No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

One could be forgiven for expecting an overdose of “yes, I did in fact write those checks” bullsh*t when visiting Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden in Oregon’s Applegate Valley, based solely on the facts that

a) it takes its name from the most infamous preparation (#500, which involves burying a cow’s horn full of manure) in wine’s most infamous set of farming practices (Biodynamics), and

b) founders Barbara and Bill Steele are former CFO/CFA financial types who, after leaving Wall Street and before establishing Cowhorn (despite not having a single lick of winegrowing experience) lived what they call a “homeopathic lifestyle in Marin County.”

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

Cowhorn co-fouder Barbara Steele

One’s skepticism about the Steele’s seriousness regarding their 25-or-so acres of vines and 4,000-or-so case production could be forgiven, but one’s skepticism would also be quite wrong. I mean, you’ll want to be skeptical about, for example, the earnestness of Bill Steele’s long hair, but then you’ll find out that he makes his own sulfites. And that the Steele’s spent two years researching the right place to plant vines before breaking ground on Cowhorn in 2002, planning on Biodynamics viticulture from the get-go (with Alan York consulting), and despite its under-the-radar status and various environmental challenges (ripening is actually the main challenge there, as they are farming Rhône varieties, and the cold air from the surrounding hills makes this a cooler spot by Applegate standards) chose Southern Oregon anyway.

And then there’s the farming mentality employed at Cowhorn, which feels downright legit when the Steele’s are waxing philosophic about it; as Barbara put it, “It’s the people behind it that makes this kind of viticulture possible for the Applegate Valley.” Even their yeast situation is kind of endearing; Bill mentioned that that six unique strains were identified there, primarily due to the 100+ acres of property having been left isolated so long before the Steele’s bought it.

And then… then you’ll taste their wines, which all have a consistent and defining element of being well-crafted and yet still characterful; not overly polished, showing their edginess and angularity while still retaining a sense of elegance. In other words, the only thing full of bullsh*t will be your own silly preconceived notions about their outfit…

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2017 Cowhorn Spiral 36 White (Applegate Valley, $28)

Yes, the “spiral” in the name is (predictably) an homage to the notion of the vortex in Biodynamic preparations (and including the vineyard block numbers of the fruit sources). A blend of primarily Marsanne, with Viognier and Roussane rounding it out, mostly co-fermented, with twenty percent new oak, this is a white that elegantly straddles the line between easy sipping and complex contemplation. It’s mineral, peachy, floral, and has length that outpaces its sub-$30 price-point.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2016 Cowhorn Reserve Viognier (Applegate Valley, $50)

This barrel selection release is sold out, so you’ll likely have to wait for subsequent vintages, which kind of sucks, because as Brian Steele put it, this white hails from “that magical barrel” and while I didn’t see any witchcraft performed during my visit, after tasting this I’m not ruling out the barrel actually having some magical powers. The wine seems younger than its still-youthful two years; it’s taught, herbal, floral and, despite not having undergone malolactic fermentation, has ample body and broadness to its textural mouthfeel and ripe pear flavors.

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2015 Cowhorn Vineyard Grenache 53 (Applegate Valley, $45)

When it comes to Grenache, Bill Steele warned that “too light, too fruity, and you’re into Kool-Aid land.” Thankfully, no one will be jumping through brick walls screaming “Ohhhh YEAH!” when tasting this one… or will they? Anyway, it avoids the Kool-Aid trap entirely, though it absolutely is peppery, lithe, spritely, and spicy, with clean and bright berry fruitiness without ignoring its earthy, stemmy, structured side.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Vineyard Syrah 8 (Applegate Valley, $45)

About 800 cases of this Syrah were made, and each one is probably on the verge of bursting from its muscular, sinewy seriousness. Mineral-driven, with dark berries and even darker dried herb and spice aromas, things get earthy here very quickly, but maintain a sense of aromatic lift.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2013 Cowhorn Vineyard Syrah 21 (Applegate Valley, $45)

At this point, I was getting sick of the numbers, too, but it was nice to get a feel for what a slightly older vintage of Cowhorn’s reds could do after some repose in the bottle (and for this release, the 21 refers to the number of frost days they encountered during the season). Interestingly, this red saw 40% new oak and 40% whole cluster, which lends more peppery and cedar spice action to the mix, on top of earth, and berries galore. It’s funky, meaty, fresh, and vibrant Syrah, with nice textural grip; a great one for the Foodie set and the just-gimmie-a-good-red set alike.

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)

No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Sentience (Applegate Valley, $55)

This one is billed as Cowhorn’s “winemaker’s blend,” with 35% whole cluster and 35% new oak. It’s the silky, rich, round, sexy cousin of their Syrah-based lineup, and while it retains some of the muscular structure of the 8 and 21, there is no denying all of that “bedroom eyes” fruitiness here.


No Bullsh*t Wine (Cowhorn Vineyard Recent Releases)2014 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah (Applegate Valley, $75)

Blackberries and a lithe, peppery, spicy profile are the hallmarks of this characterful, brambly stunner. The acids are jumping, the meatiness is present, the structure is at turns burly and refined. Basically, 200 cases of balanced presentation, in which there is plenty of edginess but not at the expense of a clean, clear, and powerful approach. In case you’re wondering, the 2013 is even better; it’s superb, with the plummy, meaty, and spicy/sage/pepper/cedar expressions opening up a bit more with age and fronting a finish that is minutes long.


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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.

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

Courage of Our Convictions

The Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon 

The Applegate Valley in Southern Oregon 

A winemaker in Bordeaux has a universe of five. In Burgundy a winemaker has one, maybe two varieties that demand their focus. In Beaujolais they live by gamay. In Barolo nebbiolo defines the reputation of a winemaker. In Napa, if you make great cabernet sauvignon no one will much notice what else you do.

In the established wine regions of the world, a winemaker’s universe of options is preordained. In no way does this diminish their skills and accomplishments, but it does allow them to focus. To be able to focus is to be efficient and efficiency leads to consistency, which is an essential aspect of mass market success. Yet market success does not often fire the imagination or inspire innovation.

They say the pioneers take all the arrows. Welcome to the world of winemaking in one of the world’s emerging fine wine regions. I’m in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, but I believe that winemakers in emerging regions around the world get hit by the same arrows. Winemaking in an emerging wine region requires the courage of your convictions. Planting a new vineyard in a new region is a true leap of faith, but as they say, the greater the risk the greater the reward.

But we don’t work in a vacuum. Years of knowledge and science have accumulated from the work of winemakers and viticulturists before us so we don’t have to push blindly forward. There are pioneers in every new region that took a lot of the arrows for all of us. Admittedly, many of these people that first planted vineyards in new regions were learning only by trial and error, but from their failures and successes, we can build a foundation for an exciting new wine region.

One such exciting new region is on the Kubli Bench of the Applegate Valley. Applegate Valley is not new as it was established as an AVA in 2000, but there is a growing energy here and we are on the tipping point. The Applegate Valley is now on the edge of breaking out. The varieties that will fuel that breakout are coming from the shores of the Mediterranean and the rugged hills of Southwest France, not from Bordeaux, Burgundy or Napa. The Rhône will have a voice, but the future of the Kubli Bench will be in the tradition of Bandol, Languedoc-Roussillon, Cahors and Madiran. These regions are now, after centuries of winemaking, escaping the shadows of their famous French cousins because of an exciting revolution in winemaking and winegrowing in those regions. We will be joining them in this winemaking revolution.

We are now making plans to either graft or replant many sections of our existing vineyards with the varieties that belong here. We’ll be planting more tannat, malbec, marsanne, roussanne and mourvèdre for sure (we already have significant acreage of syrah and vermentino), but varieties like picpoul, petit manseng, carignan, grenache (red and white) and cinsault will also find a home on the Kubli Bench. Because of everything that we’ve learned and the excellent quality of the wines we’ve already made I do not feel planting varieties like these is a leap of faith. We have the courage of our convictions.

I like making wines that people drink rather than collect. Wines that are delicious, richly flavored, and affordable that bring pleasure to people lives are as rewarding to the make as they are to drink. There is no bottle more exciting than the one that is open on your table. The Applegate Valley is a perfect place to make these kinds of wines.

I have to admit. Making wines like this is fun.

Pursue Your Passion

This article first appeard in the Dracaena Wines blog series "Pursue Your Passion" "the story of one person in the wine industry, as told my them"

It all started with Watergate. How topical is that? That scandal hit just as I started college. Armed with no passion except football at that time in my life I suddenly saw a bigger world and signed on to my college newspaper. I was going to be Woodward and Bernstein.

I packed on the history hours eventually spending a semester in Europe "studying" (Nixon resigned during my flight back). While I was graduated as journalist, just four years later I was part of a start up wine importer and distributor. Now instead of reading All the Presidents Men I was immersed in Lichine, Penning-Rowsell and Bespaloff.

What happened? On that trip to Europe I was introduced to wine and food. Having grown up in a land were food and drink were eptiomized by Pabst, Manhattans and friday night fish fries the experience was a revelation. A chain reaction was started. This growing transition from news to wine was fueled by my friend Don Clemens, who had landed job with Almaden Imports, who in those days (the late 70s) had a cutting edge portfolio. My mouth still waters today as I remember drinking Chapoutier Tavel with ribs at Don's apartment. There was no going back.

In 1978, with zero experience, I talked my way out of journalism and into wine with a new job as the midwest rep of Peartree Imports, whose main brand was the Burgundian négociant Patriarche, but the portfolio was rounded out with a range of spirits guaranteed not to sell in 1978. I hit the books for my first sales calls - work-withs - with the sales team of Union Liquor Company in Chicago. I memorized each vineyard and the precise details of each spirit. On my first day I jumped into the salesman's car and we headed into Chicago's war zone. The main brand of these salesmen was Richard's Wild Irish Rose in pints. We'd get let in the back door of a fortified "liquor store" that consisted of several revolving bulletproof windows where customers would place their cash and, after spinning the window around, would get their pint of Richards. The salesman (there were no women in those days) would get his order for 100 cases of Richards, get paid in cash for the last order, then I had a few minutes to pitch my brands to the owner. I was not very successful. Then the owner would take his shotgun and walk us back to the car so no one would steal the wad of cash we'd just received. Even with this dose of intense realism I was not deterred.

The dismal state of the wine industry in those days ended up being an amazing opportunity. In 1979 I joined Sam Leavitt as a partner in the newly formed Direct Import Wine Company and over the next twenty years we built the first mid-west wine company focused on imported and then domestic estate wine. First came Becky Wasserman in Burgundy, Christopher Cannan in Bordeaux (and then Spain), Neil and Maria Empson in Italy then new upstarts from California like Calera, Spottswoode, Shafer, Corison, Iron Horse Soter and Sanford. Not far behind were Northwest wineries like Leonetti, Domaine Serene and Panther Creek. The first big break we got was selling the 1982 Bordeaux futures to the famed (but long gone) Sam's Wines. I literally got paid for these future deals with bags of cash often holding $20,000 or more. Chicago was the wild west of the wine business and, yes, [he too had a gun.]

This was a very special time for me. It was a great privilege to work with people of such integrity and creativity. They all inspire me to this day.

Then my partner wanted out and I did not have the money to buy him out so we were acquired by The Terlato Wine Group. I had a five year contract to stay, but those were some of the darkest years of my life in wine. Instead of integrity I was tossed into the world of simply moving "boxes". When my sentence was up I escaped to Italy for three years and due to the graciousness of extraordinary winemakers like Luca Currado (Vietti), Manuel Marchetti (Marcarini), Tina Colla (Poderi Colla) and Andrea Sottimano in Barbaresco I dug deeper into the spirit of what makes a wine great. Many hours in the cellar and vineyards with them brought me back to the world of wine I loved.

Refreshed and inspired I returned the the United States and now have spent almost 15 years divided between the vineyards of Napa and Oregon. During these years I have drawn on the knowledge and inspiration of all of the great winemakers I have known over more than three decades in wine. I will freely admit my winemaking heart now firmly resides in Oregon. There is a fresh spirit here. You just know the best wines are yet to come and I relish being a part of that energy.

In the end there is no final satisfaction in winemaking, because there is no such thing as perfection. The concept of a 100 point wine is simply absurd. However, while you may never be totally satisfied with any wine you make, you can be totally satisfied by experience of making them. There is a deep satisfaction at the completion of each vintage, be it great or difficult, that is not only deeply rewarding, but addictive. You have to come back for more.

I think we should start flowering in the Applegate Valley next week. Only in agriculture are you reborn every year.

Table to Farm

Picking Vermentino at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley 

Picking Vermentino at Troon Vineyard in the Applegate Valley 

It's an iconic episode of Portlandia. Appearing in the very first season, it's a skit that even those that have not seen the show know. When you enter a search for Portlandia Chic... Google auto-fills the link before you even can finish typing. It's the Portlandia chicken episode. A couple in a Portland restaurant become so obsessed with determining just how local the chicken is that they actually leave the restaurant without eating to go to the farm itself.

Like most things in Portlandia, as outrageous the skits are, anyone who knows the city understands that there is a bit of reality in each of them. Indeed there are few cities where the restaurants are more obsessed with farm-to-table provenance. And with good reason, the farmers, dairies, fishermen of the Northwest provide exceptional foodstuffs. It's very hard to understand why so many of the best chefs in Portland know every farmer they work with by name - except the farmers that grow wine grapes. 

In Portland restaurants that would not consider buying an egg from more than a hundred miles away, or use a cheese not from the Northwest, or pork not from Carlton Farms, it’s common to find wine lists dominated by wines from Europe. While working dead center between two world-class wine regions in Oregon and Washington they somehow rationalize buying wines that have to be shipped in containers across the ocean instead of the internationally respected wines made in their own backyard. Not too long ago I walked into a Portland oyster bar to do some serious slurping only to discover that not a single wine-by-the-glass was from the Northwest. The essentially French list was well chosen, but considering they only featured Northwest oysters maybe a local wine or two might have been in order. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive, but I'd think anyone can see the irony here. However, I am sensitive to their pain. It can take a lot of work to find interesting American wines in the wine-by-the-glass price range. But isn’t that the work that a sommelier is paid to do?

We're not talking about restaurants in Arkansas or Alaska with no significant local wine industry to draw upon, but a city within a few hours driving distance of important, world-famous wine appellations like the Eola and Dundee Hills, Yamhill-Carlton, Walla Walla and Red Mountain. These are not some upstart appellations, but vineyards that have been researched and worked for decades. These AVAs and many others literally produce wine in any style from almost any variety you could want. - also in any price point.

Incredible as it may seem, I constantly meet wine buyers in Portland who've never gotten their shoes dirty in a local vineyard. People that pour over books breaking down every minuscule detail of tiny appellations in Burgundy or Barolo ignore the vineyards that surround them. While most have understandably never been to France or Italy, it is hard to comprehend why they’ve not been to the Dundee Hills or Walla Walla. One thing for sure, you never truly understand a wine region until you’ve walked in its vineyards. 

You're either a farm-to-table restaurant or you're not. It’s time they got off their butts and buy local wine as well as local food. You want biodynamic we've got it, want commercial plonk, we've got it, these and everything in-between. Cheap, expensive, rare, widely available, no problem we've got them. Popular varieties, obscure varieties, we've got them. High alcohol, low alcohol, no problem we've got them. Literally, no matter what you want in wine you can find it in the Northwest. What is their excuse? I have no problem with European wines just don't pretend to be a farm-to-table restaurant if they dominate your wine list. 

Italian and French restaurants feel they need to sell wines from those countries, but little or none of the products they use to cook come from Europe - they come from here and for good reason. I understand that if you’re an Italian restaurant you feel the need to have a decent Italian wine list as part of your motif. After it all it makes you seem more authentically Italian. Yet the very essence of the best Italian cooking is based on quality local ingredients. In a country not much larger than Oregon itself, cuisine changes dramatically with a drive of a few hundred miles. When dining in Piemonte the wine selection from Toscana is going to be pathetic at best - and vice versa when you’re having dinner in Siena. No matter if you’re a French, Italian or Spanish restaurant in the Northwest, there is a wide range of local wines that will match perfectly with any dish that you are cooking - with your exclusively local farm-to-table ingredients. Wine comes from farms too.

I love farm-to-table restaurants, but I think it’s time for a table-to-farm movement for wine buyers in the Northwest. The chefs are out with the farmers and fishermen, but sommeliers need to get out with the winegrowers. The wines of the Northwest should be treated with the same respect on a wine list that local produce gets on the menu.

The closer the farm and vineyard are to my table the happier I am.

Punched Down

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

Punching down Troon Tempranillo in the rain under our old oak tree.

There are thirty one-ton fermenters spread out before me under the oak tree behind the winery. They all need punch downs and I'm the only one there to do them. It’s raining and at this moment there is nothing romantic about winemaking, fortunately I know that once these wines are in the bottle there will be more than enough romance to make me face this line up of fermenters tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow…

Now it's night and most of me hurts and I'm exhausted, but tomorrow I will be up and ready to go as I know that my life with these wines will make the effort more than worthwhile.

But why is there just me a 63 year old available for punch downs this morning? Welcome to the Applegate Valley where's there's not an intern in sight. Welcome to winemaking on the frontier. The Applegate Valley is an exciting, but emerging fine wine region and the niceties of established regions like the Willamette Valley or Napa Valley just don’t exist.

As tiring and challenging as it is, the lack of accoutrements is also liberating. You are forced into choices that make you rediscover how natural the winemaking process truly is and that so many of the interventions used almost without thought in more established regions are unnecessary.

You soon come to understand that these interventions are not only unnecessary, but detrimental as they strip wines of real character leaving pretty, fruity wines with indistinguishable personalities. When I first saw an optical sorter in the Napa Valley I was blown away. Out of one end came perfect grapes, looking exactly like blueberries, and on the side it discharged everything deemed less than perfect. My initial excitement slowly dissolved as I tasted the wines in barrel then bottle. What I thought was perfect fruit yielded wines that were one-dimensional. Those perfect grape blueberries ended up making a wine that tasted a lot like it actually came from blueberries. The strange thing about those perfect grapes is that they only look perfect. If they were truly perfect winemakers would not be forced to add acids, water and use enzymes and other additions to put back in what the optical sorter took out.

At Troon there are no optical sorters in sight, nor in all of Southern Oregon as far as I know. All of our sorting is done during the pick in the vineyard. Instead of making wine with blueberries, we make wine with the grapes that nature gives us. That means along with those perfect grapes some are a little more ripe and some a little less. In the fermenter, together with the indigenous yeasts of the Applegate Valley, this varied fruit creates wine that is anything but one-dimensional. The grapes that are a little less ripe contribute vivacious natural acidity and those a shade overripe contribute body and richness - no additions required. Oh yes, and often we include stems in the ferment. In the tank it may not be pretty, but together they make wines that are alive.

Wines that live make me feel more alive.

Feeling Connected

The Troon Vineyard crew picking the grapes they grew. This is Vermentino bound for Troon Black Label Vermentino after a year in barrel.  

There's not much to it. You pick the grapes, crush them by foot, de-stem if needed and dump them in a fermenter. The fermenter, a one-ton macro-bin sits under the old oak tree behind the winery. After a few days the fermentation begins. Just like that.

It seems so simple, so natural as we use no yeast, sulfur or acid additions as was the norm at wineries in my past. These interventions are not required by Mother Nature. Then it's hands-on punch downs every day and soon your hands are stained burgundy red. There is something different about this kind of winemaking. You are mentally and physically part of the wine. This is not a process, it's a philosophy, a way of life. You and the wine are connected.

At Troon the same crew, the same people, tend the vines, harvest the grapes and make the wines. No sorting table is needed at harvest because the pickers are the same people that farmed each vine throughout the vintage. They only pick the perfect bunches, because these grapes are their grapes. They are harvesting a full year of work with each bunch cut from the vine.

After years in the Napa Valley I was shocked at the deliberate pace of the pickers during harvest here at Troon in the Applegate Valley. In Napa the picking crews are well-oiled machines and picking is at super-human speeds, which makes the pickers seem more mechanical than human as they surgically remove fruit from vine. Here in Oregon the picking pace is slower, but not any less work. Yet by dialing back the speed of picking the harvest seems to be the work of people, not machines. A picker that knows each row and vine treats the fruits of their year long labors with the respect that only sweat equity can understand. Their work needs no second guessing on a sorting table.

The simple elegance of the process and the personal hands-on experience of growing and making wine this way cannot help but make you feel more connected. You are connected to the land, the vines, the wines, the people who make them and to the people who will drink them. Feeling this connection is the most rewarding feeling I've ever had in thirty-five years in the wine business.

Wine should be a connection. It should connect the drinker with the land and people that brought the vineyard to life in a bottle of wine. This harvest I'm feeling very connected.