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 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:

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