Visualize A Vineyard

by Lacey Phillabaum (reprinted from "In Good Tilth", Oct 2003, Vol. 14 #5)

"Once you have faced the challenge of finding a site for a new vineyard, you never look at a hillside in the same way again.  Every slope carries a certain signature.  Some have particular allure.  You instinctively gauge pitch and elevation.  You automatically assess exposure to the wind and sun.  Every hillside holds a unique promise.  And when you find one where everything feels just right, the thrill is unforgettable.  There are hills... and then there are hills that have it all."

Wine-maker Doug Tunnel has been growing grapes organically on his hillside since 1990.  His three varieties of wine made with organic grapes, Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir and a Chardonnay, demonstrate the close relationship between farming and fine wine.

While most other forms of organic alcohol pass through any number of hands and require numerous manufacturing processes, wine-making is simple.  There's really only one ingredient: the grapes.  At Tunnel's Brick House Vineyards, the grapes are crushed, fermented, casked and bottled on site.  The resulting beverage is the closest possible derivation from its source.  "The whole thing about wine is that it should mirror where it is grown and where it is made," Tunnel said.  "Years after it is made, when someone pulls a cork in Chicago, they are able to experience this hillside that is our farm."

The name, Brick House Vineyards, suggests a starting point for visualizing, smelling and tasting the 40 acres in Oregon's Chehalem Valley where Tunnel grows his grapes.  The idea of a vineyard first came to him when he was living in France.

"I heard about a family from Burgundy that had bought 120 acres in the Dundee hills of Oregon to grow wine grapes.  I knew them to be exceptionally gifted and talented in the field of wine.  I came home and put the word out that I was interested in finding a farm that would be appropriate for wine grapes.  A family friend contacted me and said, 'There is a place over on Ribbon Ridge that is for sale that I think would be about what you need for grapes.'  It was an old filbert farm.  It wasn't very productive.  It is a hillside, shallow soils.  It seemed like it would be a pretty good place for grapes.  That was 15 years ago.  It was a great place for grapes actually and for the last 15 years that is what we have done."

Like most organic growers, Tunnel's season begins in January or February.  Work crews head to the field and prune the vines.  Tunnel likes to prune rather radically, leaving only a few shoots per vine.  He thinks a more severe pruning helps maintain the vine's health and concentrate its energy.  "The way we prune the vine in January determines the way the grapes taste in September."

In the spring, close attention is paid to the vine because the plants are susceptible to mildew in Oregon's rainy season.  Crews spray sulfur and prune the vine leaves to keep the mildew at bay.  All summer, the grapes grow, and by August they are changing color.

Early fall is a busy season at the vineyard.  The grapes are ready to harvest by late September.  Once harvested, they are immediately crushed and fermented.  "The fruit is brought in and processed on the same day that it is picked, literally within hours.  The Chardonnay comes out of the field and travels about 30 feet to the press and is pressed within 30 minutes of being picked."

While the crushed Chardonnay grapes are fermented in the barrel, both the red wines are fermented before being moved to barrels.  Tunnel believes strongly in using the yeast indigenous to his farm.  While some wineries use yeast from a laboratory, "What we have done over the years is created our own little Brick House yeast strain."

"The French don't have a word for wine-maker," Tunnel explains.  "The yeast makes the wine.  We just fashion or steward it.  Indigenous yeast adds a layer of complexity.  It's not a monoculture of yeast from which you would get a homogenized flavor profile.  Good wine, well made, can take you as a consumer to the vineyard.  If I am taking yeast out of a laboratory in Napa, I've just thrown you off track because I haven't got anything to do with Napa.  The yeast is so fundamental to creating the flavors of the wine.  It just makes sense to use indigenous yeast."

Organic wine differs from non-organic wine in a number of ways.  To be certified organic, a wine must be made with organic fruit in a facility certified for organic processing and must not contain more than 10 parts per million (ppm) sulfites.  Brick House makes both certified organic wine and wine made with certified organic grapes.

Sulfites prevent a wine from oxidizing, or rotting.  A small amount of sulfite forms naturally in wine, but most wine-makers add more in order to maintain the taste and color of the wine.  Organic wine does not have added sulfites but can have up to 10 ppm of naturally occurring sulfites.  Tunnel chooses not to certify most of his finished wines as organic because non-sulfited wines require special care and handling.  Heat and sunlight can easily oxidize a wine.  So, while all Brick House wines are made with organic grapes, the certified finished wines are only available for sale at the vineyard.

The heart of the matter is growing the grapes organically, and that process also requires special care.  Non-organic grape growers use any number of insecticides and herbicides to keep weed species from competing with the grapevines and insect pests away.  Instead, Brick House uses mechanical and hand tilling to keep weeds from proliferating under the vines.  Tunnel also disdains the use of insecticides, which he says are birdicides as well.

Instead, Tunnel tries to create an ecology in the vineyard that favors beneficial insects and polycultural flora.  "Our vineyards are filled with all kinds of life.  They are not monocultures.  I am looking into the vineyard and I can see layers of Queen Anne's lace, wild carrot that grows naturally.  It has a really nice taproot that is in the shape of a carrot, and when it breaks down it contributes to the porosity of the soil.  We have got blackberries growing out there, but they provide very important habitat for predatory life.  If you take out all the blackberries, you lose that habitat and can end up with problems."

Specifically, blackberries create habitat for a predatory mite that feeds on spider mites.  Some vineyards in Oregon are having problems with spider mites feeding on vine leaves.  "I am not going to plant blackberries," Tunnel says," but I've got plenty, and I don't plan to work too hard to eradicate them either."

Cover-cropping is also an important part of Brick House's management plan.  In the fall, crews prepare a seed bed between the rows of vines for any number of cover crops.  The crop is allowed to grow through the winter, and in the spring it is spade into the soil to add organic matter and nutrients.  This year, Tunnel expects to plant crimson clover for nitrogen and aesthetics.  Every few years, Tunnel also broadcasts wildflower seeds for insectary purposes.

The composting cycle on the farm begins after the grape harvest.  Any grape pressings form the basis of a new compost pile, which lies over during the winter.  Additional piles may be started in January and March.  The finished compost is applied late in the season, right after harvest, and in the spring.  Other materials in the pile include straw, grass, cuttings, of material from various stands of oak and fir and a lot of manure from a nearby organic dairy -"all and sundry products of these parts and this organic dairy."

The result of all these careful attentions is about 3,000 cases of wine a year.  While Tunnel is growing grapes under the most demanding conditions, he is demure about the difficulties of the organic wine industry.  "From the very beginning, our approach has been to make the finest wines that we could and, 'by the way,' they are also certified organic.  We have not made a point, first and foremost, of selling organic wine.  We want to sell fine wine.  But I believe deeply that in order to make fine wine, you need to grow organic."

Likewise, Tunnel does not feel that there is tension between his roles as down-to-earth organic farmer and celebrated wine-maker; "We are lucky because almost all of the growers here understand that this is an agricultural pursuit.  Wine is an agricultural product.  The 'high falutin' stuff is a product of our American culture.  It is not like that in Italy and Burgundy and the Rhone Valley.  They understand that wine is an agricultural product first and foremost."

Tunnel's closeness to his vineyard pays off about this time of year, when the glowing crimson orbs are lovingly plucked from their vines.  About a pound and a quarter of the grapes go into each bottle of wine.  Years from now, when a bottle is decorked in Chicago, the connoisseur may or may not be able to conjure this lovingly tended hillside in all its particulars.  More likely, the careful attention to detail will come through.  That fits with Tunnel's philosophy on fertilizer: "Plant them in shallow soils on a hillside and give them morning sun.  Don't plow too much.  Don't hoe too little.  Let them struggle.  And don't ever forget that the world's finest fertilizer is the footprint of a the mud of March and the dust of September."

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