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“Healing the planet through agriculture”

Avena Botanicals • Rockport, ME

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR
Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR
Avena Botanicals • Rockport, ME

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR
Avena Botanicals • Rockport, ME

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR
Malibu Compost • Modesto, CA

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR
Malibu Compost • Modesto, CA

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Applegate Valley • OR

Profiles in Farming:
Barbara and Bill Steele

Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden

Our “Profiles in Farming” and “Biodynamic® Product Spotlight” have never been joined at the hip -- that is to say, representing both farmer and product from the same farm. But due to recent praise for Demeter-certified Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden, we are thrilled to honor the farmers, and their products, together here.

Just weeks after Sunset magazine highlighted Cowhorn in its annual “Best of the West” issue, Cowhorn wines were reviewed in the October issue of Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. Along with high scores, reviewer David Schildknecht offered a perspective that is truly remarkable for a small family-run estate winery in a little-known corner of American wine country:

“Bill and Barbara Steele’s Applegate Valley vineyard… has been known for some years as Southern Oregon’s viticultural star… But it’s clear to me from the recent releases tasted with them in July… that their renditions of Rhône varieties need no longer shy from comparison with any in the world.”

WOW!

Please see the “Biodynamic® Product Spotlight” for a complete recap of this fabulous review.

Bill and Barb -- husband and wife, business partners, farmers -- didn’t grow up on farms, and didn’t pursue their careers in farming until they were both in their early 40’s. But after years of toiling in corporate America, they decided they wanted to help the U.S. economy demonstrate new models for sustainable agriculture. In 2002 they purchased a 117-acre parcel of mostly unimproved land about 15 miles west of Ashland, Oregon.

It’s not surprising that they took a business-like approach to farming. From the start Bill and Barb gathered detailed data on the soil, water, climate, and non-human inhabitants of the land, so that they could determine its highest and best use. The data confirmed what their senses had told them: the sandy, rock-strewn bench bordering the Upper Applegate River shared favorable characteristics with the famed French wine growing region of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, while an alluvial fan of fertile, well-drained soil bordering steep hillsides would be excellent for growing produce. Once they understood what the farm wanted to grow, Barb and Bill created a master plan for the estate in 2004.

They planted their first 11 acres of vineyard in 2005, primarily with field-grown dormant vines. The main varieties were Syrah and Viognier, supplemented with smaller amounts of Grenache, Marsanne and Roussanne. In 2006, the combination of relatively mature plants and careful site preparation enabled Cowhorn to produce 300 cases of Syrah and 40 cases of white wine. The first perennial vegetable gardens were planted that same year, and the farm achieved both Demeter Biodynamic and Stellar organic certification. More gardens and orchards soon followed.

Cowhorn’s first asparagus harvest was about 250 pounds in 2007, and now, at full maturity, Cowhorn produces over 7,000 pounds of asparagus per year! The orchards are still growing into commercial size and scale, so the fruit remains “in the family” for now. Additional vineyard plantings have increased the total to 25 acres, which Bill and Barb expect to yield around 3,000 cases a year when the entire vineyard reaches maturity.

 

QUESTIONS:
You knew from the start that you wanted to create a Biodynamic farm. How did you come to find out about Biodynamic agriculture, and what made you so confident in the farming system that you incorporated it in your plans from day one, and even named your farm after one of its key components?

We explored a number of other farming and food distribution models before we launched Cowhorn, and along the way we learned about sustainable farming methods. Biodynamic agriculture is a good fit for us because it is deeply holistic, it’s in harmony with both nature and our solar system, and, to be honest, it has dimensions of difficulty and mystery that appeal to our love of a challenge.

Do you think that the Biodynamic farming method influences the quality of Cowhorn wines, and if so in what way?

“Influence” doesn’t begin to describe it! It’s really not possible to separate Biodynamic farming from the wine it produces. We want our wine to be a pure expression of the land we care for and the vines we have brought to it, and the Biodynamic approach gives us an incredibly pure translation – not just in the field but all the way through the entire process. We could say the same about the produce from the gardens. The way we farm is the product we make.

You both come from the financial world – Bill, you spent many years working for Wall Street and Barb, you’ve held numerous leadership roles in finance. Is there anything our financial markets could learn from your understanding as Biodynamic farmers?

[Laughter] We’re still learning how to be farmers! There is maybe one lesson that is applicable, which we learned from Alan York, our Biodynamic consultant. We were pretty eager to get going at first, so he taught us that “the fast way is the slow way.” That means if you try to rush things, you wind up making mistakes and having to pick up the pieces, go back, and start over. That’s what the global economy is going through now. It’s better to make progress step by step rather than lurch from boom to bust and back again.

We want to congratulate you both on the Parker reviews -- it is almost unheard of for any relatively new, small artisan winery to score 92 points or more (on the 100 point scale) for every wine in their portfolio. We are all so happy for you! What do you do to celebrate?

Well, first we had to finish our work in the winery for the day. Wine is a living thing, and when a vintage is in its first few weeks the whole winery is like a kindergarten: you just keep moving from child to child – or tank to tank – and make sure each one is happy and on the right path. After we put the winery to bed for the night, we opened a bottle of wine and just smiled and laughed for a long time.

What did it mean to you, when The Wine Advocate reviewer compared Cowhorn with some of the best Rhône and Rhône-style wine producers in the world?

It means more to us than the high scores. Everyone is thrilled with the scores – and it is so gratifying for us and for southern Oregon to be getting them – but what most people don’t know is that when we started out, we consciously chose some of those producers as our models. It’s not that we thought we could get the same scores as they do. We just wanted to be as passionate, committed and conscientious as they are. That’s one of the reasons we chose Biodynamic farming: because we knew it would bring out the best in us as farmers, as artisans, and as people.

“Having the (Biodynamic) certification on our product labels assures the consumer that the products they are eating, drinking, wearing (plant based products include cosmetics and personal care products) have been grown and processed in accordance with a set of standards that can be verified by an independent third party. It's not just marketing. In other words, it isn't Biodynamic® because we say it is; it is because Demeter says it is. The second reason we certify is that the biodynamic movement is really cool! All over the world, people are acknowledging that our precious Earth needs support, that she has been extracted from, paved and polluted for too long. Being part of this fantastic movement, and working with and learning from people with values that we share makes us work harder and feel more proud of our farm!”
- Barbara Steele.

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