Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden: Moove over to farming in the wild

“Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work,” said the renowned architect Daniel Burnham. The owners of Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, a sublime 117-acre estate in southern Oregon, have taken that sentiment to heart.

More than a decade ago, Barbara and Bill Steele left high-pressure corporate careers in Manhattan and Marin County to pursue small-scale sustainable farming. A daring move? Absolutely. But sometimes you find your calling in unexpected places. For the Steeles, that place is here, about 20 miles outside the historic town of Jacksonville, where Douglas firs blanket the hillsides, and the rugged foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains ripple and rise.

When the couple first saw the land, they knew it was something special. Set in the Klamath-Siskiyou ecoregion, a biodiversity hotspot, the area harbors one of the four richest temperate coniferous forests in the world and contains the largest concentration of intact watersheds and roadless wildlands left on the West Coast. Bordering their land is a pristine water source: the racing Applegate River.

“It wasn’t a hard decision at all,” says Barbara, of the leap they took when they found the estate. The historic site dates back to the 1850s and was handed down through multiple generations of the Straus family, until the Steeles bought the land in 2002. “We are the second owner in the history of this land,” says Barbara. From the start, they approached farming rooted in science, yet with a different philosophy than the norm.

For the first two years, they ran analysis on soil and weather patterns, while debating with their new neighbors. “When we first put up the weather stations, it was a fight with the bears,” says Barbara. “For them, the stations were scratching posts, and the bears would whack the stations down daily.”

Even closer to home, Barbara and Bill had a bear frequenting an apple tree with her cubs. The Steeles erected a streetlight — now surrounded by organic grasses and plants — as a solution to the sticky situation. “It took a few years to create that balance,” says Barbara, “but that’s part of what we do here: farming with the wild.”

While there are many ways for farms to support healthy, conscientious practices for domesticated farm animals, farms have not historically supported wildlife or wildlife corridors, Barbara points out.

“In today’s world, with so little wild space left, farms that are the interface among urban, rural, and wild can play a role to support wildlife,” she says. What that translates to at Cowhorn is porous borders, so animals have access to natural corridors, water, and seasonal habitat. Instead of keeping wildlife out, Bill and Barbara invite them in.

“We have wildlife that runs through here like crazy,” says Barbara. Some years are skunk years, some years are rabbit years. And sure, the naysayers can look around and question the welcoming of grape-eating birds in the vineyard, but in reality, the Steeles’ dog steals more Syrah clusters than the birds.

cowhorn-4The wooden perches across the property that stand as tall as trees — and resemble crosses — provide protection and nesting areas for raptors, which in turn naturally control vineyard pests.

Bill and Barbara believe that if there’s not something out in the fields for the bobcats to eat, and for the coyotes to eat, then the creatures won’t travel through. Creating nutritional diversity that’s necessary to keep the soil healthy and vital is one of their fundamental goals.

“Soil does not gain in nutritional strength and diversity by getting fed NPK out of a bottle,” she says. “Soil gets fed in much more delicate ways, and one great way is by a whole pile of animals running around pooping and moving nutrients. It’s the old-fashioned way.”

Currently, only 29 acres of the 117-acre estate are in cultivation — 25 in vineyard and four for produce — and more than half of the land is reserved for habitat, forest, and riparian areas. “We got our start as an old-fashioned truck farm,” says Barbara, as we begin our walk, passing by patches of purple-tipped lavender, where giant bees buzz and it be- tween stems.

To the far right, the four-acre working garden pops with purple asparagus, artichokes, and other heirloom vegetables. We stop to inspect the giant purple stalks of asparagus that, in southern Oregon, carry a celebrity-like status.

The land’s diversity extends from the surrounding wilderness to the myriad crops and orchards. From just beyond the vineyard where we stand, we can see leafy heirloom fruit trees, a cluster of young cherry trees, and a hazelnut orchard that, seven years ago, was inoculated with black Perigord truffles. Barbara lowers her aviator sunglasses when she confirms: Yes, the couple found their first truffle last fall.

When we pass by pear trees, Barbara mentions that later in the week, a new partnership with Rogue Creamery will bring 10 cheese experts out to the vineyard to handpick about 35,000 Syrah leaves to wrap 5,000 wheels of Rogue River Blue, which will be released in fall 2017.

“We wanted to develop a relationship with an organic vineyard so we could have organic Rogue River Blue,” explains Francis Plowman, cheese narrator for the creamery. The creamery was certified organic by Oregon Tilth in March 2016. Since the grape leaves for this famous Rogue River Blue are soaked in pear brandy, Cowhorn will also supply organic pears from their orchard to the creamery. It’s a partnership that both parties are thrilled about.

cowhorn-3Before their foray into farming, Barbara and Bill followed a “homeopathic” lifestyle for 20 years. “We believe that biodiversity is essential for our bodies to be healthy and for the planet to be healthy,” she says. This tenet is one of many reasons they pursued biodynamic certification, which they received in 2006 when they became among the first Demeter-certified biodynamic estate wineries and commercial farms in the United States. They are still the only certified biodynamic vineyard in southern Oregon.

Biodynamic farming, at the core, views the farm and vineyard as a holistic self-sustaining ecosystem. It is regenerative organic farming that focuses on soil health, the integration of plants and animals, and biodiversity. Or, as Barbara explains to winery visitors, with the organic method you are trying to eliminate chemicals. When following biodynamic principles, you are farming to create good health.

“We don’t use or rely on chemical products,” she says. “To us, they feel like antibiotics, and they wipe out all the good.” Instead, they integrate the nine herbal-based teas and sprays applied to the vineyard at specific times of the year that are key to biodynamic farming. The name of their vineyard and wine label — Cowhorn — also refers back to biodynamics. It’s when nutrient-rich cow horns are filled with an organic mixture and buried in the vineyard to enhance soil structure and vitality.

Since skeptics often raise eyebrows at the mention of buried cow horns, Barbara emphasizes their commitment to follow and implement the latest research related to irrigation, tillage, pruning methods, and more. “We are technologically advanced here; we just don’t use chemical products,” she says. Then adds, “You can’t make a notable wine by accident anymore. It’s a billion-dollar industry.”

The swish of cover crop underfoot is the only sound for a few minutes as we tread between vineyard rows, where a distinctly rocky soil covers the bases of the vines. Here, in the middle of the vineyards, we are standing in the former riverbed of the Applegate River, where the Steeles planted varietals suitable for their cool climate and rocky earth.

Early research and soil testing with vineyard experts indicated their site’s microclimate shared qualities with the Chateauneuf-du-Pape region of France’s Rhone Valley, so the grape varietals rooted include Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Since their first vintage in 2007, the wines from Cowhorn have garnered accolades both nationally and close to home.

“The Cowhorn wines are, in my opinion, some of the select few that go in with a blank slate and ask what can be made, instead of having a preconceived notion of what this wine has to be or trying to make it into something it is not,” says Drew Gibbs, owner and sommelier at The Winchester Inn in Ashland. “In addition to that, when I taste a Syrah or Viognier from them, I know that it will have the varietal characteristics I always look for — a touch of pepper and smoked meats, a hint of stone fruit and white flowers — all finished with a balance.”

cowhorn-2When I ask Barbara if she thinks biodynamic farming produces a quality in wines that might be missing from conventional wines, she answers with her characteristic candor. “There are plenty of examples of biodynamic wines that do not inspire. Equally, there are many fine wine growers who count themselves as ‘conventional’ who make wines that inspire both the heart and mind.

“What I can say is true for me is that attenuation to the energies of the unseen world often yields a wine that is harmonious in flavors, scents, feel, and digestion,” she continues. “When I drink a fine wine that has been grown and produced with attention to the world of its origin, the wine feels good as well as tastes good.” She refers to this quality as “acoustically harmonious.”

Our last stop on the estate tour is the new tasting room, an architectural marvel. The modern 2,200-square-foot space uses Forest Stewardship Council–certified wood and was designed to be 70–90 percent more energy efficient than conventional construction. More significantly, with this building, the Steeles are pursuing Living Building Challenge Petal Certification, the world’s highest green building standard. “If we achieve it, we will be the first in Oregon, the 22nd in the U.S., and the 44th in the world,” says Barbara.

While the initial certification audit assesses water, energy, and materials, one of the extra areas you can choose to pursue for evaluation is “beauty and spirit.” As we sit in the tasting room and gaze out at the mountains and vineyard, a hawk soars across the sapphire sky, and a sense of wildness pervades. This land feels alive. It’s a quality that translates to the wines, this sense of vitality.

Edible Portland | November/December 2016
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