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.
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.
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.
Vintages come and go and with each passing harvest your focus slowly edges away from tanks, barrels and technique to dirt and climate. For wines of character and individuality, it all comes down to the vineyard, all the rest is background noise. In the cellar, it is your job to get out of the way. Actually not out of the way, that’s too simplistic. An artisan winemaker’s job is to know what to do, when to do it and to do nothing more than is necessary - minimalist winemaking is the term I prefer over “natural”. In industrial winemaking, intervention is the rule not the exception, which is the correct strategy if your goal is to produce commercially reliable wines that taste the same year-after-year.
There is little we know for sure in winemaking, but one thing I do know for sure is that if you don’t have the right dirt in the right place and the right vines in that dirt, you might be able to make good wines, but you’ll never make compelling memorable wines.
It is very simple. If you want to make exceptional wine you have to have the right grapes in the right place farmed by the right people. The right people is easy, it’s you if you have the passion, resources and discipline to do the work in the vineyard. The variety and place are much more complicated matters.
While visiting the east coast a few years ago, wondering about what it was like to grow grapes in such humid conditions, I asked a viticulturist how often he sprayed his vineyard. His response was every week - almost up to harvest. Another time I was talking to a grower from a famous west coast AVA who was farming “organically”. Asked about his spray program, he revealed that they were applying forty pounds of sulfur per acre every year. I was equally shocked in both cases because extreme measures had to be taken to grow grapes wine grapes on their sites. (Obviously calling that vineyard “organic” is a stretch of the imagination.) The vineyard on the east coast suffered from a climate unfavorable to wine grapes. The west coast vineyard was in an ideal climate, but either that individual site was less than ideal or the variety they had determined to grow in it was wrong for the site - or both.
The range of soils that can grow great wines has proven to be much broader than once thought. For example, you have pinot noir grown on high pH, alkaline soils in Burgundy, while Oregon’s Willamette Valley is dominated by low pH, acidic soils. Yet in blind tasting after blind tasting skilled, experienced wine tasters are fooled and confuse the wines of Burgundy and the Willamette Valley. However, the climate is much less forgiving than the soil - assuming healthy soils. Selecting the wrong variety for the site is almost as bad. Try to grow cabernet franc on too cool of a site and you’ll end up with pyrazine tea. Grow pinot noir in too hot of a site and you end up with a very expensive version of MD 20/20. Differences, I assure you, even amateur tasters can spot. You have to have the right variety in the right climate, the right terroir to make exceptional, memorable wines vintage after vintage.
I am always confused by terroir deniers. Any farmer knows terroir exists no matter if they are growing wine grapes, apples, asparagus or tomatoes. One major difference between wine grape farmers and other farmers is that winegrowers will insist on growing a crop that is not economically viable in their growing conditions. Or, worse yet, will insist on overcoming nature and selling wine produced from chemically abused vineyards using every winemaking trick in the book to produce commercially and critically acceptable wines.
The surest way to know if you’ve got the right vine in the right place is that the vineyard can be farmed year-after-year using ultra low-input agriculture. If you have to blast your vineyard with chemicals every week just to stop the grapes from rotting with mold before you can pick them perhaps you should rethink your choice of crops. Just because you can grow wine grapes does not mean you should.
If each year you are in a battle with Mother Nature, you will eventually lose the war.