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