I’m trying to remember how long its been? Could it be thirty years? It's damn close. Over those decades I've never traveled anywhere without my laptop - until now. For the better part of the last two weeks I've just traveled with an iPad along with a smart keyboard. Perhaps that's not such a big deal as, now that I think about, this iPad is far more powerful than probably 95% of those old computers. Now that I've done it, I can't imagine lugging around a laptop on road trips again. These new iPads are the ultimate road warrior machines.
I almost felt that I'd forgotten something at times without that weight on my shoulders as I raced through the airport to catch a flight. The iPad feels more or less weightless nestled in a small, also very light, messenger bag. Honestly, the feeling of liberation was wonderful.
A key element to making the iPad really work for you is that when you only have it to work on you actually start digging in and really discovering how powerful it can be - and powerful it is.
This certainly does not mean I no longer love my Mac, for pure power work there is nothing better. However, the truth is when I'm on the road I never have the time to sit there and pound out eight hours of work like I do when I'm in the office. When traveling I'm grabbing moments in airports and hotels just getting done what needs to be done. Also, it is impossible to beat the convenience of an always on cellular connection as finding wifi becomes a thing of the past.
When I think back to my struggles for connectivity and portability in the past I can only marvel at how far technology has come. We no longer have any excuses for productivity except ourselves.
Burying cow horns to make Biodynamic Preparation 500 at Troon Vineyard
It’s not their fault, but you see it every week. Fine wine writers printing misconceptions and flat-out wrong information on biodynamics - yes, fake news.
It’s not their fault, it’s ours. Those of us who farm wine grapes biodynamically are not doing a good job of getting out the real story. That could be because the biodynamic movement is not a monolith, but a complicated web with divergent branches and diverse self-interests. That makes for a muddled message and creates an information issue biodynamic winegrowers have to confront. While there may be divergent opinions and methods within the biodynamic community, all share a common final goal.
Here are some random recent examples of the media muffing biodynamics. The authors and publication are irrelevant as inaccuracies like these are more the rule than the exception.
”And if you’ve heard of one thing to do with biodynamics, it is probably that cow horns filled with fermented cow manure are buried in the vineyards to encourage soil fertility." "Cow horns are buried throughout the vineyard."
Biodynamic winegrowers do not bury cow horns “filled with fermented cow manure…throughout the vineyard”. In this case, the reference is to the production of Biodynamic Preparation 500. To prepare BD 500, you place very fresh, raw organic cow manure in cow horns in the fall and bury them in a single pit in a specially selected site. There they ferment over the winter and the horns are dug up in the spring. The finished BD 500 is mixed with water and applied to your soils. It assists with the formation of humus, increases available phosphorous, soil mycorrhiza and the water and nutrient holding capacity of the soil. The goal of BP 500 is to regenerate the natural microbiome and raise the quality of your soils.
“Naturally occurring cycles like moon phases dictate when to harvest ”
Moon phases do not “dictate” when we harvest at Troon Vineyard. That the phases of the moon have an impact on the natural rhythms of agriculture is a time-tested (and scientifically proven) reality. Following the ascending and descending cycles of the moon is something any natural farmer tries to do. However, the operative word here is “tries”. It’s one thing to follow these cycles in your home garden, but it’s another thing on a commercial farm. We certainly try to follow the lunar cycles, but often the realities of Mother Nature means you have to move forward. When you have to prune fifty acres of vines by a specific date, and you can’t prune when it’s raining (due to disease pressure), you can only do your best to hit the right days. When the fruit is ready to harvest, but it’s not a fruit day, but it’s going to rain three inches tomorrow your choice is easy - you pick. Any positive attributes you gain by picking on a certain day will be more than negated by the next day’s rain. We try to follow these lunar cycles whenever possible as we are seeking every advantage, no matter how small, to add that extra bit of nuance and life to our wines. The biodynamic calendar identifies ideal days for certain types of vineyard work. You try to prune on fruit days and cultivate on root days. As our goal is exceptional fruit quality, doing work on certain days is a way to fine-tune the quality of our fruit. However, we do not seek viticultural management from the man-in-the-moon, we just want a little advice, and will make our decisions based on what experience, common sense and science have taught us.
”Special concoctions of herbs, minerals, and manure may also be planted in the soil to aid fertilization.”
“Herbs, minerals and manure” are not planted in the vineyard soil to help fertilization. A range of plants (BP 502 to 507 - yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion, valerian) are fermented then added to compost piles to aid in developing the right bacterial and fungal balance in the finished compost, which will then be applied to the vineyard - back to the microbiome again. It is important to note that while compost contains some beneficial minerals, it is not fertilizer. The point of biodynamic compost is to build the humus and microbiome of your soil. A healthy plant in healthy soil does not require additional chemical fertilization. This is the cornerstone of biodynamic practice. When we need to fertilize due to soils depleted by years of conventional agriculture or when growing a perennial crop like grapes, we add natural fertilizers like fish emulsion (think SNL’s Bass-O-Matic) and kelp. No biodynamic farmer would add raw manure to their field without fully composting it first. Besides the obvious health concerns, raw manure cannot do the job of properly made compost. Our compost is made from organic cow manure from our next door neighbor Noble Dairy, organic hay and our own pomace (grape skins and stems after pressing during harvest), which is then carefully composted for the better part of a year before being applied to our vineyard.
"there’s even a calendar for optimal wine-tasting days”
Then there is the currently fashionable calendar for “optimal wine-tasting days” - there’s even an app for that. However, the flower, leaf, root and fruit day thing is not part of Rudolf Steiner’s original agricultural lectures and was only added to the biodynamic culture in the 1950s by Maria Thun in Germany. Her concepts were built on research in her garden and, while her results have never been supported by independent research, there is strong anecdotal evidence that something is indeed at work here when it comes to the inner workings of plants. The base of these theories is that the moon’s gravity has an influence on the liquid in plants and soils much the same as it does on tides. A reasonable assumption. To me it is a stretch, at best, to apply this same theory to a glass of wine on your kitchen table. Whatever the case, these concepts are a not required part of Demeter Biodynamic certification, which is a statement in itself. Optimal wine-tasting days may have sprung from biodynamic ideas, but they are not part of biodynamic practice. However, it can be a useful excuse in a pinch if a customer is less than happy with your wine.
Biodynamics is a work-in-progress. When Rudolf Steiner gave his lectures in the early 1920s in Germany, he was living in a world in chaos, the same chaos that gave birth to the Nazis. World War I had just devastated Europe and, on the farm, the introduction of chemical, industrial agriculture terrified many people. It is in this climate that Steiner gave his agricultural lectures at the request of a group of concerned farmers. What is called biodynamics today was only outlined by Steiner himself in his lectures, and he died just a few years after giving them. Many of the practices considered essential practices of biodynamics today were layered on by those that came after him. While Steiner gave voice to the fears of that era, what we call biodynamics today is more the work of a movement than one person.
That work continues today and the growing number of winegrowers adopting biodynamics is having a tremendous impact on the movement’s future. Each year more is learned about biodynamics, and now modern agricultural science is moving towards the fundamental farming practices that define biodynamics - that the key to a healthy plant is healthy soils. Everything today is about the microbiome - in our guts and our soils. Biodynamic farmers have been giving their soils probiotics for decades. Science is just now catching up to us.
From what I have been able to read and understand (not always the same thing when reading Steiner) in Steiner’s books, he saw his concepts as only a beginning of an individual’s quest for spiritual and intellectual growth. While he did not approve of alcohol, I still think he would approve as winegrowers the world over push the pursuit of biodynamics forward. Today winegrowers are at at the forefront of connecting science and biodynamics. The winegrowing community is creating what I call practical biodynamics. Voodoo vintners we are not.
Who is to say what biodynamics will mean fifty years in the future? The only sure thing is that it will be as different from today’s practices as we are from the first practitioners in the 1920s. It will always be a work-in-progress as we will never understand everything. Mother Nature will always keep some secrets to herself.
Now that I think about it, it’s no wonder that writers struggle with understanding the practice of biodynamics, so do we. Agricultural knowledge is always evolving. There is much we don't know and much we will never know. Bringing science and biodynamics together will be the next chapter.
That’s a story worth telling well.
Some recommended reading on biodynamic winegrowing
Agriculture is cyclical. Season flows into season. Vines flower then a hundred or so days later you harvest their fruit. Animals and farmers live their life cycles together on land that sustains them both. Nature wraps us in the cycle of life.
In January we begin to think of pruning and worrying about frost. What happened last vintage is behind us and only the potential of the next fills your minds. After all, the wines in the cellar are committed to their course and it is only our role to shepherd them home. That vintage is over.
There are few things other than agriculture where you so firmly press the reset button on the first of January. Of course, we build on the experience bestowed upon us by Mother Nature each year, but that’s all nuance compared to the cycles of Nature, which make all the most important choices.
We are facing a lot of new hurdles at Troon Vineyard as we begin a ranch-wide replant designed both to correct the viticultural sins of the past and to proactively move forward by selecting better varieties and then planting them in better sites. To move forward you must be willing to break ties to the past. At Troon we’ve decided to race towards the future.
New plantings will be decidedly focused on the varieties made famous by the Rhône Valley, Languedoc and Provence. These vines have proven their proclivity for our Kubli Bench terroir. Now it’s our turn to take what we’ve learned and focus on creating some truly special wines - some of which may be a decade or more away.
To some it may seem odd to embark on a voyage knowing you will not arrive at the destination, but that is farming and winegrowing. There is never any end to the cycle of seasons and you are only part of a chain that passes the baton ever-forward in a never-ending relay race. Nothing fires my passion more than knowing that I can make a perfect baton pass to the next generation. If they can make great wines from the vines we plant, I will have done more than my job. That is my goal.
For the time remaining to me, I will become a small part of the life of this vineyard and hope that I am still around to taste at least the potential of the vines we plant over the next years. We each get our vintages and it is our responsibility to enjoy every one and to hope that our work today will be rewarded with wines we will never taste made by people we never knew. They may not know us, but the vines we plant today will speak for us in the wines they make.
Every glass of wine we drink from an old vineyard carries the voices of those that planted and worked it over the decades. Listen to us, we deserve your attention.
Mother Nature was very kind to us in 2018. Rain and cool weather are things you expect during harvest in Oregon, but not this year! All during harvest we were given warm, dry weather under beautiful blue skies. This perfect weather meant we could harvest each variety at the ideal moment. There was no pressure from the weather so our pace was almost leisurely compared to a normal vintage. It was a harvest to remember as will the wines!
Picking tinta roriz, this is our last vintage of this variety as these vines will be pulled and replanted next year.
Picking starts at dawn with the vines still in the shade of the Siskiyou Mountains, which are already brightly illuminated.
Some picure-perfect vermentino.
Banele and Jesus picking malbec as dawn breaks.
The Applegate Valley during harvest.
In a biodynamic vineyard, the leaves are fully turned color and falling off when it is time to pick the fruit. This is the natural cycle of a vine.
Vineyard manager Adan Cortes bundled up against the morning cold as he harvests vermentino.
Associate winemaker and biodynamic team leader Nate Wall fills cow horns to make biodynamic preparation 500. They will buried until next spring. Making BD 500 is something you do during harvest in the fall.
Banele, our harvest intern from South Africa, places the filled cow horns in pit to be buried until next spring. The BD 500 they will produce will be sprayed on our vineyards.
Grape pomace, fresh from the press, is added to our compost pile. All the leftovers from harvest are added to our biodynamic compost piles and returned to the vineyard.
Adding pomace to a new compost pile at Troon Vineyard in Oregon’s Applegate Valley.
It’s just after dawn, and we’re spreading fresh cow manure with pitchforks. Our biodynamic consultant, Andrew Beedy, looks at me and jokes, “see why people use chemical fertilizers?”
Andrew is, of course, correct. It would be so much easier to buy drums of fertilizers and spray away. However, as I stand on this pile of cow dung, I am firmly convinced we’ll get the last laugh.
At Troon Vineyard when we talk about compost, we’re not talking about a few buckets of manure to fill some cow horns to make BP 500. When it comes to composting, we’re talking some serious shit as we need to generate over 200 tons of finished biodynamic compost every year.
The raw materials are simple: fresh organic cow manure, organic hay and the organic/biodynamic pomace from our own fruit. Combine these basic ingredients and let nature take its course and you end up with a magical substance. Not that there’s any magic involved as bacteria do the lions share of the work. At a biodynamic winery, you are surrounded by ferments. Right now we are fermenting wine, compost and some buried cow horns to produce BP 500. Some of the smallest things in nature are doing all the heavy lifting at Troon Vineyard.
The transformation is quite amazing. First, the manure arrives from the organic dairy next store. Dump truck after dump truck arrives along with the flies that crave their cargo. Then our crew goes to work. Starting with a layer of hay, followed by a layer of manure, followed by another layer of hay and so on. Most of the work is by hand as when the front loader dumps a bucket of manure you spread it out with shovels and pitchforks. The bales of hay are broken up and spread by hand. During the harvest season, layers of pomace are alternated with the hay and manure. We build the piles into windrows about 130 feet long and five feet high. Then come the biodynamic preparations 502 yarrow, 503 chamomile, 504 stinging nettle, 505 oak bark, 506 dandelion, and 507 valerian. The first five are applied to specific parts of the pile while the 507 is sprayed onto the entire pile. Over the next six months, the pile will be turned several times, which means all the preparations are well mixed into the pile by the time composting is finished. Just a few weeks after the manure is delivered the flies that come with it disappear as the pile quickly transforms from something that draws flies into something that attracts earthworms. Now we’re talking.
While much is made of the very photogenic burying of the cow horns to make BD 500, and 500 is indeed essential and a foundation of biodynamics, you can’t avoid the fact that out of nine biodynamic preparations six are added to the compost pile. People may debate biodynamics, but no one who knows anything about agriculture questions the value of compost. However, biodynamic compost takes things to the next level. Study after study confirms that biodynamically treated compost is higher in every key nutritional value than standard compost. Every year we will be producing enough of this elixir to apply several tons per acre. Combined with our applications of BD 500 we expect to find dramatic improvements to the microbiome of our vineyard, which will lead directly to improvements in our wines. There is nothing you can do to your vineyard that is more important than this type of composting.
After six months, the raw manure, hay, and pomace transform. What started as smelly fly food becomes rich, dark humus. The smell and flies slowly disappear and in the end you end up with something that looks and smells more-or-less like high-end, organic potting soil - two hundred tons of potting soil.
Composting is such a great experience as you can readily see the results of your efforts. What goes in is very different from what comes out. There is a real sense of accomplishment, and investment in the future of your soils, vines, and wines.
Next spring we’ll be applying BD 500 and compost that both created on our farm. While we have farmed 100% biodynamically this year, we had to purchase the BD preparations and organic compost while we went through the long process of making our own. As excited as we were in our practice of biodynamics this year, applying our own preparations and compost will be a real milestone.
There’s life everywhere. In the compost, in the BD 500, in the vines, in the wines and in us. Life feels good.
Vineyard manager Adan Cortes, with Andrew Beedy’s son Levon along for the ride, sprays BD 507 Valerian onto a compost pile.
Banele, our harvest intern from South Africa positions the cow horns to be buried.
Assistant Winemaker Nate Wall fills horns.
It seems everyone either ridicules or worships the cow horns and the processes of biodynamics. Then there’s biodynamic cycles of the moon that are mistakenly confused with astrology - no, not related. You can’t blame the press for focusing on these aspects of biodynamics as they make for great photos and headlines. However, as wine writer Monty Walden recently noted, “Biodynamics is not farming by the moon.”
Biodynamics is farming by the earth.
At Troon Vineyard we recently completed one of the milestones for any biodynamic farmer. We buried our first cow horns on the estate to produce our own biodynamic preparation 500. The images of burying the cow horns may have become cliché, but for those of us who participated, it felt like a right-of-passage as we joined other biodynamic farmers around the world in what feels like a celebration to those involved. It is hard to imagine, but stuffing cow horns with fresh manure is a meaningful experience. After the horn’s ingredients ferment in our soils over the winter, we’ll take the newly created BD 500 and apply it to our vineyard soils to help build the natural microbiome that plants require to take their nutrition naturally from the soils. By letting the soil and the plants do the work we will end up with fruit that carries the energy and personality of our vineyard into our wines. Farming by the earth is the essence of terroir.
Biodynamics changes the soils, the vines, but equally importantly it changes the people who practice this discipline. Biodynamics is a structure and gives you a framework, which at the beginning you work within, but as you grow as a farmer you also go beyond. While everyone loves to focus on cow horns and moon cycles, and these are important aspects of biodynamics, these famous elements of this discipline are not the biggest changes at an estate that transforms into biodynamic agriculture. Perhaps the biggest changes happen to the people who take up this mission. Biodynamics not only transforms your soils, but your culture as a winery.
A big part of that change is that farming biodynamically is fun. You feel empowred what you are doing and each day is a new adventure. Even though it’s much harder work than conventional farming, the risks and the efforts reward you with not only better grapes, but a better you. Filling our horns was a group effort and laced with happy banter and camaraderie. Poop jokes were as abundant as the actual poop at this celebration. Everyone including the horns were full of it. Conventional farming makes sterile soils and wines. There is nothing sterile about the world of biodynamics.
We’ll be stuffing horns again next fall. If you don't mind dirty hands and some rather unsophisticated humor come join our celebration!
In biodynamic agriculture, we bury cow horns filled with fresh cow manure each fall. These ferment over the winter and next season will be applied to our soils to help build the microbiome. of our vineyard. In this video, Lindsay (harvest intern from Ireland) assistant winemaker Nate Wall and biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy fill our horns at Troon Vineyard.
When I first arrived at Troon Vineyard, the then vineyard manager reviewed the previous year’s vineyard applications. Other than the usual nastiness like Roundup, one product immediately grabbed my eye - Venom. I was not familiar with this product, but, with a name like Venom, I did not expect anything good.
A trip to the manufacture’s website confirmed my worst fears. Venom proved just as nasty as it sounded, “This compound is toxic to honey bees. The persistence of residues and potential residual toxicity of dinotefuran in nectar and pollen suggest the possibility of chronic risk to honey bee larvae and the eventual instability of the hive.”for the complete manufacturer information sheet click here
That’s right, it kills honey bees. All of them.
There was no more Venom or anything like that used at Troon from then on. Today, now that we have converted to biodynamic agriculture, we use products with much gentler names and impacts on the environment. For example, now we use products with names like Regalia, an organically certified biofungicide that works by strengthening the plants own defenses rather than poisoning anything and everything whether good or bad. It does not seem to be a coincidence that conventional chemical agricultural products often have scary names as, indeed, they are dangerous to everything - people as well as bees.
Products like Regalia not only sound less threatening bu are less dangerous in the long-term as conventional chemicals tend to create fungicide-resistant strains that then require even more powerful chemical applications to combat them. Organic products like Regalia are based on bacteria that are already in the environment, which trigger the plant's natural defense system. In other words, we are only encouraging the plant to does what it does naturally
“When treated with Regalia, a plant’s natural defense systems are activated to protect against attacking diseases. Research shows that plants treated with Regalia produce and accumulate elevated levels of specialized proteins and other compounds known to inhibit fungal and bacterial diseases. Regalia induces a plant to produce phytoalexins, cell strengtheners, antioxidants, phenolics and PR proteins, which are all known inhibitors of plant pathogens. Regalia provides synergistic properties between a plant’s natural ability to protect itself and the effectiveness of antifungal and antibacterial protection.“ Marrone Bio-Innovations
Regalia Biofungicide - YouTube
Humans consider themselves smarter than plants, but we’re not. When it comes to producing grapes, the vine understands more about producing beautiful ripe grapes than we’ll ever know. It is arrogant on our part to believe we can do better. That arrogance has led to the use of chemicals that destroy a vines natural ability to feed and defend itself and to weaker plants addicted to fertilizers and chemicals. A weak plant does not produce the kinds of grapes that produce great wines. The single most important thing for quality wine is a strong, healthy grapevine. Our job as winegrowers is to help the vine do its work, not to do its work for it. When it comes to growing grapes, we are the apprentice and the vine is the master craftsman. This is a good thing to remember in this era of cult wines and winemakers. It is the vine and the soil that create memorable wines, not people. People are quite capable of producing commercially successful beverage wine products, but only vines and vineyards can give you sublime, individual wines. In a well-farmed vineyard with healthy vines and good soils, the winemaker's role is more as a shepherd than artist or technician. If you are not humbled by nature you are not connected to it, don’t understand it and can’t transform that power into wines that are anything other than industrial.
Biodynamics finally clicks in your brain when you realize as a farmer you are not a general in charge of a battlefield, but just another cog in the gear that makes nature work. Arrogance and chemical interventions have led to disaster. Farmers who realize their place in nature produce better and healthier foods and wines. This is a mindset that can be achieved by farmers large and small.
Now at Troon, instead of destroying honey bees we are building three aviaries with accompanying pollinator habitats. The bees deserve this respect as we are just two of the myriad of intertwined pieces that make a farm a whole. We owe them something for the past sins of our predecessors. It will be an honor to welcome them back home.
Troon vineyard foreman Adan Cortes applies biodynamic preparation 507 Valerian to our first compost pile. In the back, Levon, the son of our biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy lends moral support. Photo by Andrew Beedy.
I remember the smells well and they always take me back to my childhood. That warm, earthy pungent smell can only come from one thing. I grew up in a small rural town in northern Illinois on the Wisconsin border . My grandfather and grandmother, Chester and Goldie Camp, were small dairy farmers, a type of farmer that rarely exists anymore. They were organic farmers, but did not know it.
My grandparents, Chester and Goldie Camp
I stayed with them often as a child, rising with my grandfather before dawn for the morning milking. I can remember looking up at him while he shaved as he lathered up with a brush swirled on a bar in a cup - yes, he shaved before milking. Then out to the barn for what, in those days, was the very hard physical job of milking. You carried the pails of milk to the tank one-by-one. I would wander among the cows while the men worked - avoiding their back-ends and hoofs due to the stern admonitions of my grandfather. The rich, warm aromas of the animals, the feed and, of course, the manure filled the barn while the twang of country music pushed by 50,000 watts from WJJD in Chicago tinnily played from an old and very dirty radio. After the morning’s work, my grandmother would have a huge country breakfast waiting with, of course, a glass of fresh milk, cream and all, straight from the milk tank.
These memories came flowing back to me as Troon’s vineyard foreman, Adan Cortes, dumped the first load of cow manure onto our new biodynamic compost pile. Soon more will follow. We are lucky to have the Noble Family Organic Dairy as a next-door neighbor - an unlimited supply of organic manure from the thousands of happy, healthy cows they milk three times a day.
Compost is the cornerstone of a biodynamic program. While organic regulations may be focused on what you can’t use, the Demeter Biodynamic Certification follows all the USDA Organic rules, but the discipline of biodynamics takes things further with the biodynamic preparations and the concept of the whole farm. Biodynamic compost is the main vehicle that brings health to your soils and therefor your vines. Strong vines can fight off threats while weak vines require chemicals to survive. Of the nine biodynamic preparations, only three are applied to directly to the vineyard - 500, 501, 508 - while the other six - 502 to 507 - are applied to the compost piles. We began our biodynamic compost program in earnest last week starting with manure from our neighbor organic farmer, Noble Dairy. The Noble family has been farming organically since 2004. We layered this rich manure with organic hay from another neighbor and the remains from last harvest’s grape pressings to create a pile about 150 feet long and five feet high. Then our vineyard foreman Adan Cortes applied the biodynamic preparations to the new pile. It was an exciting and emotional experience for all of us at Troon. Next week we are building a second pile and this fall will be creating four more based on our grape pomace from this year’s harvest. From now on nature’s circle will be unbroken with each vintage producing the compost to feed our vineyard soils for another year.
My grandparents were organic farmers and didn’t even know it. My grandmother prepared and canned organic vegetables from her organic garden. On Sundays, they ate free-range, organic chicken - that my grandfather killed the day before. Note my grandfather could only kill the chickens my grandmother had not named. They fed their dairy cattle organic hay in the winter and they grazed on organic grass in the summer. They were either blissfully unaware of the latest chemicals or could not afford them, or both. Michael Pollan wrote in his excellent book, In Defense of Food, don’t eat anything that your grandparents would not recognize as food. Certainly, good advice in my case.
When you grow grapes for wine you are growing food and Pollan’s recommendation can easily be rewritten to don’t drink wine that your grandparents would not recognize as wine - not that my grandparents ever had a sip of wine as far as I know. Pabst was my grandfather’s drink of choice.
The direct connection of memories of my grandparents to our building our first compost pile was a warm, emotional experience for me. Agriculture is a seasonal and circular experience, if you are not emotionally connected to the past you will always struggle. Emotions and good feelings very much describe the process of converting to biodynamics. You feel good about what you are doing. While we have practiced sustainable agriculture for years, this is different and you can feel it.
Dr. Nick Madden studies the soils of a future block of mourvèdre at Troon Vineyard in Oregon's Applegate Valley
It’s the smell. Your nose tells you as much as your eyes. Rich and complex - almost sweet, this is a good spot. You move a few yards and your nose tells you another story - musty and sour. Not a good spot. It seems dirt, like wine, has a bouquet.
May at Troon Vineyard was all about dirt. Moving it, working it, digging it, smelling it and, most of all, marveling at it. Soil is the foundation of everything you do on a farm. It is often said you can make a mediocre wine from a great vineyard, but you can’t make a great wine from a mediocre vineyard. What makes a vineyard great is its soil combined with climate or, as the French call it, terroir. You can’t make bad soil magically good, but you can destroy great soil with commercial, industrial agriculture. We know we have great soils on Oregon’s Kubli Bench due to the already excellent wines we have produced, but the fact-of-the-matter is that these fine soils have been abused by less than enlightened farming practices in the past. I know that if we can bring our soils back to life we can take our already very good wines to even higher levels of quality, in fact, to true greatness. I believe the way to achieve this goal is through the discipline of biodynamics. With soil, you have to put back as least as much as you take out.
We took two major steps forward for our soils and vines this month. The first, which has its own wonderful aromatics, was the construction of our compost pad for production of biodynamic compost. About an acre in size, this pad will eventually hold four compost piles. The first will be the fresh manure and the last will be compost ready for application to our vineyards. The first loads of organic manure were delivered by our neighbors at the Noble Dairy and soon we will be applying the biodynamic preparations (502 to 507) to this pile as we prepare it for application to our vineyard this fall. This is also the area where we will bury the cow horns to prepare our own biodynamic preparation 500 this fall for application next spring. This is a very exciting process for us as we not only rejuvenate our soils, but ourselves.
Our other important step forward with our soils this month was an intensive study of our vineyard by Dr. Paul Anamosa and his Vineyard Soils Technologies team. Using an electro-magnetic study of our vineyard done earlier this year, Dr. Anamosa selected seventy sites where we dug soil pits five feet deep. We spent a fascinating three days with Dr. Nick Madden and Matt Bazzano of Vineyard Soil Technologies and our biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy as they conducted an exhaustive study analyzing every aspect of the soil in each pit. Each evening soil samples were whisked off to the lab in nightly FedEx shipments. The data we will receive from this study will guide us as we move forward not only in our farming, but in what vine varieties we select and how and where we plant them.
One thing you learn very quickly as you dig hole after hole is that the earth is hiding surprises. You think you can tell good ground by just looking, but that is not always the case. In one spot you find unseen underground water and in another, which you had dismissed, you find gorgeous, sweet smelling gravelly soils. Well-drained sites smell alive and fresh, while poorly drained soils have the musty stink of anaerobic bacteria at work - almost like the aroma of a corked wine. A wine’s bouquet truly comes from the ground up.
Our hole digging days started at 7 a.m. and ended at 7 p.m. in Grants Pass brewpubs. It seems even after twelve hours we could not get enough of talking dirt. Local beer and pizza is a fine ending to a day spent touching the Earth and connecting to people like Andrew, Nick and Matt who have devoted their lives to finding the soul of soil.
At Troon, we are combining the natural, homeopathic methods of biodynamics with state of the art science with only one goal in mind - to make world-class wines in Oregon’s Applegate Valley. To achieve this goal we have to not only search our souls, but the soul of our soils.
For everything, there is a season. There is a flow to the year that is defined by what is being harvested. Moments defined by what we eat and drink. As these seasonal treats start arriving at the farmers market, they mark your place in the year. Peas and asparagus in spring, summer brings peaches and tomatoes, fall brings squash and, for those of us who make wine, grapes. Each of them gives you a sense of time and place.
The wines I drink dance across the calendar along with the foods I find at the market. Cold weather brings stews, risotto, pasta, root vegetables and bolder wines - Barolo, St. Joseph, Bandol, and Tannat appear on my table. The arrival of summer brings vegetables and simple grills into staring roles and white wines - vermentino, roussanne, Sancerre, Muscadet, Soave along with wines of wildly varying shades of pink often become my wines of choice. For reds, pinot noir, Valpolicella, grenache and, most of all, Beaujolais - all wines that love a light chill - bring perfect pleasure.
Things that grow react to the season and wine is no exception. Obviously, drinking a Barolo on a hot day in August is not the same sin as insisting on buying tomatoes in January. Yet, I think the full pleasures of a Barolo are more likely to show themselves with Osso Bucco on a crisp fall evening than with a caprese on a hot summer afternoon.
Wine is food, and it is more enjoyable when served in the same way. We are drawn to certain foods at different times of the year and should apply that same common sense to wines.
I’m always mystified when people tell me they don’t like white wine or they only like big reds - the wine world’s equivalent of picky eaters. To me wine is wine, and the color is decided by the food, the season and, of course, my mood. There is no arguing with taste, but I’ll argue those picky eaters and drinkers aren’t tasting at all. They’ve already made up their minds.
The more you pay attention to what you taste the more diversity of experience you crave. That terrifying question I’ve been asked many times, “If you could only drink one wine for the rest...” - is more nightmare than fantasy. The other question I’m often asked is, “what’s your favorite wine you make” or, perhaps even worse, “what’s the best wine you make” leave me speechless. They are questions without an answer.
Each wine we make at Troon has its moment, its meal, its season. What’s my favorite wine? The one in my glass.