First Crush: Science and Spirit Meet for the Love of Southern Oregon’s Varietals
There is no turning back: Climate change is happening. And, along with the forest fires, it will hit southern Oregon in terms of, well, all aspects of agriculture; yes, including the burgeoning wine industry.
But Oregon’s cultural heritage of perseverance, progressiveness and environmental awareness seem to be creating a storm wall against the impacts. From water conservation and climate research to investigating the microbiomes of soil, the science and spirit behind southern Oregon wine-making has it primed to become “the next Napa,” in spite or even because of the climate changes.
Start with the terroir of a wine, which pays homage to its vineyard and the way in which it’s processed. It’s the characteristic flavor imbued by the natural and cultural environment from which the particular varietal is raised. Many factors produce a fine wine, including agricultural care, geology, and the ideal soil. But for ‘wine climatologist’ and Professor of Environmental Sciences, Dr. Greg Jones, climate plays the key role.
The recipient of numerous accolades and awards, including Decanter Magazine’s 2009 Power List for top 50 most influential people in the world of wine, Jones travels the globe extensively, but took time between flights to share some ideas with the Messenger about wine, climate and the potentially bright outlook for southern Oregon’s wine industry (and joked about not saying “terroirist” too loud in the airport).
As a young PhD student, Jones became interested in how climate influenced the intricate nature and growth of specialty crops, in particular wine grapes. Before becoming director of the Evenstad Center for wine education at Linfield College, Jones lived and worked in southern Oregon, teaching at SOU for 23 years and initiated the frame work that would become the basis for varietal suitability using historical data including climate, regions and wine production and quality. Jones discovered a climate niche that led him to the idea of suitability.
“If you plant the right grape in the right place then you’re going to get more consistent quality and productivity over the long term,” he says. “It’s important in terms of where we decide a variety can grow and how it’s being grown.”
According to Jones, understanding how the changing climate affects wine quality and productivity is already a key element in the industry’s future as varietals and suitability shift with the rising temperatures. Though the warming affect may potentially expand southern Oregon’s season and varietals, there will be other considerations as well.
“Of course, water is clearly an issue in a drier summer climate like southern Oregon,” says Jones. “Grapevines don’t require the same amount of water as some other cultural crops do, but they still require water, and our knowledge of how and when to apply it and how to manage it for optimal plant growth and fruit ripening has changed tremendously.”
“The concern is not so much the supply of grapes as the supply of natural resources,” says Dr. Alec Levin, Viticulturist and Asst. Professor at Southern Oregon Research and Extension Center.
As agricultural industries in Jackson County vie for water rights using the same water resources, Levin says there’s a growing concern as to its distribution.
“How are water managers going to allocate this finite resource?” he asks.
Irrigation districts can measure very gross withdrawals, like from a reservoir or what’s arriving at someone’s diversion ditch. But they don’t know how much water people are using after the ditch, or what they’re using it on.
“This is concerning because it’s difficult to manage what you don’t measure.”
Much of Levin’s research program at the extension center focuses on conservation methods for water use on crops. He is also helping develop new technologies for monitoring water stress in vineyards and better soil moisture sensors that are affordable, automated and easy to use.
But conservation still has its challenges, like traditional water usage rights where people grow concerned that if they minimize usage they’ll lose the amount they’re allocated. Or irrigation system designs not having the flexibility to use less or put out more, limiting conservation efforts by water managers.
Sustainability and environmental practices through scientific research and agricultural methods could be the ties that bind southern Oregon’s wine industry as it heads inevitably toward a warmer climate. As economical and ecological systems converge will the treatment of the terroir by winemakers pay off? Environmentally focused growers believe it will.
Troon Vineyard and Cowhorn Vineyard and Garden, both in the Applegate Valley, are certified as organic and Biodynamic farms. Biodynamic farming, developed by Austrian philosopher and spiritualist, Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, treats a farm environment as a single system, which includes keeping it free from synthetics and pesticides and humanely raising animals that supply the fertilizer and act as natural weed control.
Although the method goes so far as to advise sowing and planting according to celestial events, Craig Camp, general manager at Troon says they don’t base their farming on the more esoteric aspects, but firmly believe the blend of organic with Biodynamics is the key to making exceptional wines.
“Quality and the environment; it’s hard to separate the two, being a farmer”, says Camp, who has worked in the wine industry for 35 years. “To me, what defines a Biodynamic wine is that it’s got this extra dimension to it, this extra life,” he adds. “It’s spiritual in a sense in that it elevates the plants, the soil, the wine and the people that are doing the work. They feel like they’re more engaged in a project that matters, not just a job.”
Barbara and Bill Steele, owners of Cowhorn Vineyard, believe this way of working a farm and vineyard “brings to life a new vibrancy to the wine”.
“We were leading a homeopathic, organic lifestyle in the Bay Area and Biodynamics just matched up with our philosophy,” Bill shares. “We were fairly agnostic, as far as what to plant, and Barbara’s philosophy was to analyze the land and let it tell us what to grow versus imparting our will.”
Today, Cowhorn is approaching 100 wines that have reached 90 points or better.
“It’s a reverence for the earth in a really common sense approach to farming.”
The handling of the fruit, from vine to bottle, has become paramount for some winemakers, including Brian Denner, owner of Simple Machine Winery and Tasting Room in Talent. They create their hand-crafted wines with as minimal amount of processing as possible using fruit from vineyard sites Denner feels are exceptional.
“To us, it really allows the fruit to speak for itself,” shares Arthur. “It is more labor intensive but we feel that the results are an honest reflection of what happened that year at that vineyard site.”
Leaving the entire bunches of grapes intact, also known as whole-clustered, Denner foot-stomps the old-fashioned way in order to release enough juice to start fermentation, without breaking up the bitter stems and seeds.
“They’re natural, vegan wines, not pushed through a membrane to filter them and no added fining agents” Arthur adds. “This results in complex wines with great colors and tannins.”
While science and spirit improve the health and longevity of the land, the multitude of obscure, award-winning wines has seeded creative entrepreneurs like Terry and Janie Pollard, owners of Rogue Valley Wine Tours.
“When we were taking people on scenic tours we started to notice they’d be more interested in visiting vineyards than seeing Crater Lake,” Terry says. The Pollards have owned travel and tour guide services for 20 years but have now shifted to an emphasis on personalized wine tours.
Premier Wine Tours is 6-years young and the first wine tour service in the region, yet co-owner and tour guide, Robbie Ross, says the business is bigger and better than ever.
“A tasting tour just kind of takes you into a whole other world for a few hours,” Ross says. “It’s really enjoyable to watch the transformation of people who may have tasted wine all over the world, or they’re connoisseurs and don’t have high expectations about this region’s wines, get blown away by the quality of the wines being produced here.”
Dr. Jones encourages anyone who asks which wine is best to experience the obscure varieties that produce spectacular wines. “I think southern Oregon winemakers have started to reach recognition; they’re going to be doing well for a long time to come.”