bees, cover for birds and bugs, nitrogen fixing for the soil, chokes for the humans, and beautiful color for the eyes. Biodiversity is a feast for Mother Earth and her guests!

Another BioD Prep Application

September 16, 2010

Everyone asks, “Isn’t it hard to farm according to Biodynamic principles? Usually there is something going on that allows us to illustrate that it isn’t difficult, just different. This week, we started a new compost windrow.

There are lots of myths about Biodynamic composting, about layering and turning to get it just right. At Cowhorn, composting is about as simple as it gets. First, a trucking company delivers to us 150 yards of fresh dairy manure (five 18 wheelers!). Our first job is to wait. Fresh manure is wet so it needs to dry.

This is Bo’s favorite time. It is important to have LOTS of dog shampoo around the house while you are waiting. Next, after a week or so, Martin uses the tractor to push the manure together forming a beautiful, perfect windrow. At this point, we are ready to add the Biodynamic preparations. This requires us to climb the windrow in various locations and dig holes. The preps are dropped in the holes and covered up.

Next, we wait. For the next few weeks, we use a four foot thermometer to measure the temperature of the pile. Once we have established that the row was a desired temperature for several weeks we are done. Not much mystery, lots of steam and a lot of waiting!

– Barbara Steele

The Oregon Wanderfeast

September 15, 2010

Oregon’s local food culture is one the reasons it’s such a great state to be in. For your next dinner gathering, we suggest putting away that dog-eared cookbook and try a recipe or three out of The Oregon Wanderfeast.

It’s a free downloadable kitchen companion featuring ten Oregon chefs, ten tastes they’re crazy about, and the recipes to prove it. Spiral 36 fans will want to turn directly to page for a Dinner and a Movie dish by Chef Tim Keller from The Carriage House at Nunan Estate in Jacksonville.

He uses Southern Oregon wines and cheese from my favorite producers, but you can substitute your own local ingredients.

» Download The Oregon Wanderfeast Kitchen Companion

More on Bo

September 14, 2010

Ordinarily Deuce owns the title of “stinkbug.” This is because he loves to roll – the deader, the better, in his opinion. He routinely stinks and has dead, crusty stuff stuck to his adorable little body. For two years I waited to be able to hug “Little D” and now I am rewarded with gross, disgusting crusties. An exception happens when fresh manure comes. Then Bo gets the title. This is not a lie: when the truck first arrived dripping green liquid out of the tailgate, Bo stood under it until he was coated and soaked! He then took his time rolling in the wet ground grinding it into every pore on his body! LOTS of dog shampoo required!