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

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

December 23, 2009

THE CASE FOR ORGANICS IN FINE RESTAURANTS

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.

ORGANIC MERCHANDISING ON WINE LISTS
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.

ORGANIC/BIODYNAMIC® WINE LIST CANDIDATES

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:

Whites
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®)

Reds
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®)

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

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

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– Randy Caparoso

Southern Oregon Wine: A Sustainability Story

November 14, 2009

Many Rogue Valley residents have no concern that the area is known less for its wine than it could be. Perhaps they prefer to keep the region from becoming a Napa-style wine theme park. On the other hand, emerging from the shadows as a region far from a major city, some southern Oregon wineries are earning high ratings and getting press attention from major wine publications. Many are offering novel grape varietals and from vineyard-to-bottle, are setting new standards for viticultural stewardship and sustainability. Some are taking steps towards courting a loyal following of eco-friendly tourists while maintaining the patronage of locals who value the many advantages of sipping wines crafted close to home.

Wineries are doubling efforts to attract visitors during what many owners hope is the end of “The Great Recession,” having guests’ “staycations” include The Britt Festival in Jacksonville, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, and of course a swing through the Applegate, Bear Creek, and Illinois valleys to taste some of our region’s wine.

My introduction to Oregon wine was around noon on a spring weekend in 2001. I was with a friend attempting to taste at Valley View Winery after a previous try when the gate and winery were closed. This time the gate was open, so we drove down towards the winery that housed the tasting room at the time. I met Mark Wisnovsky, a member of the family that owns the winery.

Wisnovsky, the president of Valley View, told me that at the time they didn’t have an employee to work the tasting room. I told him his problem was solved, and he hired us soon after.

Since then, I’ve seen the wine industry in southern Oregon bear ever more fruit. There are now wine dinners any given week throughout the region, pairing the distinct food of the area to its wines. There are courses at Southern Oregon University (SOU) on wine chemistry and winemaking classes at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, located in the heart of the Umpqua Valley, southern Oregon’s northern winemaking tier. Also, a renowned SOU climatology professor Greg Jones is researching the effects of climate change on grape production the world over.

In addition to unusual grape varietals, sustainability and climate change, other buzzwords have emerged during the last decade in the wine industry: carbon footprint, Biodynamics, custom crush, and the not-so-new concept of supporting one’s “ocal economy” included.

Grafting and Winecrafting

According to Wisnovsky from Valley View, “After 30 years of growing grapes and making wine, it’s refreshing and surprising that our most popular red and white we didn’t even produce ten years ago.” When I worked at Valley View, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay were quite popular. Today, their most popular red and white wines are Tempranillo and Viognier, respectively.

In the vineyard, perhaps the most powerful force for transformation—enabling wineries like Valley View to grow Tempranillo and Viognier on pre-existing vines—has been the agricultural practice of vine grafting. Instead of having to start from newly planted vines, grafting allows a new varietal to be planted on existing rootstock. For example, on abundant standing Merlot vines, a vineyard could graft a more profitable grape such as Grenache or Syrah.

A few years ago, on a volunteer-reporting assignment for Jefferson Public Radio, I covered Applegate Uncorked, a wine-tasting event in the Applegate Valley. I interviewed Ted Warrick, one of the owners of Wooldridge Creek Winery, about the process of grafting. He explained the procedure and noted that, “even if you were going back to the same varietal, it’s not a bad idea because it revitalizes the plant.” Moreover, Warrick said, “You have an existing pump (root) system, and by cutting the trunk off at a foot and a half and putting in new grafts, you have all the energy that’s focused onto those little cuttings.” Fast forward to 2009, Tempranillo from grafted vines has been one of Wooldridge’s offerings since the summer. Though the Tempranillo grape is native to Spain, Earl Jones, owner of Abacela Winery, located in the Umpqua Valley, is credited with bringing Tempranillo to southern Oregon, pioneering its planting in spring of 1995.

Sustainability: From Vineyard to Vessel

Many wineries have found their niche in the sustainability movement, some more willingly than others. Sustainable practices come in many forms. I first tasted Cowhorn Vineyard and Gardens’ wine while interviewing owners Bill and Barbara Steele for JPR. They implement biodynamic agricultural practices, a method of organic farming that treats farms as unified and individual organisms, emphasizing balancing the holistic development and interrelationship of the soil, plants, and animals as a self-nourishing system. Asked about what makes their operation unique, Bill Steele said, “First, you will see incredible biodiversity—we have not only grapes, we have asparagus, cherries, hazelnuts, and artichokes.” Steele added, “An important goal is to minimize the inputs, so we have animals which create manure, manure creates compost, and compost is put on various crops in the field.” As a result, fertility in the form of manure or chemical fertilizer doesn’t get trucked in from outside, which lowers the use of fossil fuels and thus the carbon footprint.

Cowhorn has also teamed up with the Ashland Food Co-op to recover and recycle used corks with the help of a Corvallis-based outfit that processes them into wine packaging materials. Another company that Cowhorn has begun to collaborate with takes used bottles and turns the bottoms into tumblers and the necks of bottles into stemmed goblets. In the field, Cowhorn and other wineries in our region are employing techniques intended to add fertility, attract pollinators, and control disease and pests. Efforts continue throughout our region. Brian Gruber, manager of Troon vineyard, one of the original vineyards in the Applegate Valley, explained their method of following organic principles and creating a sustainable farming environment, “We leave alternating rows untilled for the intent of attracting beneficial insects.” Gruber added, “We use cover cropping in all rows for managing soil erosion and nourishing the vines with nitrogen-fixing legumes.”

In addition to cultivation techniques, Chris Hubert, vineyard manager for Quail Run Vineyards, emphasized their use of more efficient drip irrigation on the vines. Hubert says, “The amount of water that farms around here get for water rights is based on growing something like a crop of alfalfa, which uses a tremendous amount of water—we use very little water compared to what our water rights are.” He added, “You don’t get the erosion you would have from flood irrigation or even sprinklers.”

While admitting minimal use of synthetic herbicides, Hubert also mentioned that Quail Run’s approximately 300 acres of vineyards comply with Low Input Viticulture and Enology, Inc. (LIVE) practices. Though not as stringent as organic or Biodynamic certification, many producers in the northwest wine industry view LIVE’s attention to pest management, wildlife conservation, irrigation, and other farm practices, including a living wage for workers, as a step in the right direction. Other regional vineyards and wineries with LIVE certification include RoxyAnn, Pheasant Hill Vineyard/Trium Wines, and Wooldridge Creek among others.

Facilities Management

Linda Donovan, formerly Cowhorn’s winemaker, has started an urban winery in downtown Medford called Pallet Wine Company. I visited there in mid-September as the finishing touches were being put on the building so she could begin crushing grapes for her customers.
Though we didn’t discuss her winemaking style, we did talk about her business model, which is quite different from most area wineries. A major part of Donovan’s business is taking grapes from assorted vineyards and making wine for those that don’t have their own winery. Donovan says, “We offer a service to growers who may have wanted to build a winery by now but might wait a couple of years to establish a brand and then build.”

Pallet’s so-called “custom crush” turn-key operation allows the vineyard or client to specify what they want made from their grapes. The customer can spell out percentages of specific varietals in a blend, whether they want the wine filtered, what type of barrel they wish to use, if any, and how long they want the wine aged before bottling and labeling.

Donovan and I spoke a bit about the urban renewal she hopes for in her neighborhood, between Third and Main, on Fir Street in Medford’s rejuvenated railroad district. Referring to Portland’s upscale Pearl District, Donovan hopes her downtown business area will eventually be known as the “Pallet District.” Hush-hush, the potential future Medford food co-op is rumored to have checked out buildings in the area as well. Who knows? Perhaps we’ll see a Rogue Valley light rail stop there some day. All aboard! Next stop Rogue Creamery in Central Point for some wine and cheese.

Though Donovan believes in field and winery Biodynamic and organic practices, her initial effort towards sustainability centers on working out of a standing structure, the Cooley-Neff building, a 21,000 sq ft historic lumber warehouse which she retrofitted, keeping much of the old wood and metal plates so she could build her tasting room with recovered and recycled building materials.
Donovan is seeking Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification for her winery. LEED encompasses a range of eco-friendly building strategies, including, but not limited to energy conservation, interior air quality standards, permeable pavement, and the use of non-toxic and recycled building materials.

Timing is Everything

Michael Donovan, no relation to Linda Donovan, is managing director at RoxyAnn Winery. When asked about the recent economic downturn, he pointed out that “Almost every winery has experienced a decrease in sales to fine dining restaurants and bottle shops, but that’s not the majority of our sales.” Donovan added, “The majority are direct to consumer, mostly through our tasting room, to our wine club, and a small portion direct to consumer via email and direct shipping.”

Pallet Wine, Linda Donovan’s startup, had undertaken construction during the downturn, and capitalized on what the wine world might call economic “bottle shock.” The economic climate thus far has worked to her advantage. “We were able to find a great building at a reasonable price and the labor to get the construction done in two months, which in other years might have taken over a year to get completed,” said Donovan, “and the City of Medford worked so well with us—they checked in to see what they could do and understood our time crunch.” That is, the crunch before the crush. If her building wasn’t completed by September, then she’d have missed her first crush and be sitting on costly real estate and equipment, waiting for 2010 to make her first vintage.

Other Trends

There’s a well-worn expression: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When it comes to grapes, this hasn’t entirely been the case in southern Oregon.

Many southern Oregon growers sell grapes to upstate producers. Through this symbiotic relationship, growers benefit from a larger market for their fruit, while upstate wineries get access to warm-weather varietals that traditionally haven’t grown in the cooler Willamette Valley, thus broadening their range beyond Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Riesling and a few other varietals to which they’ve been climatically limited.

Some other southern Oregon growers truck grapes north, have their wine made there, and then bring it back down to sell through southern Oregon tasting rooms and retailers. Aside from the carbon footprint of fruit going up the freeway and bottled wine coming back down, (and possibly going back up again through a distributor) other factors may, in the future, change this practice. Still, wine is getting shipped and trucked all over the world from as far away as Chile, Australia, South Africa, and India with a sizable carbon footprint.

While some scoff at climate change, judging by the number of conferences around the world dedicated to the potential effects of global warming on grape production, the wine industry isn’t taking any chances. On the ground, harvests are changing. Varieties that couldn’t ripen in the traditionally far wetter Willamette Valley climate—such as Syrah—now are.

According to Greg Jones, SOU professor and research climatologist who specializes in viticulture, a given grape’s tolerance for temperature variations is limited, “Each variety has what is called a ‘climate niche’ or in other words its baseline climate range that provides for the most optimum growth, production, and especially quality.” Jones adds, “This climate niche varies by variety, with some being roughly 2 degrees Celsius and others up to about 4 degrees Celsius or so.”

Outside of southern Oregon, there are 800 lb gorillas in two directions. To the south are Napa, Sonoma, and the other California growing regions, while the Willamette, Columbia Valley, and Washington sit to the north. Proponents of southern Oregon grape-growing widely agree that quality is the most important ingredient for sustainable production here at home, but the business climate and the climate itself will continue to have major voices in the decades ahead.

A Panel of Experts

I recently had the good fortune of having dinner with an “ad hoc” panel of wine experts, friends Cheryl Garvey, Ron Stringfield, and Eric Weisinger, all veterans of the wine industry. Garvey is the wine steward at Shop n’ Kart in Ashland. Stringfield is southern Oregon sales representative for Galaxy Wine Company. Weisinger is a winemaking consultant, and former winemaker for Weisinger’s of Ashland, a winery his father John still owns. Eric spends half the year in the southern hemisphere, making wine in New Zealand and Australia and hosts a blog called “The Traveling Winemaker.”

In our conversation, Weisinger pointed out that “Winemaking benefits from experience, and anytime a winemaker can get out of the home region and experience winemaking, vineyard management, and other aspects elsewhere, it will work to their advantage.” He added, “You can’t quantify the value of getting out and working in other regions.”

Ron Stringfield, a hobby winemaker who has tended to and made wine from numerous regional vineyards, emphasized that wine is highly dependent on geology—the subterranean climate. “To maximize varietal character and make more expressive wines, better attention must be paid to site selection and soil type,” says Stringfield. Fine Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, for example, have traditionally grown in gravelly soils, while arguably the world’s best Syrah grows in granitic ones. Site selection speaks to “terroir,” the characteristic sense of place exhibited by minerality, earthy notes, and subtle aromatic differences in long-established growing regions and renowned wines.

Cheryl Garvey emphasized that vineyards must be put on a higher pedestal than trophy tasting rooms. “Of course they are important,” she says, “but when the tasting room is prettier than the wines, what’s the point?” Garvey adds, “That may help the winery, but it doesn’t help the region.”

Though Stringfield, Garvey, and Weisinger had their own personal critiques of southern Oregon wines, they also noted some favorites. They all liked Cowhorn’s Rhone-style blend, Spiral 36. This wine combines Roussanne, Marsanne, and Viognier grapes. Garvey recommended some of Trium’s and Pebblestone’s current releases as well.

Trying to get a last word on southern Oregon wine, I made my way to Andy Phillips at the Winchester Inn wine bar in Ashland. I coincidentally ran into Eric Weisinger there, and we tasted a few wines he made from southern Oregon fruit, including some grown in Sam’s Valley. Phillips has some of his own regional favorites, though he concurred with high marks for Cowhorn’s Spiral 36. In no particular order, Andy also recommended RoxyAnn 2007 Viognier, Eden Vale 2003 Tempranillo, and Soloro’s “Two Sisters” 2005 Syrah, which got special praise. Phillips liked Weisinger’s 2007 reserve Chardonnay, (made by Chanda Miller) and the wines of Folin Cellars and Cliff Creek.

Stringfield and Phillips envision areas of White City and Sam’s Valley rising on the regional winemaking horizon. The soil conditions—or rock conditions—are right there for bringing another dimension to the region’s viticultural palette. In fact, Phillips believes we’re starting to see signs of terroir and proper varietal plantings in certain sites. He also sees great potential for blending wines from the various soil types in different parts of the Rogue Valley and southern Oregon. “The one who gains access to all these sub-regions for blending purposes will show what this region’s potential truly offers,” said Phillips. Few will argue that tasting wine is a singularly individual experience.

The Jefferson Public Radio wine tasting is a wonderful opportunity for savoring and judging for oneself many diverse and impressive wines that the region has to offer—and a step for sustainability on multiple fronts. This year marks the 29th Annual JPR Wine Tasting & Silent Auction at the Ashland Springs Hotel. Tickets are available now at Chateaulin Selections in Ashland and at Adam’s Deli in Medford and at www.ijpr.org and at (877) 646-4TIX.

Michael Altman is a clinical nutritionist who teaches at Southern Oregon University and the College of the Siskiyous. A resident of Ashland, he also is a hobby winemaker.

– Michael Altman

Explore Hidden Oregon

October 1, 2009

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

The climate and well-draining soil of this new vineyard (the first grapes were planted in 2005) bear a likeness to France’s famed Châteauneuf-du-Pape region. Translation: expect to sample some really excellent vino here, especially Rhone varietals like the 2007 syrah, which swirls with hints of black cherry and cassis. The Spiral 36, a white table wine with rich oak and apple flavors, could be Southern Oregon’s answer to the Willamette Valley’s pinot noir, but for less than $20.

– Brian Barker, Bart Blasengame, Kasey Cordell, and Rachel Ritchie

Wine and food on the farm

August 4, 2009

A new wave of winemakers are adding food crops and animals into the mix

Modern-day photos of wine country depict swaths of green vines rolling over hillsides in perfect, corduroylike rows.

But as bucolic as these images might appear to us, they would look alien to a visitor from centuries past. That’s because, once upon a time, farms were multipurpose operations, with grapes planted alongside vegetable patches and animal pens. Winemaking was just one of the many tasks that fell to the subsistence farmer.

Today, a new wave of local vintners is trying to re-create the Old World way of vine tending, for practical as well as sentimental reasons.

With their meat, eggs and produce, these winegrowers can glean additional revenue from their property without relying solely on the fickle wine market.

In addition, those who use horses to plow their land say that it saves them the money and fuel that would have been spent behind the wheel of a tractor. Polyculture farming, they maintain, enriches their land without harming the environment.

Finally, according to these back-to-the-land winegrowers, biodiversity protects their grapevines. Just as you’re bound to come home with the sniffles if you sit on an airplane with 150 other people, a vast tract planted with a single crop is a sitting duck waiting to be attacked by viruses and bugs. By introducing other crops to their vineyards, these farmers are adding buffers against pests and disease.

But practical factors aside, there’s also the basic truth that wine and food taste best together.

Here’s a look at three Oregon winemakers who embrace this Old World ethic.

A new old way of farming
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, Jacksonville

Mid-September through late October, most folks in the winemaking trade are busy harvesting grapes, then sorting, crushing and fermenting them. It’s backbreaking, round-the-clock work. Thank goodness it only happens once a year.

Unless you’re Barbara and Bill Steele (pictured left, in his winery) at Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Jacksonville, in which case harvest comes around four or five times a year. Because in addition to growing grapes and making wine, the Steeles farm asparagus, artichokes, corn, squash, pumpkins, watermelons, and cherries and other tree fruits. Oh, and coming next: black Perigord truffles.

Despite the fact that Oregon has a tradition of fruit orchards turned wineries (including Roxy Ann Winery/ Hillcrest Orchard in nearby Medford) — “99 percent of the people who come to the tasting room have no idea that a vineyard can produce food,” Barbara Steele marvels.
But local restaurant chefs know better. Cowhorn Vineyard often teams up with 38 Central, a fine-dining restaurant in Medford, for pairing dinners that match Cowhorn produce with Cowhorn wine.

In addition, New Sammy’s Cowboy Bistro in Talent serves Cowhorn’s renowned purple and green asparagus alongside its wine and has a line on next summer’s crop of artichokes. And the Ashland Food Co-Op and Ashland Shop’n Kart grocery stores sell the southern Oregon vineyard’s vegetables.

» Full article

– Katherine Cole

Cowhorn Vineyard Releases Spiral 36

June 30, 2009

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden today announced the release of its groundbreaking white wine blend, “Spiral 36.” The wine takes its name from the shape of the winery’s logo and the estate vineyard blocks (3 and 6) that produced the winegrapes. Spiral 36 is Cowhorn’s first release from the 2008 vintage, and the first of a series of new releases in 2009.

Spiral 36 represents Southern Oregon’s first wine to rival great “Cal-Rhône” white blends from California – and from the Rhône River wine region itself. While most such blends are based on the popular Viognier grape, Spiral 36 is almost equally balanced between Viognier (35%), Roussanne (35%) and Marsanne (30%).

“We vinified the three grapes separately, and each wine had great character on its own,” recalls Cowhorn co-founder Barbara Steele. “Then one day it hit us — if we could get all that flavor and personality into one wine it would be amazing. Once we started blending trials, we knew we had to do it.”

Spiral 36 stands out for more than its blend. The vineyard that produced it is certified for both organic and Biodynamic® viticulture, ensuring that the flavors on the vine were true to nature. The grapes were also fermented in native yeast directly from the vineyard, rather than with cultured commercial yeasts (many of which are designed to add or amplify particular flavors). This natural approach further maintained the authenticity of the fruit flavors and textures that went into a mix of neutral (75%) and new (25%) French oak barrels for the winter.

This result is a succulent blend that gives off soft scents of Golden Delicious apple, guava and mango. These fruits burst with freshness on the palate, lifted up by a vibrant foundation of baked pear and caramelized golden sugar flavors. This complex combination creates a more serious drinking experience than most whites – even though the wine did not go through malolactic fermentation and has refreshingly moderate alcohol.

When Rhône grapes became popular in California in the 1990s, the wineries leading the trend found that the grapes of the region have a natural affinity for blending. Even though American wine-drinkers have been taught for two generations to select single-variety wines, the best of the new Cal-Rhône blends caught on. Leading proponents including Bonny Doon, Domaine de la Terre Rouge, Eberle, Joseph Phelps, and Tablas Creek established successful white blends along with their red Rhône blends. Now Spiral 36 takes its place beside them – even as it stands out with its Biodynamic origins in Oregon.

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden produced 416 cases of Spiral 36, which is offered at a suggested retail price of $18.00.

– John Darling

Art of the Label

May 1, 2009

No limit to creative applications in Oregon wine label design

With the number of Oregon wineries poised to surpass 400, what goes on the bottle is proving to be even more diverse—if not more delightful—than what goes in it.

Given the independent spirit of winery owners, that hardly comes as a surprise. But what they have come up with for their label designs and the process they went through to arrive at them, has so many different variations it would take a book to describe them all.

Marketers will tell you one of the most important purposes of a wine label should be shelf presence, to attract a potential buyer’s attention by making it stand out from competitors. But if that were its only purpose, large type and bold colors would do the job.

The message conveyed by a wine label goes well beyond that single goal. For Oregon wines, in particular, the label makes a statement—often a very personal one—about the people who have committed their lives to the product inside.

Here are a few of our favorites. They represent a broad range of artistic styles and graphic techniques, which indicates the almost limitless possibilities that can be explored when seeking to establish a unique identity.

Among the following examples selected by the OWP, you will find everything from portraits to period photography, abstract art to bold typography, vineyard scenes to birds and animals, line sketches to crests and monograms.

Breaking the designs down into specific groupings proved to be a useful approach. There are so many themes and variations on themes, defining and including examples of each one would have been impractical.

Instead, by utilizing a range of basic categories, we have sought to give readers a look at labels we feel exemplify each category as well as some insight into how they came about.

It should also be mentioned that some labels employ parts of more than one category, such as artwork depicting a person, a photograph of a person, or artwork of people in a series. The dominant element dictated which group it best fit into.

Perhaps the most important thing about this sampling of creative endeavors is that they are distinctly individualistic expressions of an industry noted for its intense individuality. They state, in no uncertain terms, “label me Oregon.”

Modern art takes on many forms. That one of them might be the semi-abstraction of a cowhorn is unusual though certainly not unimaginable. Ever heard of the biodynamic tea preparation created by composting in a buried cowhorn?

Cowhorn owners Bill and Barbara Steele wanted to have their label symbolize the winery’s commitment to biodynamics. When that desire met modern art’s uncluttered dynamics, the concept came together seamlessly.

The spare, simple elegance of this label attracts curiosity and therefore commands attention. What more could you ask in the way of both image and shelf presence?

– Karl Klooster

Thanksgiving wines to chat about

November 18, 2008

2007 Cowhorn Applegate Valley Marsanne Roussanne ($19): A winner with the “I-just-want-something-light-and-dry” crowd, this silky white blend is a blend of two grapes (originally hailing from France’s northern Rhone) that were farmed biodynamically in southern Oregon. With turkey, it shows complementary notes of herbs, lemons and minerals. With stuffing, unusual components of hay and quince come to the forefront, finishing with spicy ginger and white pepper. Find it at Bales Thriftway Marketplaces; Cork on Northeast Alberta Street and Northwest Lovejoy Street; Fred Meyer Burlingame; Market of Choice stores; QFC Mount Tabor and Sellwood; and Quinn’s Prime and Vine.

– Kate Leeper

Biodynamic wine is still going strong

July 23, 2008

“Don’t panic, this wine’s biodynamic” read the headline on a column in this space back on Dec. 27, 2006. It introduced Cowhorn, a new winery in the Applegate Valley that pledged to follow biodynamic practices.

A year and a half later, Cowhorn has wines on the market, and so does its winemaker. I recently tried three of them. Cowhorn 2006 Syrah ($32) is a special, distinctive, rich wine that holds up well after opening. I thought it was at its best on day three. The aftertaste has a hint of sweetness.

Cowhorn 2007 Viognier ($32) is among the best of this varietal locally — well-balanced, good fruit, not too sweet. Linda Donovan, who is Cowhorn’s winemaker, has bottled a wine of her own — Donovan 2006 Rogue Valley Corner Vineyard Mourvedre ($22). Its label explains, “Nestled in the hills above Ashland, Oregon, is a small vineyard dedicated to growing mourvedre; this is the debut wine from that remarkable site “¦ ”

I found the wine delicate and subtle, yet with definite, intriguing flavor.

“The Cowhorn wines are certified Biodynamic, and the Donovan is made using indigenous yeast and bacteria,” says Donovan. “It is also important to say ‘certified’ because some people use the term without obeying the principals of farming and/or understanding what it means.” What’s Biodynamic or biodynamic?

When doing Internet research, you see the word both ways, depending on circumstances. One site declares that Biodynamic is a trademark held by Demeter, the U.S. association of biodynamic farmers. The Web site I quoted back in 2007 has disappeared, but Cowhorn owners Bill and Barbara Steele agree with the definition it gave:

“Like organic farming, Biodynamic agriculture uses no synthesized herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers. Unlike organic farming, though, Biodynamic producers build upon the organic base with their adherence to life’s rhythms and a self-containing ecosystem.” The Steeles further state, “The Biodynamic approach includes holistic practices that vitalize life in the soil, on the land and in the atmosphere. As such, farming is seen as an integral part of culture (agri-culture) and is integral to the well-being of a community. Habitat preservation, water conservation and the well-being of the earth factor into each decision we make.”

Three other Cowhorn wines now in release are its 2007 Roussanne ($18), 2007 Marsanne-Roussanne ($18) and 2007 Grenache Rose ($22).

Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden is located at 1665 Eastside Road, south of Ruch. Call 899-6876 or visit www.cowhornwine.com. It is open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. There is a tasting fee of $5, waived with a purchase of six or more. Cowhorn wines also are available at Chateaulin and Ashland Food Co-op; find Donovan’s wine at Chateaulin and Harry and David Country Village.

– Cleve Twitchell