Challenge Accepted — Oregon Wine Press

May 18, 2017

Cowhorn builds first tasting room to LBC standards

Details:

Address 1665 Eastside Rd., Jacksonville
Hours Thurs.–Sun., 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Phone 541-899-6876
Website www.cowhornwine.com

By Maureen Flanagan Battistella

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden’s new tasting room is a visual manifestation of Bill and Barbara Steele’s personal commitment to sustainability. Seated at the edge of the vineyard, near a rushing stream and under a bluff, the Cowhorn tasting room is an organic reflection of the landscape. Its muted colors harmonize with the setting and the building’s clean, simple lines don’t compete with the lush beauty of its surroundings deep in the Applegate Valley and along its river.

Buddy roams the outside of Cowhorn’s new tasting room showcasing clean lines and natural materials. Photo By Maureen Flanagan Battistella

Completed in June 2016, Cowhorn’s is the first tasting room in the world built to Living Building Challenge (LBC) standards from the International Living Future Institute.

The Steeles’ farm and vineyard are Demeter-certified Biodynamic, so they are no strangers to rigorous standards, transparency and accountability. When they were ready to build a real tasting room, not just a space squeezed into the barn, Bill and Barbara buckled down to identify a building and design company able to execute their vision and reflect their Biodynamic philosophy. The Steeles found Green Hammer, a Portland design-build firm passionate about building green, and integrated progressive sustainable standards into their work, the Living Building Challenge among them.

“We want to create buildings that have no impact [on the land] or buildings that actually give back,” said Alex Boetzel, Green Hammer chief operation officer.

The company’s practice for any build is to work through an owner’s sustainability expectations in conversation and design to determine which standard is most appropriate for that build. It was the Living Building Challenge that made sense to the Steeles and best suited their ambitious vision.

“Biodynamic farmers have an aspirational goal to create a closed system, so we are challenged to minimize the outside inputs we bring onto the property,” Bill said. “The Living Building Challenge is to architecture and design what Biodynamics is to farming.”

The Living Building Challenge standard is based on 20 imperatives organized into seven performance “petals” or areas: place, water, energy, health/happiness, materials, equity and beauty. Every directive within a petal must be met.

“If you are so inclined, you can accept anywhere from one to seven challenges,” Bill explained. “Barb and I, in our wisdom, chose all seven.”

Green Hammer realized the materials petal was the most challenging LBC standard to satisfy.

The back walls are constructed of rusted steel, a clever play on the owners’ last name, Steele. Photo By Maureen Flanagan Battistella

“The core of the materials requirement is that there are 20 compounds that cannot be included in any material component that finds its way into the project,” Boetzel explained, specifically mentioning polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, found in many commonly used products such as hoses, valves and pipes. “Typically, manufacturers aren’t inclined to share information about material components, so there’s a lot of time that goes into product research and follow-up with material suppliers, vendors and subcontractors to be sure they’re willing to cooperate.”

Occasionally, the supplier isn’t even aware of where they’ve sourced their materials, like gravel or water, or which additives have been used. Subcontractors had to be trained to use only materials specifically selected for the project and understand that a bolt or adhesive couldn’t be casually introduced to the worksite because all materials must be vetted.

The LBC standards relate not only to construction, but also to operation and the mandates must be documented and metered for 12 months before certification is granted. For example, the water and energy petals demand the building, renovation or landscape and infrastructure be net positive; the building must collect and treat all water on site and produce more energy than it uses.

Both the Steeles and Green Hammer agree the Cowhorn tasting room will achieve full Living Building Challenge certification. “It will be a year of audits and inspections,” Bill said, but by the end of the year, Cowhorn’s may be the 41st building in the world that will be fully certified, the first tasting room fully certified and the first commercial building in Oregon fully certified.

Cowhorn’s new tasting room is not only sustainable, it is stunning. The building is a beautiful assembly of recycled steel, cork walls that soften sound and insulates, rock culled from the fields and crushed for foundation and roads, and recycled glass. The rock, steel and cork surfaces are visually appealing and also a tactile delight, the contrast of textures evident to the eye and the hand. The white glass backing the bar reflects the vineyard, surrounding hills and forests, inviting the outside indoors.

The Steeles know first hand both agriculture and winemaking entail much work and a mix of science and art. The new Cowhorn tasting room fuses the science of sustainability and the art of design to represent their wine philosophy, their core beliefs.

Oregon’s Best Wines: Syrah — 1859 Magazine

Cowhorn Vineyards 2013 Syrah 21

written by Sheila G. Miller

Until Barbara Steele started  Cowhorn Vineyards with her husband less than a decade ago, she wasn’t much different from the average wine consumer—“For a special occasion we’d buy a $20 bottle instead of a $10 bottle”—until she got into the business and realized she didn’t really know how to make a $50 bottle of wine.

But the founders enlisted top talent, stayed patient, and Cowhorn developed to deliver some of the best syrah in Oregon.

Steele started the farm in 2003 and spent several years getting the property ready—building roads, adding irrigation—before her husband, Bill Steele, came to work the land in 2005. The winery opened in 2008.

“Biodynamic method is a farming method, but it’s also a lifestyle and a philosophy,” Steele said. “I use a phrase that’s often used in the corporate world, the 360 review. … I look at my life and the farm from that point of view—will it be good for the community? For the soil? For the crossflow of critters? Will it be good for customers and the wine club? That’s a really biodynamic way of looking at it. We look at our farm as though it’s an organism, like a whole body.”

Cowhorn’s eco-friendly winery is up for certification through the Living Building Challenge.

One of the keys to making the winery as ecofriendly as it is? The buildings. After living in an old farmhouse and working out of the building, the Steeles built a home for themselves following passive house design. They put the farmhouse on a proper foundation, and it’s still used as a shop—“It’s our welding shop, it’s where our worm bins are, it’s where everything happens.” Then they built the winery building in 2006. Steele believes the building could earn a LEED silver standard certification.

“We also want our people to be in a good environment,” she said.

Now the Steeles are in the process of getting the new tasting room certified through the Living Building Challenge. If it’s approved, it will be the only tasting room in the world to achieve that ambitious standard.

“We’re definitely a mission-driven business,” Steele said. “We really want to show people that there are models of farming that are good for the environment and do work economically. That’s what gets us up every day.”

Plus, she said, the land is “a little magical.” The Steeles enlisted experienced consultants and a soil scientist to help with the wine. “They saw the magic here to make cool-climate wines, to make Rhone wines that are so misunderstood.”

Rhone-style syrahs fall into a few categories—from California’s hot climate to European Rhone Valley wines to Shiraz in the Southern Hemisphere. Then there’s the cooler-climate wines such as Cowhorn’s.

“When you pair biodynamic agriculture with cooler climates, you’re drawing out this nuance,” Steele said. “We’re all about creating wines of nuance, and you get something pretty powerful when you put a cool climate and biodynamic farming together.”

Steele said Cowhorn’s syrahs are similar to northern Rhone Valley wines. “We’re definitely fruit first. We don’t want to make something that is high alcohol or with a high oak finish,” she said. “We are an Oregon winery, and we have an Oregon palate. You enjoy that element of fruit first but at the same time there’s the baking spice and violet and aromatics.”

What’s next? Steele said her team is still getting used to working in a living building. After that’s sorted, the sky is the limit.