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Becoming One with Wine

Uploaded by Craig Camp on 2018-03-27.

The world feels somehow different today at Troon Vineyard. I guess you can’t reinvent a vineyard without reinventing yourself. Reinventing and reinvigorating people and a vineyard at the same time is about the simplest way I can explain our transition to biodynamic farming. Everything just feels more alive.

Over the last week what was all planning, items on a Trello board, started to become real. New equipment, new ways of thinking and a new spirit all converged at Troon Vineyard this week. The first step was just a simple piece of string

 Twine ties in a block of our vermentino

Twine ties in a block of our vermentino

After years of plastic ties in the vineyard, many of a particularly noxious green color, we have replaced them with hand-knotted pieces of twine. The contrast between the bilious green of the old ties and the warm, earth tones of the twine ties running down the rows tying the canes to the wires could not be more obvious or meaningful. A simple change that tells of significant changes to come, we are becoming entwined in nature.

A somewhat physically more prominent change was the arrival of our Clemens radius weeder or “weed knife”.  While a big financial investment, an efficient tool to control weeds is necessary if you are going to forgo chemicals like the seemingly ever-present Roundup. Many may debate about the evils of glyphosate, and all too many sustainable certifications allow it, but common sense tells us that chemicals like these are just not part of nature’s plan.  It’s hard to describe how well the Clemens does its job as it fluidly dances the blade around each vine almost in slow motion - we actually it is in slow motion as the tractor can only go two and a half miles an hour while doing this work.

Other new mechanical arrivals include the Clemens multi-clean undervine brush, which, as the name implies, literally whisks away suckers and weeds around the base of the vine. Then there is a tank-like Domries disc and a Domries tri-till cultivator. We now have the tools to do the job right.

 Creating a vortex while stirring BD 500

Creating a vortex while stirring BD 500

Then there was the really good shit, literally, which arrived this week. Now living in Southern Oregon, that phrase tends to refer to other local agricultural products, in our case, it was actually shit. This was the famed BD 500, the cow manure aged in buried cow horns. For this first application we had to purchase some finished BD 500, but by next spring we’ll have buried and fermented our own. The finished preparation does not remind of the original state or aromatics of the raw materials as it looks and smells more like very rich potting soil. To prepare 500 for application requires stirring it a very particular way. Troon winemaker Steve Hall selected one of our oldest barrels (for the history of place it had experienced) then after adding the 500 to around forty gallons of water we begin the stirring process. Steve and I alternated during the hour long process. First you stir in one direction until you build a deep vortex then suddenly reverse direction going violently from order to disorder. You repeat this process over-and-over for the full hour. This was a uniquely satisfying  experience as you bond with the preparation that will become one with your soil. A very different experience than wearing haz-mat gear demanded by standard vineyard applications. Once prepared we poured the BD 500 into the sprayer and as the week came to a close our entire property had received this application. 

Just knowing that the first biodynamic preparation is in our soils gives me both a sense of peace and accomplishment. We are on an entirely new voyage with a new mission. Just as the vines are reborn each spring, this spring Troon Vineyard is reborn along with them. Soon the buds will break into a whole new world of winegrowing. 

Biodynamics will reinvigorate our soils and our vines, but it is also reinvigorating us. It is those combined energies that will be expressed in our wines. Wines full of energy are exciting wines and we could not be more excited about making them. Our desire to make special wines from what we know is a vineyard, a terroir, with exceptional potential is what started us on this voyage to begin with. 

We are at the starting line of a long struggle to achieve our goals. Now that we have taken our first steps we feel like a sprinter whose energy has just been released by the starting gun. 

The vines, the soil, the place, the wines and the people are all becoming one.

 Alberto spraying BD 500 in a block of zinfandel

Alberto spraying BD 500 in a block of zinfandel

Natural Selection

 Perfectly ripe vermentino at Troon Vineyard 

Perfectly ripe vermentino at Troon Vineyard 

 

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.

Winemakers (and Vineyards) Need to take Probiotics Daily

Troon Harvest 2017 Malbec, Tannat, Syrah (1).jpg

Your microbiome is suddenly fashionable. The bugs in our gut are chic. We can’t get enough of probiotics and fermented foods. This is a very good thing and a trend that will certainly lead to healthier people. The bugs love us and now, finally, we love them. Good thing, because we would not exist without them.

However, the microbiome is not just in your gut. It’s everywhere - literally. It’s part of everything you touch, breathe, eat and drink. Yes drink. That includes wine. Bugs in wine? Not so much really because alcohol and bugs do not get along well. But before fermentation wages its war on bacteria (sometimes more successfully than others) there are grapes in a vineyard and the key to a healthy vineyard and great wines is the microbiome of the vineyard itself. Just like us, for vineyards there are good bugs and bad bugs and the key to good health is maximizing the good ones and minimizing the bad ones.

Conventional farming has destroyed the microbiome built up by Mother Nature over the millennium. The resulting soils are dead requiring mainlined injections of petrochemicals to grow anything at all. Soon, like any addict, the plants require stronger and stronger doses to survive. A vicious dead-end cycle that ends up the same for the plant or the drug addict.

Just like we need to take probiotics to repair the damage we’ve inflicted on our microbiome, a vineyard needs the same remedy. Unfortunately, for a vineyard it’s a bit more complicated than simply taking a pill. However, there is a proven cure - biodynamics .

First let’s make one thing clear - I believe and revere science and scientists. I know that climate change is real. I know that astrology is ridiculous and that relativity is not. So how does someone who believes these things also believe in biodynamics? That’s a good question and in a very real sense many aspects of biodynamics and science are in total conflict. Yet, I think with deeper thought and research the gap between them is not a chasm, but is in fact semantics. Clearly there are aspects of biodynamics that are absurd to any educated person, but there is a major problem here because, very simply, biodynamics works. Biodynamics not only works, but works dramatically well. The list of wineries using biodynamic agriculture is a who’s who of exceptional winemaking. The results speak for themselves.

Often it is argued by anti-biodynamic crusaders that it is not biodynamic practices that improve a vineyard, but the simple fact that the owner must spend more time in the vineyard. Without a doubt there is an element of truth here for as they say, “the best fertilizer for a vineyard is the owner’s boots.” Yet there are many dedicated viticulturists who spend endless hours in vineyards that produce flavorless wines from dead soils that have had the soul ripped out of them by chemicals. Time spent in the vineyard alone cannot be the answer.

However, if you strip the voodoo out of Steiner’s biodynamic program (and Steiner was loaded with voodoo ideas) what you get is a discipline dedicated to putting the bugs Mother Nature intended to be there back into your vineyard. Burying horns filled with manure, hanging stuffed animal organs in trees then spreading their contents over your vineyard is very simply creating a probiotic for your vineyard. Almost all of the numbered biodynamic preparations are focused on composting. It’s in the area of composting that biodynamics meets science as there is hard data showing that compost treated by biodynamic methods is more active microbiologically than untreated compost. I believe this extremely proactive composting program is the heart and soul of what makes biodynamics effective. You are simply creating a giant probiotics therapy program for your vineyard. It is here that science and biodynamics reconcile. Any plant scientist will tell you that a healthy microbiome is key to a plant taking nutrition from the soil. Kill nature’s bugs and your vines will slowly starve to death. It is at this point that biodynamics goes beyond simple organic farming, which tells you what not to use, but biodynamics goes a step farther by telling you what to put back in. The goal of biodynamics is not simply sustainable agriculture, but to restoring and building the microbiome of your vineyard.

There is an obvious conflict between science, facts and biodynamics. I have no doubt that there are parts of biodynamics that are total hooey. The problem is that we don’t know which parts work and those that are a total waste of time. That means for now a winegrower committed to both a natural sustainable vineyard and great wine must take the bad with the good of biodynamics until science and biodynamics catch up with each other. Until they do and we fully understand how and why biodynamics works I do not intend to take a risk that would mean wines that are not all they can be.

Starting in 2018 we are launching our program at Troon Vineyard to achieve biodynamic certification. We do this fully understanding that some of the things we’ll have to do will seem absurd, but we know that others will create miracles in the vineyards that will take our wines to greater and greater heights. To achieve that, I am more than happy to practice a little voodoo.

Selling Wine in Mason Jars

I’m holding a bottle of wine it's taken me almost sixty years to make. I pull the cork and pour a few ounces into a more-or-less clean Mason jar. It seems we are going back in time.

Decades ago, when I was building a new fine wine distribution company, I would take winemakers that are now wine legends - Angelo Gaja, Dominique Lafon, Josh Jensen, Tony Soter, Cathy Corison, Richard Sanford and others around Chicago, where we would pour samples of their wines into small plastic cups and try to convince buyers to give these newcomers a shot. Needless to say, those buyers never got a glimpse of the true greatness of these wines and winemakers out of those little plastic cups.

Fast forward from the 1980's to 2017 and selling great wine is a lot more glamorous, right? Sharing your wines with the sommelier at Castagna or Nostrana could not be more pleasurable - if you make good wine that is. Yet, all to often, we've not progressed beyond those pitiful little plastic cups.

In states that allow both distributors and retailers to sell wine and spirits, the profits from spirits make their cash flow work. These profits from quick, large-margin spirit sales are the lifeblood of large liquor stores, which give them the opportunity to build broad, but slower selling wine selections. In states like Oregon, where spirits sales are ridiculously limited to state controlled “liquor stores” that means amazing wine and spirits stores like K&L, Binny’s and Zacky's cannot exist. In state controlled Oregon, grocery stores have a significant advantage over wine-only shops as they have many other products to give them the cash flow required to support the inventory in their wine department - just like full-service liquor stores in other states.

This means that I spend a lot of time in Oregon selling wine to grocery store buyers. While tasting wines with buyers in the back room of a grocery store out of old Libby glasses may not have the panache of sampling your wines in Riedel on white tablecloths it's just as important to your sales. Also, most of these grocery store buyers are just as serious as any sommelier. They too are passionate to find wines that their customers will love. Also, like a sommelier, they are out on the front lines and if the customer does not like a wine they are just as likely to blame them as to blame the winery.

It's not a bad system. Or, at least it used to be not a bad system. Fine wine and corporations do not mix well and management at some important Oregon chains are taking their local buyers out of the game and sending them home with Mason jars of wine in their backpacks.

No longer can you taste your wines with these buyers. You go into the back room, among the storage shelves of dog food and canned goods and pour your samples into well used Mason jars or some other even less glamorous receptacle. You pour your wines into old jars or bottles as the buyers are no longer permitted to taste wines on the job. Which, as that is a big part of their job seems, well for lack of a better word, stupid.

We go to a lot of work to be sure our wines are presented and sold in the proper condition. Pouring them into a Mason jar that is then tossed into a backpack, that may spend time in a hot car or that then may not be tasted for days is not fair to us or the final consumer. Grocery chains should treat both their wine buyers and the wines they buy with more respect considering the significant profit they generate for these corporations.

Next time you buy a wine in a grocery store you don't enjoy, please don't blame the wine buyer. The wine they tasted from that Mason jar after it had sloshed around in their backpack while they rode home on their bike on one of those one-hundred degree days last week probably did not taste much like the bottle of wine you took home.

In thirty years we've graduated from plastic cups to Mason jars. A long way, baby, we've not come.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeared in the Dracaena Wines blog series"Pursue Your Passion""the story of one person in the wine industry, as told by them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.