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Wine Wednesday: Demeter’s Southern Oregon disciples

Demeter, the ancient Greek goddess of grain and fertility, is the name of a modern international organization that since 1928 has fostered biodynamic agricultural practices that recognize and nurture the living ecosphere of soils, plants and animals.

Biodynamic methods such as use of compost, manure and mechanical weed control rather than artificial fertilizers and herbicides emphasize farming in harmony with all of nature. When these methods are applied to vineyards and wineries, the Demeter emblem of certification may be shown on a wine label.

Has Demeter made any inroads into the Oregon wine industry? The answer is an emphatic yes. Oregon has 14 biodynamic vintners whose 1,305 Demeter-certified vineyard acres represent 4 percent of total vineyard acreage statewide, making Oregon the top U.S. biodynamic wine area. Locally, Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, Upper Five Vineyard and Troon Vineyard are engaged in biodynamic winegrowing. Earlier this month all three Rogue Valley biodynamic players participated in the International Biodynamic Wine Conference in San Francisco, the first event of its kind, featuring 130 like-minded producers from five countries. Having just returned from the conference, our local growers shared their impressions.

Barbara Steele, Cowhorn co-owner, is pleased with recognition of Oregon as the leader in biodynamic viticulture. “We have three to five times the percentage of biodynamic producers of any other region. It was really recognized that this is where the exciting stories are coming from.”

In the Rogue Valley, Cowhorn was the first to produce biodynamic wines. The Steeles acquired a former dairy farm hard by the Little Applegate River in 2002 and established their vineyard and garden with the specific intent of living a biodynamic lifestyle. What does that mean?

Steele explains, “Agriculture by definition is extraction, but biodynamic farming is regenerative, returning nutrients to the soil. If we think about our skin being the largest organ on our body, the largest organ on the planet is the topsoil. It’s the biggest single mass of biological activity there is. We know if you feed the dirt you feed the plant, so by the simple principles of transitivity, if the soil is feeding the plant and the plant is feeding the person, then the soil is feeding the person.”

Steele refers to this as the soil food web.

“It’s a great name because it’s directly linking the soil to food and the web of life.”

The biodynamic concept enters into winemaking as well as grape-growing. Demeter wine processing and labeling standards specify a biodynamic wine must be 100 percent biodynamic grapes, 100 percent estate, fermentation using native yeast only, no additives except egg whites and bentonite (clarification agents), no physical manipulations (such as filtration), and sulfites limited to 100 ppm. Though often called ‘low intervention’ winemaking, Steele points out, “if anything, we’re more intervening” than winemakers who use computer programs to control winery activity or commercially available yeasts and additives to influence fermentation.

“We’ve been watching our grape chemistry for 10 years now,” she adds. “We know what we want to improve. And where do we do that? In the soil. We’re trying to get personality out of each block.”

Terry Sullivan, principal grower and co-owner of Upper Five Vineyard in Talent, notes that at the International Biodynamic Wine Conference, most of the time was devoted to “discussing and sharing knowledge on farming and making the land and plants healthy. Wine wasn’t necessarily a second thought, but the ultimate message was that biodynamic farming is the best way to treat your land (often referred to as ‘dirt’) and the best way to truly express that sense of place in the wine.

“Upper Five is pretty small, and we ventured into biodynamic farming as a ‘learn as you go.’ Getting to meet all the farmers at the conference gave me reassurance that we are doing things the right way.”

At Troon in the Missouri Flat section of the Applegate Valley, the vineyards are now being farmed 100 percent biodynamically with ‘In Transition’ Demeter Certification expected in 2019 and full certification in 2020. Troon General Manager Craig Camp lauds the International Biodynamic Wine Conference for “the incredible sense of community among the producers. Bringing so many committed wine producers together in one venue was inspirational. It is clear that the movement toward biodynamic wine will continue to grow as more and more winemakers realize that this is the best route toward making better wines. Needless to say, it is also the best thing for our planet.”

From the consumer’s point of view, is there an advantage to biodynamically produced wine? The only way to answer that question is to try one of Cowhorn’s top-rated Rhône varietals (there are too many 90-plus scores to list), the sauvignon blanc, grenache, syrah or tempranillo from Upper Five or the exciting new wines (especially the Italian varietals) coming out of Troon. It’s amazing what healthy dirt can do.

What’s your take? Email MJ Daspit at mjdaspitwinot@gmail.com. For more on this topic, check out her Backstory Blog at mjdaspit.com.

MJ Daspit