Manure Mix=Floral Bouquet? Polyculture at an Oregon Vineyard
This is the second in a series of articles about polyculture and sustainable farming in Oregon. Read the first installment here.
The wines at Belle Pente (beautiful slope), a 70-acre farm off a dusty road in Carlton, came highly recommended by Russ Raney. The grapes here are organic and the winery is biodynamic; winemaker Brian O’Donnell is a recent member of the Deep Roots Coalition. Coincidentally, I’d read a brief article in the Oregonian a few days earlier about how Brian and his wife Jill have begun diversifying their vineyard by raising goats and Highland cattle.
Below: Sheep and chardonnay at Belle Pente
Belle Pente is not easy to find, nor is there a tasting room, per se. But we had called ahead and so Brian was expecting us. As we drove up a gravel road, we sped past the O’Donnell’s farm and cellar, it turns out. (After visiting a few of the bigger area wineries that day, we’d come to expect a sign, if not a parking lot.) It wasn’t until we’d reached the crest of the beautiful slope (from which we had a magnificent view of the valley) that we realized Brian had been waving us down from his tractor.
“Vineyards are inherently a monoculture,” Brian told us, as he poured us a glass of dry Muscat from 2007. He and Jill are trying to change that by adding livestock and native plants to their winemaking repertoire. They’ve had the goats for fifteen years—they got them originally to clear the land of broadleaf weeds so they could minimize the use of herbicide, but they also milked them, making cheese for home use. Whereas the goats prefer broadleaves, the sheep like grass—so both animals help maintain the vineyard, while also adding to the “manure mix.” Ultimately, the grass-fed sheep are sold at auction for their meat. “They turn our pasture grass into food for humans,” said Brian.
The chickens, which are a relatively recent addition, eat the annoying cutworms (which had been nibbling on the tender new growth of the vines at night)—the eggs, said Brian, are a nice side benefit. (They sell the surplus to neighbors.) The Highland cows are also brush eaters; their manure goes into making some of the biodynamic preparations, so the O’Donnells have no need to import it. (Eventually the cows, too, will be sold for meat.) In an attempt to restore as much of an indigenous natural habitat of the region as possible, he’s also begun planting native grasses such as Blue Wildrye, Tufted Hairgrass, and Slender Wheatgrass in the aisles between the vines. Brian also supplements the animals’ diet with white grape skins, which aren’t fermented.
This sort of integrated farming is a key tenet of biodynamic farming. It’s also a smart prevention strategy. “Introducing (or restoring) biodiversity is a key to maintaining a healthy, thriving vineyard environment that will ultimately require fewer costly interventions in terms of pest and disease control,” Brian said.
The Muscat was crisp and floral. Belle Pente is one of only three Oregon winemakers to make a Muscat, a wine that’s typically found in Northern Italy (sometimes in the Alsace). The grapes for this vintage come from a vineyard down the road in the Yamhill-Carlton District, where the vines go deep into the soil, past thick stones and marine sediments.
We tried a 2007 Pinot, which had a minerally character, and a 2006 pinot gris reserve, which, Brian told us, had a a more Alsatian style. Next we sipped the Murto—a jammy pinot that’s sourced from an estate in the Dundee Hills where the soil is volcanic. It had a spicy kick and a deep earthiness; I could’ve easily had a full glass. Or two.
Since I wasn’t driving, I also wasn’t spitting as my boyfriend and Brian so elegantly were. (I have yet to master the art of elegantly spitting. Plus, when a wine is so delish, spitting seems like a travesty—even if it is early afternoon and you haven’t eaten lunch yet.)
So forgive me, because this is where my notes lose their precision. I did scribble in my notebook that we talked about the principals of biodynamics, which include lunar cycles, preparations (spraying the vines with silica and highly concentrated compost) and integrated farming techniques. I asked Brian how a New Yorker like him ended up on a remote vineyard in Oregon (he fell in love with wines while working for Intel and HP in Mountain View, California in the 80′s), and, as we tasted more wines—an Estate Reserve Pinot Noir with dark black fruit and an excellent estate grown Chardonnay that had just the right balance of oak (it’s barrel fermented but with old oak—a 50/50 mix of French and Oregon oak)—we discussed other risk-taking winemakers such as Branco Cotar in Slovenia and Gravner in Italy. (Gravner, Brian said, is “pushing the envelope.”)
Though there is something exceedingly romantic and right about drinking a wine in the region where the grapes are harvested, I had to ask: where can I find Belle Pente wines in New York City? Surprisingly, they are distributed to 15 states—including New York. Among the NYC restaurants who carry it are such foodie destinations as Cru, Gramercy, and 11 Madison. Still, unable to resist, we bought a few bottles for friends and family before thanking Brian and bidding him farewell.
The Belle Pente Vineyards at Dusk (courtesy of Belle Pente)
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