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biodynamics

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.