Barfly: Former Marin residents pursue biodynamic wines in Oregon

September 24, 2017
Bill and Barbara Steele founded Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in 2003. (Courtesy of Bill and Barbara Steele)
Bill and Barbara Steele founded Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in 2003. (Courtesy of Bill and Barbara Steele)

Barfly: Former Marin residents pursue biodynamic wines in Oregon

Barbara Steele grew up in Marin County, moving to the Terra Linda/Marinwood area when she was 5 years old.

“I went to Oak View, Miller Creek and then to Terra Linda High School,” says Steele, 55.

It was a normal Bay Area career arc; she obtained an undergraduate degree from the University of California at Berkeley and an MBA from the University of Colorado. Back in the Bay Area, she worked at various Marin small businesses as a controller and chief financal officer, meeting and marrying her husband, Bill. In 1990, they bought their first home in Novato.

The rest would have been a normal Marin County story except that the couple took to visiting family in Oregon for vacations. An interest in farming took root, and a casual interest in homeopathy led to a more serious interest in biodynamics. A conversation about the intersection of the two ideas on a return from just such a trip led the couple to make a major life change.

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden was founded by the Steeles in 2003. She had been helping some organic farms with financial analysis for about a year and became interested in shifting her career to an agriculture-related field.

“We were enthralled by the focus on improving the land, making it richer at the end of the year than the beginning, and by the principles of promoting health for the entire estate,” she says.

They bought a dilapidated farm in Jacksonville, in Southern Oregon, quit their jobs and moved north.

“We were able to find a single piece of property that allowed us to build a model of an economically sustainable and scalable farm,” she says. “We started growing produce in 2004 — corn, melons and potatoes — and in 2005 we planted our first vineyard. We now have 25 acres of vineyards, 2 acres of asparagus, and 1 acre of assorted bee habitat, herbs and other produce.”

Often called extra-organic or something to that effect, biodynamics follows the beliefs of Rudolf Steiner, who also pioneered the Waldorf School method, by emphasizing observation, analysis and creativity in improving the vitality of an organism. Which, in this case, was the Steeles’ farm. Enlisting experts in biodynamics and grape growing, the couple planted 11 acres of grapes, including syrah, grenache, viognier, marsanne and roussanne.

“We grow Rhone varieties because that is what our soil and climate can support. Our vineyard sits on old river bed soil in a cold valley of the Applegate,” she says. “Our soils and climate are very similar to the Rhone regions. We selected these varieties because the terroir of our site would best support full expression of flavors from our estate-grown fruit.”

Simply put, their goal is to become the preeminent fine wine grower and perennial polyculture farm in the New World. “This essentially means that we will not monocrop,” Steele says. “And that we believe our farm will demonstrate that many different crops, from wine grapes to asparagus to fruit trees, can be grown sustainably from a soil perspective as well as an economic perspective.”

The biodynamic method is different from the organic method as it does not rely on manufactured products for its growing system. “BD relies on the ancient relationships between plants, climate, soil, microbes and all critters large and small to work together to create good tilth,” Steele says. “By supporting fully functioning soil, we create immunity for our plants from disease and pests, and we support full expression of flavors from the fruit.”

Cowhorn produces two white Rhone blends, a red Rhone blend, a grenache, a syrah and a reserve syrah. They also produce a viognier and reserve viognier, ranging in price from a modest $28 all the way up to $75, with most hovering around $40.

“We are a certified organic grower and winery,” Steele says. “We have documentation for every grape we have grown and every wine we have ever made that it met the OG standards.” Cowhorn’s certifier is Stellar Certification Services. But Cowhorn does not label their wines as organic, they are labeled as biodynamic, with the Demeter certification stamp on every bottle.

“I think that showing respect for our bodies, our minds, our planet and our fellow travelers on Earth defines us,” Steele says. “People who love Cowhorn love fine wines and care about their choices. When you make a choice to support Cowhorn, you are choosing something that supports good health, good tilth and good community.”

As for Marin’s impact on her professional life, Steele says it was critical. “Working in small business in Marin for 15 years was the most amazing experience. I had the opportunity to work for talented business owners who shared their experience and methods with me. I really cannot list all the stories of things my employers did for me. But I will tell you that I started Cowhorn because of the education and compassion I was shown by my employers in San Rafael.”

Cowhorn wines can be found at stores and restaurants throughout Marin. More information about the winery can be found at cowhornwine.com.

Jeff Burkhart is the author of “Twenty Years Behind Bars: The Spirited Adventures of a Real Bartender” and an award-winning bartender at a local restaurant. Follow him at jeffburkhart.net and contact him at jeffb@thebarflyonline.com.