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

Keep close to home with eco-friendly wines from Oregon

July 22, 2008

Last week we looked at how wine consumers can be eco-conscious when they shop.

As I was writing that column, I found that I kept repeating the same mantra: Buy local.

When we buy locally produced goods we cut down on energy expended in shipping and transportation and, at the same time, support our local economy.

But there’s added eco-value to buying locally bottled vino: Oregon wine is a world leader in sustainable production and a model for other industries throughout the state.

“Twenty-six percent of Oregon vineyard acreage has been certified sustainable, organic or biodynamic. That is the highest percentage (of any wine region) in the world,” says Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. “Without even looking for any logos on the back label, you can rest assured that Oregon is a leader in the sustainability movement.” It’s in the details Here are a few snapshots of everyday life in Oregon’s green wine industry: tractors fueled by biodiesel working vineyards all over the state; Toyota Prius hybrids carrying wine deliveries to Portland from Left Coast Cellars in Rickreall; visitors to Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner dropping off natural corks, glass wine bottles and wine shipping boxes for recycling. And at Illahe Vineyards and Winery in Dallas — which has solar panels on the roof and rainwater collection systems hooked up to the gutters — harvest will be aided by horses and donkeys pulling grape-filled carts, biofueled by hay and creating compost as they go.

Oregon wineries meet challenge with gusto
Only a handful of wineries and vineyards around the world can claim to be carbon-neutral. Oregon is about to change that number dramatically. Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s office has recently joined forces with the Oregon Environmental Council and the Oregon Wine Board to develop the Carbon-Neutral Challenge, an initiative for Oregon vintners to go carbon-free.

So far, an astonishing 30 Oregon wineries have signed on, pledging to dramatically reduce emissions by practicing conservation and using alternative energy sources such as solar power and biofuels. The wineries will purchase carbon “credit” offsets only as a last resort. (This separates them from businesses that currently purchase carbon offsets as a marketing gimmick, without reducing their own carbon footprints in the least.)

Announced just a year ago, the program aims to achieve carbon neutrality in the first 30 wineries by early next spring. If successful, it will be a model for other wine regions all over the world as well as other industries within Oregon. To learn more, check out: www.oeconline.org/climate/climateneutralwineries.

Eco-friendly by design
Over the years, many Oregon wineries have been built from reclaimed materials or are housed in former barns or warehouses that have been repurposed. The next generation of wineries and tasting rooms is going one step further.

The Carlton Winemakers Studio and Sokol Blosser led the charge in green design back in 2002. The Studio, the first winery registered with the U.S. Green Building Council, makes ingenious use of the cheapest energy sources ever — sunlight and air — to illuminate and cool its facility. Sokol Blosser’s eco-roofed, underground barrel cellar was the first winery space in the U.S. to achieve LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.

Newer entries into the green-building club include solar-powered wineries such as LEED gold-certified Stoller in Dayton and Torii Mor (LEED certification pending) in Dundee. And visitors to Winderlea Vineyard and Winery’s solar-powered Dundee tasting room will soon be able to charge their electric cars in the parking lot.

Farming goes deep green
Today, 3,254 acres of Oregon vineyards are certified sustainable, with thousands more in line to achieve certification soon.

Of the many forms of green-farming being embraced by Oregon vintners, biodynamic agriculture is perhaps the most exciting and least understood. This holistic approach draws its methods from traditional agrarian societies. By treating the farm as a single, self-sufficient organism, practitioners of biodynamics preserve habitat, conserve water and make a negligible carbon footprint.

Where organic farming is reactive, biodynamic goes one step further by being proactive: An organic farmer might spray pests with a natural solvent, whereas a biodynamic farmer starts out by making his soil so healthy that it won’t attract pests to begin with.
Although it has a strong foothold in the fertile Willamette Valley, biodynamic viticulture also has spread throughout the state, from Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden in southern Oregon’s rugged Applegate Valley to the arid eastern Oregon vineyards of Cayuse just south of Walla Walla.

Biodynamics can be difficult and expensive to implement, but the practice is gaining popularity. Many oenophiles, believing that biodynamically produced wines have a unique purity of flavor, happily pay $80 for a Cayuse syrah or $60 for a pinot noir from the Willamette Valley’s Brick House Vineyards. And fans of top Burgundy producers of pinot noir drop hundreds of dollars for a single biodynamically produced bottle without batting an eye.

Stay tuned for a trickle-down effect as wine lovers begin to seek out produce that has been biodynamically farmed; the purple asparagus cultivated at Cowhorn already has been receiving raves from southern Oregon restaurant-goers.

New logo will make it easier to buy green
Last year, a study conducted by Full Glass Research in partnership with the Oregon Wine Board discovered that wine drinkers want to purchase sustainably produced wines but have trouble identifying them in the marketplace. In addition, “59 percent (of core wine consumers polled) agreed or strongly agreed that it takes regulation or certification to really guarantee good environmental practices,” says Christian Miller, author of the study.

Oregon has got sustainability certification nailed. LIVE, otherwise known as Low-Input Viticulture and Enology, was the first independent, third-party vineyard sustainability certification program in the world and has been copied by countless other wine regions.

Salem-based Oregon Tilth, which kick-started the American organic certification movement back in the early 1980s, now certifies organic products all over the world. And Philomath-based Demeter is the only certification agent for biodynamically farmed products in the United States.

There’s just one problem: So many different certification programs exist that consumers are easily confused. Even worse, accredited certifications such as LIVE, Salmon-Safe, organic and biodynamic vie for wine-shelf space with labels printed with unsubstantiated claims.

The Oregon Wine Board has addressed this issue with a new umbrella brand designed to cut through the confusion. Starting next year, look for a single logo depicting two intertwined rings and the words “Oregon Certified Sustainable” on the labels of wines that have achieved green certification from any accredited third-party environmental testing agency. “Environmentally conscious consumers can rest assured that any wine carrying this logo is made responsibly,” says Ted Farthing.

If the OCS logo is a hit with wine consumers, who knows? Perhaps we’ll see it in other sections of the grocery store in years to come.
It’s exciting that the Oregon wine industry is so proactively pursuing green ways of farming and doing business. But I forgot to mention one final reason to buy local wines: A lot of them are just plain delicious.

– Katherine Cole

Growing grapes by the moon

June 20, 2008

Barbara Steele remembers that in 2002 Southern Oregon only had one wine tasting room. Now there are 58, she said.

But Barbara, 46, and her husband Bill, 47, did something beyond building an outdoor tasting room to set their vineyard apart. The Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden, snuggled next to the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains in the Applegate Valley, is Southern Oregon’s only certified biodynamic and organic vineyard and farm.

“Most people know what organic is,” said Barbara. “Biodynamic goes one step further.”

Like organic farms, biodynamic farms steer clear of artificial chemical use. But, according to Demeter International, the world’s only biodynamic farm certifier, a biodynamic farm is managed as a living organism.

“It’s truly based on the oldest principles of farming,” Barbara said.

Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist and philosopher who founded the Waldorf education approach, developed the biodynamic system in 1924. He taught that treating the soil as a living organism would help to ward off pests and diseases.

Steiner created special tea preparations to be sprayed at certain times of the year and for various treatments.
One elixir, called Preparation 500, begins with cow manure fermented in a cow’s horn. The horn is later buried in the soil.
“Thus, the name of our vineyard,” said Barbara.

The seasons, phases of the moon and even the zodiac are used to schedule vineyard tasks.

“The way this has gotten played in the media is very woo-woo,” she said. “But since the beginning of time, farmers have farmed by the cycles of the moon. Steiner developed this system because he thought people were losing their connection to food.”

That connection is what keeps Bill out in the vineyard.

“I’m constantly out there walking around, looking and listening,” he said. “When you have that connection, you know when plants are happy and when they’re stressed.”

But Barbara also noted that their farm takes full advantage of technological advances in the agriculture industry. That includes a science lab inside the wine production shed.

“We’re constantly testing and monitoring so it can alert us if there are any problems with the wine,” Bill said.

Cowhorn path

The Steeles, who also own property in Ashland, met in college at Berkeley. She studied political economics and he majored in conservation and resource studies. They both went on to receive MBAs.

Bill worked as an analyst on Wall Street for 17 years, and Barbara worked for a financial think tank. But in 2002, they decided it was time for a career change and bought what was then known as the Straube Farm.

The neglected 117-acre farm didn’t have roads, fencing or irrigation.

“It did have 20-foot tall blackberries, weeds and squatters in the house,” Bill said.

After extensive soil testing, the Steeles determined they could grow either hay or grapes.

“What can we say? We like wine,” he said.

The Steeles brought on Alan York, a biodynamic vineyard consultant with clients in California, Chile and Italy, to help with the operation.
Barbara said, “With a biodynamic system, you let the soil tell you what should be planted, not the other way around.”

So 90 soil tests, dug six feet deep, helped them to determine where and which grapes, fruit and nut trees and vegetables should be planted.
“That’s why all of our roads are curved,” Barbara said.

The Steeles grow Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne-Roussanne, Grenache and Syrah grapes and just released their first bottles last year. The wines, ranging from $18 to $32, are available at the Ashland Food Co-op, Chateaulin Restaurant in Ashland, New Sammy’s in Talent and will soon be sold at the Harry and David store in in Medford.

Cowhorn sold 40 cases of wine last year and anticipates selling 750 cases this year, Bill said.

“We’re shooting for 1,800 cases next year and think we’ll max out in the 2,200 range by 2010,” he said.

Jason Doss, co-owner of Chateaulin Restaurant, carries two Cowhorn labels and said the Steele’s vineyard offers some of the better wines from Southern Oregon.

“I love that they are organic and biodynamic,” said Doss, adding that his patrons anticipate the release of their wines and continue to purchase them.

“I think that’s the best compliment, when someone tries it and ends up buying six bottles to a case of their wine.”

– Michele Mihalovich

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