A New Culture at Troon (and poop jokes)

Banele, our harvest intern from South Africa positions the cow horns to be buried.

A New Culture at Troon (and poop jokes)

Assistant Winemaker Nate Wall fills horns.

It seems everyone either ridicules or worships the cow horns and the processes of biodynamics. Then there’s biodynamic cycles of the moon that are mistakenly confused with astrology - no, not related. You can’t blame the press for focusing on these aspects of biodynamics as they make for great photos and headlines. However, as wine writer Monty Walden recently noted, “Biodynamics is not farming by the moon.”

Biodynamics is farming by the earth.

At Troon Vineyard we recently completed one of the milestones for any biodynamic farmer. We buried our first cow horns on the estate to produce our own biodynamic preparation 500. The images of burying the cow horns may have become cliché, but for those of us who participated, it felt like a right-of-passage as we joined other biodynamic farmers around the world in what feels like a celebration to those involved. It is hard to imagine, but stuffing cow horns with fresh manure is a meaningful experience. After the horn’s ingredients ferment in our soils over the winter, we’ll take the newly created BD 500 and apply it to our vineyard soils to help build the natural microbiome that plants require to take their nutrition naturally from the soils. By letting the soil and the plants do the work we will end up with fruit that carries the energy and personality of our vineyard into our wines. Farming by the earth is the essence of terroir.

Biodynamics changes the soils, the vines, but equally importantly it changes the people who practice this discipline. Biodynamics is a structure and gives you a framework, which at the beginning you work within, but as you grow as a farmer you also go beyond. While everyone loves to focus on cow horns and moon cycles, and these are important aspects of biodynamics, these famous elements of this discipline are not the biggest changes at an estate that transforms into biodynamic agriculture. Perhaps the biggest changes happen to the people who take up this mission. Biodynamics not only transforms your soils, but your culture as a winery.

A big part of that change is that farming biodynamically is fun. You feel empowred what you are doing and each day is a new adventure. Even though it’s much harder work than conventional farming, the risks and the efforts reward you with not only better grapes, but a better you. Filling our horns was a group effort and laced with happy banter and camaraderie. Poop jokes were as abundant as the actual poop at this celebration. Everyone including the horns were full of it. Conventional farming makes sterile soils and wines. There is nothing sterile about the world of biodynamics.

We’ll be stuffing horns again next fall. If you don't mind dirty hands and some rather unsophisticated humor come join our celebration!

In biodynamic agriculture, we bury cow horns filled with fresh cow manure each fall. These ferment over the winter and next season will be applied to our soils to help build the microbiome. of our vineyard. In this video, Lindsay (harvest intern from Ireland) assistant winemaker Nate Wall and biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy fill our horns at Troon Vineyard.

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925), who founded the farming practices now known under the certification of Biodynamics, was largely full of sh*t.

For example, Steiner was all about making wild claims based on anonymous sources long before it became the new standard of presidential tweeting in the U.S.; just check out a handful of the claims he made in his The Submerged Continents of Atlantis and Lemuria:

“As to the sources of the information to be given here, I am for the present obliged to be silent. He who knows anything at all about such sources will understand why this must be so…”

“…it was only in the course of time that the forms of man and woman arose from an earlier, original form in which the human being was neither the one nor the other, but both at the same time.”

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Working the good sh*t at Troon in Oregon

“Just as we have contrivances for transforming the latent force of coal into the power to propel our engines, so had the Atlanteans devices for heating by the use of plant-seeds in which the life-force was changed into a power applicable to technical purposes. In this way were propelled the air-ships of the Atlanteans, which soared a little above the earth. These air-ships sailed at a height rather below that of the mountains of Atlantean times, and they had steering appliances, by means of which they could be raised above these mountains.” 

So we’ve got, with literally no evidence, Steiner on the record challenging how humans evolved, and claiming that ancient Atlanteans had airplanes powered by seed oil. So if you’re not at least a little bit skeptical of the guy’s take on farming, then you have deep issues with how you handle facts, logic, and the scientific method.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that with Biodynamics he didn’t stumble upon something incredibly useful for coalescing several centuries-old, tried-and-true farming practices that turned out to be great for fine wine vineyards. But it does mean that we need to approach anything that Steiner wrote with healthy (and probably substantial) levels of skepticism. We’ve tackled this topic before on these virtual pages, giving equal “air time” to both prominent Pro and Con voices regarding BioD, and more or less ended up not that much farther from our starting point (or, at least, I didn’t).

And so it was with a sort of mixed fascination and trepidation that I recently observed firsthand Troon Vineyard‘s Biodynamic compost preparations (#502-507) in the gorgeous (but, at the time, quite smokey) Applegate Valley, to literally see “the good sh*t”…

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

I was in town at the time to take part in the 2018 Oregon Wine Experience wine competition, and took up an invitation to visit from my friend and Troon GM Craig Camp. 2018 will be Troon’s first 100% certified Biodynamic vintage, and the thinking behind it has nothing to do with smoking the other “good sh*t” big agricultural crop (marijuana) in Troon’s neck of the woods; the plan is that Biodynamic farming can help the resiliency of the vines, and therefore allow for more dry-farming, less water usage, and increasingly better and better vineyard fruit. Combined with six full-time vineyard staff, “you get a different level of care in the vineyard” according to Camp.

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Troon’s assistant winemaker Nate Wall surveys the day’s Biodynamic prep efforts

Thankfully, Troon’s application of Biodynamics isn’t moon-phase-chasing, ganjas-smokin’ BS; they are measuring the impact both in terms of soil impacts, vine health, and resulting wine quality. Over seventy soil pits have been dug and analyzed on the property – along with genetic sequencing of the microorganisms contained therin – to get a microbiome baseline. Early results are promising (more on the liquid results of all of that work to come in later articles here), and I got to measure some of the vine health myself by tagging along with assistant winemaker Nate Wall to perform leaf pressure-bomb analysis (the TLDR summary of that excursion: things are looking very good).

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

Anyway, back to the literal good sh*t…

During my visit, Troon was working over (e.g., turning, moistening, and adding BioD preparations such as dandelion, Valerian, yarrow, chamomile, and nettle) some of the most appealing compost I’ve ever seen. While there are way too many references to things like “cosmic forces” in the BioD prep. directions, there’s also some scientific method to the madness of adding in these elements to make for effective compost. For example, oak bark (#505) is probably acting as an antiseptic; Valerian might stimulate phosphorus and earthworm activity (the latter being essential for composting); yarrow might interact with potassium and sulfur to aid in plant nutrient intake.

The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard)

What really blew me away about the results of the compost was how incredible it smelled; or, I should say, didn’t smell. It was aromatic (think woodsy and slightly sweet), not stinky. Parts of it felt almost like potting soil. It just about screamed (in so much as earth can scream) healthy.

I mean, this was seriously, seriously good sh*t. I immediately wanted to steal some and throw it all over my yard, which I suppose is one of the higher compliments one can pay to an enormous pile of compost.

Cheers!

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Copyright © 2016. Originally at The Good Sh*t (Biodynamic Preparations At Troon Vineyard) from 1WineDude.com - for personal, non-commercial use only. Cheers!

Vineyard Venom

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 but 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

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.

The Smell of Biodynamics

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.

The Smell of Biodynamics

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.

It feels right. Chester and Goldie would approve.

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

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.

Becoming One with Wine

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.

Becoming One with Wine

Alberto spraying BD 500 in a block of zinfandel

Natural Selection

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.

Get Set, Go!

Biodynamic consultant Andrew Beedy and Troon winemaker Steve Hall on the spot selected for our compost program.

This is the spot that will become the most important place of the vineyard. We’ve chosen the spot for the compost piles.

There is a day that dreams, plans and goals become a reality. On your mark, get set, go! As we crossed the starting line this week, we were firmly aware that we were starting a marathon, not a dash. This week we took our first steps to converting Troon Vineyard to organic and biodynamic agriculture. We have our eye on 2020 to achieve our first organic and biodynamic certification, but that will not be the finish line. In agriculture, there is no finish line.

We had already taken some steps forward as we had received our L.I.V.E. and Salmon Safe sustainable certifications, but we have now committed to biodynamics as our vision for the future of Troon. Our first big step was to secure the services of Andrew Beedy ([https://www.andrewbeedy.com]). Andrew's speciality is designing a complete plan that looks at your property as a whole, not just as a vineyard. Andrew has spent his entire life immersed in biodynamics as he was born on a biodynamic dairy farm in Pennsylvania. He attended a Steiner elementary school that was attached to a biodynamic farm. As a teenager, he worked on an organic farm in England. After university, he moved to California, where he worked with his mentor, the famed biodynamic consultant Alan York, who also was the biodynamic consultant for our neighbor, Cowhorn Winery, here in the Applegate Valley. Today, Andrew’s clients span the entire nation coast-to-coast.

After walking for hours with Andrew through our vineyards and our entire farm property, you can feel your perceptions began to change as you start to look at your farm as a whole rather than as simple blocks of vineyards. This extends beyond our property lines as you understand that the Applegate Valley itself is included in a whole farm, holistic plan for farming.

With conventional agriculture you identify problems and then apply various applications. Many, many of these applications are nasty indeed. While they may solve one problem, the collateral damage they cause slowly, but surely kills your soils. Soil is the plant’s foundation, and dead soils cannot produce great wines. When you farm biodynamically you eschew these chemicals, which means you have to deal with the threats to your plants before they appear. In other words, biodynamics is all about prevention. A healthy plant can better resist diseases and pests than one living in dead soils relying on chemical fixes to deal with each and every problem.

Our new compost piles will be the heart and soul of the vineyard as this is how we will be bringing our soils back to life. One way I like to explain biodynamics is that it is organic agriculture with probiotics. It is the bacteria and fungi surrounding a plants roots that allow it to take nutrition from the soil. Conventional agriculture destroys this natural system. The power of biodynamics is that it brings the microbiome of your farm back to life, which brings your soils and plants back to life.

I will be chronicling the process of bringing Troon’s soils back to life here on this blog. Over the next weeks, we are evaluating our soils and the microbiome of our vineyards, and we will be carefully monitoring and documenting the changes in our soils and vines as we practice biodynamic farming over the next years. It is a story I am very excited to be sharing. It is a process that will change our farm, our vines, our wines and us.

It will be a steep learning curve. Could anything be more exciting?

Here is a link to the Demeter Biodynamic Farm Standard for certification.