Sustainable, Organic, Biodynamic Hooray!
“It is impossible to understand plant life without taking into account the fact that everything on earth is actually only a reflection of what is taking place in the cosmos.” — Rudolf Steiner, the “father” of biodynamic agriculture
If what is going on in Oregon is any indication, the “next big thing” in wine will be about giving back to the vineyard as much as we take from it. I went to Oregon to learn about three different “environmentally friendly” winemaking practices: sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticultures. And although they differ in philosophy and methodology, all three share the same aim: preserving the life of the vineyard in the most natural way possible, firmly rooting the notion of “give and take” in the winemaking equation.
September 12, 2:40 p.m., Portland, Oregon, Hotel Vintage Plaza: It’s sunny and warm here in downtown Portland and my suite in this cool hotel is just what the doctor ordered. A two-floor, two-bath, two-entrance number complete with whirlpool and a mini-bar stocked with goodies. The Toronto–Denver–Portland flights were uneventful, but I’ve been up since 4 a.m. (Toronto time), so I’m feeling a bit bagged. Hang on, somebody’s knocking on my door … Neat! Room service delivers a bottle of 2002 Oregon Pinot Noir, a corkscrew and a box of chocolate truffles. I think I’ll go for a stroll to avoid temptation!
5 p.m.: Portland’s a funky little city. I find a shop the sells wine and cigars, even encouraging you to buy a bottle and enjoy it with a cigar in their lounge. Toto, we’re not in Toronto anymore! I have a dinner at 6:30 p.m.so I better get spruced up. I boldly try the Pinot Noir. #$#@%!! It’s corked! Perfect.
September 13, 7 a.m.: So much for sleeping in. It’s a bit cooler today with rain apparently on the way. Free coffee downstairs and a show about cannibalism on the TV: breakfast of champions! We’re due to travel south down the Willamette Valley through Dundee and on to the town of McMinnville. From there, we are going to hop on a — get this — private jet (owned by Evergreen International Aviation) to fly out to Walla Walla.
5 p.m., Walla Walla, Washington, Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Centre: What would normally have been a four-hour drive from Portland to Walla Walla was a very comfortable 40 minutes by jet instead as we sipped Evergreen Vineyard Pinot Gris and admired the undulating terrain below. Oenologically speaking, Oregon and Washington don’t have much in common. Oregon is mostly the land of Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris whereas Washington is more of a “ferment it and let’s see what we get” kinda place. However, the two states do have Walla Walla, the region that straddles southern Washington and northern Oregon. The theme for this trip is “Growing Green”; as I am about to see for myself, winemakers in both these states are actively involved in sustainable, organic and biodynamic vineyard practices.
September 14, 8:30 a.m., Cayuse Vineyards: On the agenda today is “Sustainability.” We are greeted by Christophe Baron, Cayuse’s vigneron. Hailing from the Marne Valley in Champagne, Baron worked for Washington’s Waterbrook Winery and for Adelsheim Vineyard in Oregon before establishing his own vineyard here in 1997. If you didn’t know better, you might swear that you were in France: Cayuse’s vineyards (planted mostly with Syrah, some Viognier and a smattering of Grenache, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot) look like those in Châteauneuf-du-Pape given the fist-sized, smooth stones covering the ground.
Baron practices biodynamic viticulture, a regime that elicits reverence from believers and much eye-rolling from skeptics. It is the most radical form of “growing green.” “Biodynamics is a long-term proposition,” Baron explains to me. “It takes time to slow down.” The practice, which seems to strike a delicate balance between logic and witchcraft, is based on ancestral farming methods and aims to make the vineyard a completely self-sustaining “hands off” proposition. It takes into account the phases of the moon as well as the four elements of the zodiac calendar (earth, water, air and fire), each of which can be linked to an aspect of the vine (roots, leaves, flowers and fruit, respectively). Agrochemicals and fertilizers are strictly forbidden. Instead, liquefied plant extracts are used for composting purposes and cow manure that’s been buried inside a hollowed cow horn over the course of the winter is used as field spray (I’m definitely doing the whole process a disservice by reducing it to this here — but that’s why we have the Internet).
I’m inclined to mutter “gimme a break” until I taste Baron’s wines. His 2005 Syrah and Syrah Cailloux are big, strapping, meaty numbers reminiscent of those found in the northern Rhône. The 2003 Syrah is inky, smoky, powerful and chunky while the top-of-the-line 2003 Bionic Frog Syrah shows a smoky/gamy nose with hints of violet and plum and a powerful, chewy palate. “Bionic Frog” is Baron’s nickname (don’t ask).
10:45 a.m., Seven Hills Vineyard: Farmed by the McClellen family for ten years, this well-drained site is the oldest block of vineyard in the Walla Walla Valley. We’re here to learn about Low Impact Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), a non-profit, educational certification organization for those practising (or wanting to practise) sustainable viticulture.
Sustainable viticulture refers to sustaining the organic as well as the economic health of the vineyard. Recognizing that soil can burn out due to excessive farming and the continuous application of fertilizers and chemicals, sustainable viticulture promotes the use of natural fertilizers (manure, for example) and the return of things like grape pomace back to the land. Though it doesn’t call for the total elimination of synthetic fertilizers and man-made disease-control methods, it does encourage vineyard owners to restrict their use as much as possible, viewing the soil as a living organism rather than an inert growing medium to be fed and enriched. Sustainable viticulture is gaining in popularity: the majority of vineyards in the Walla Walla Valley is LIVE-certified as is almost half the vineyard land in Oregon.
11 p.m., Shilo Inn, Newberg, Oregon: What a day. We lunched, tasted and learned more about sustainable viticulture at Zerba Cellars (“Everything taken from the vineyard goes back to the vineyard,” proclaimed Cecil Zerba), took a tour of the composting operation that showed those words in action, participated in what can only be described as a power tasting of 19 wines back at the Seven Hills Winery, flew back to McMinnville (sipping Evergreen Pinot Noir this time —I’ve decided that I simply must have a private jet) to enjoy a great dinner at the Evergreen Aviation Museum (current home of the Spruce Goose), finally arriving here at the bed … I mean, the hotel. Same thing at this point.
September 15, 9:15 a.m., Stoller Vineyards, Willamette Valley: “LIVE leads the way” and “Sustainable Success Stories Big and Small” are the themes of the day. We’re here at Stoller for a panel discussion on LIVE and sustainable vineyard practices. Steve Girard from Benton-Lane Winery notes that sustainable viticulture is “common-sense stuff” that isn’t any more expensive than conventional vineyard management but bodes better for the future of the vineyard. But if it’s a good thing and doesn’t entail a huge drain on capital, why isn’t every winery in the world practising it? Certainly, any farming method that will preserve the life of a crop and ensure its economic viability would appear to be a no-brainer. So what’s the deal? Is the extra effort on the part of the grower that much of a strain? Are people just lazy? Are the companies that prosper by selling chemicals and fertilizers using strong-arm tactics to derail sustainable efforts? Do consumers have misgivings about wines that are more or less “organic”? Questions I would surely ask if it wasn’t time for lunch.
2 p.m., Willamette Valley Vineyards: A stunning property with a commanding view of its namesake valley, this place was founded by Jim Bernau in 1983 and is now a public common-stock winery owned by many enthusiastic wine lovers. We’re here for lunch and to taste some wines made by LIVE-certified wineries. Among them a peachy, flower blossom– and apple-scented 2005 Ponzi Pinot Gris; a very ripe 2004 Benton-Lane Pinot Blanc laced with tropical-fruit nuances with a kiss of mineral; a terrific 2003 Rex Hill Jacob-Hart Vineyard Pinot Noir that shows intense wild raspberry and clove notes and a powerful, beautifully structured palate; a gorgeous 2002 Willamette Valley Vineyards Signature Cuvée Pinot Noir and, well, a lot more! Willamette Valley Vineyards takes the green theme a step further: its vehicles are powered with biodiesel made from used cooking oil from the plant of a well-known kettle-chip maker — another practice strongly encouraged in sustainable farming.
11 p.m.: Back from a great dinner at Painted Lady restaurant where we had (surprise) more great Oregon wine, including a Pinot Noir from Beaux Frères, the winery partially owned by wine guru Robert Parker.
September 16, 9 a.m., Sokol Blosser Winery: Today’s theme: “Exploring Organic and Biodynamic Philosophies.” Take “sustainable” a notch up and you get “organic.” Since the USDA’s adoption of the National Organic Standards, “organic” has become a legal term requiring a rigorous three-year certification process. “If you’re not certified, you’re not organic,” states Susan Sokol Blosser. No chemicals can be used for weed control and the use of organic compost and cover crops to “feed” the soil are encouraged. Susan admits that the transition to organic viticulture “hasn’t been easy.”
“You have to keep incredibly detailed records,” she notes. “You’ve got yearly inspections and it takes an incredible commitment. But I said to myself, ‘I can do this.’” And she did. The learning process, however, is ongoing. “Organic winemaking is confusing for us, but we’re doing it!”
Luckily, the state’s certifying body, Oregon Tilth, is one of the most successful and established organic enterprises, called upon to verify organic practices around the world.
12:45 p.m., Cooper Mountain’s Jason Cooper Vineyard: We’re pretty high up in the Dundee Hills hereand it’s not exactly balmy, with intermittent rain and a bit of a wind. No matter, we’re here for an al fresco lunch and a tasting of certified-organic wines. Whatever biases I may have had toward organic wines are now gone. These fine examples — from Cooper Mountain Vineyards, Evesham Wood Vineyard, Sokol Blosser Winery and Château Lorane among others — are all top-notch. No longer will I associate “organic” with, well, “yuk.”
3:15 p.m., Brick House Vineyards: Sitting under a canopy of vines as the sun peaks through the clouds, I’m with Doug Tunnell of Brick House Vineyards, Moe Momtazi of Maysara Winery, Josh Bergstrom of Bergstrom Wines, Kevin Chambers from Resonance Vineyard and Jim Fullmer of Demeter USA, the US arm of the international organization that promotes, educates and certifies biodynamic operations. These are passionate individuals whose aim is simple, even if attaining it isn’t: making extraordinary wine using the most natural methods possible.
“The way we farm is the way we live,” stresses Tunnell as he talks about the biodynamic lifestyle. “It’s about integrity. It’s not just about putting a cow horn in the ground.” As someone who tends to fall back on the Machiavellian “the end justifies the means” way of seeing wine, I really don’t care if Tunnell has to bury the entire cow: his 2004 Les Dijonnais Pinot Noir rocks with spicy sandalwood, anise, fennel and sweet-cherry notes.
Countering claims by “science-minded” types that biodynamic viticulture is a load of, um, cow poo, Chambers tends to disagree, if rather reservedly. “They suggest that if you can’t pass it through all the scientific variables, it doesn’t exist. And that’s bullshit.” Tasting these wines and keeping in mind the number of top-flight wineries worldwide that practice biodynamics, you tend to agree with him.
September 17, 11:00 a.m., PDX: Our final blow-out was last night at the stunning Maysara Winery. We were treated to a wild ride through the hillside vineyards before settling down to tasty hors d’œuvres, more wine (surprise) and a great dinner with (big surprise) more wine. I’m now getting ready to hop the shuttle to PDX where I’ll pick up my rental car and drive back to the good ol’ Marcus-Whitman in Walla Walla, Washington, to set off on the tour of Washington, which I wrote about in the previous issue of Tidings. Yeah, that does sound a bit weird … back-to-back wine tours have that effect.
Tod Stewart is not as serious a person as he looks in this photo and will eagerly share a glass or eight of the most ordinary vin ordinaire with whoever’s buying.