If you are familiar with biodynamics, the first thing that will come to mind when you hear the word is often cowhorns. Bill Steele and his wife Barb, run their property biodynamically and own it right up front with their name, Cowhorn Wine.
The truth about those cowhorns
If you are not familiar with biodynamics, one of the most commonly discussed practices involves cowhorns. Cowhorns are filled with manure and buried in the ground, where they perculate over the winter and come out in the spring filled with all sorts of good microbes. This is then made into a solution (Preparation 500) which is sprayed in the vineyard to encourage all those good microbes to flourish in the soils.
Visiting Cowhorn Wines
Last July we had an opportunity to spend the morning with Bill Steele at his biodynamic vineyard in Southern Oregon’s Applegate Valley AVA. Bill walked us through the vineyard. It’s set in a valley and feels like it’s own world. The sound of birds in the trees that surround and dot the property, the buzz of bees as they wake up in the lavender patch, the sound of the water trickling over rocks from the pond…all are enough to make you want to move in and never leave.
The decision to go biodynamic
Bill and his wife Barb were living a homeopathic lifestyle, both of them working in the financial sector. They were ready to make a lifestyle change and get back to the land and found this property. As they explored options for farming techniques for their vineyard, Barb met with some biodynamic farmers in Sonoma. It was more than just the farming techniques, this was a group of like minded people who were open and willing to share. Barb felt they had found friends. These were people who held the same reverence for the earth and they were an inclusive group.
Receiving help and paying it forward
They had help getting started from Brickhouse in the Willamette and from Benzinger in Sonoma. Now as Troon (another vineyard in the Applegate Valley) works toward becoming biodynamic, they can pay it forward, helping as they were helped.
And they were lucky. When they purchase the property it had been untouched for 15 years, so they started their biodynamic vineyard from a relatively clean slate. Troon has a harder road to hoe. Their vineyard had been managed conventionally for a period of time and the journey to biodynamic will take longer, as they restore the vineyard to a semblance of normalcy in soil.
Why Demeter Certification?
I asked Bill about why he felt Demeter Certification was important. I know wineries that are farming in a biodynamic style but have found the certification to be difficult due to time and expense. For him, it is important because as he says “Wine travels”. With his asparagus, it will be sold close by and people can get out and see how he is growing. With wine, if you are sitting on the other coast and want to support biodynamic vineyards by having a bottle in a restaurant, or picking up one at the store, the Demeter certification is the only way you can be sure of what you are getting in the bottle.
Biodynamics in the winery
I had seen on their website that they were certified as a Biodynamic farm & Winery. I don’t often hear about the winery side of biodynamics and asked Bill about this.
There’s over 200 additions that wineries can put into our wines without disclosing. The only one that we can read about is sulfites. So at Cowhorn, as the winemaker I can guarantee you that there are no additives in there….I actually make my own sulfites. What I do is, I take distilled water and pure SO2 gas, and I diffuse the gas through the water to a certain concentration. The reason for that most folks will use something called “potassium metabisulfite”. I don’t really know exactly what’s in it, but what I wanted was the purest wine that I could have. So what’s in my wines is: organic grapes Demeter certified, a little bit of distilled water and a little bit of SO2 gas, and that’s it.
Bill Steel July 2019
I asked Bill what the most important thing about biodynamics was to him.
I think the thing that is most important to me is that 365 days a year I can have people on the property. My friends kids, my nieces, my nephews, the dogs, people bring dogs here everyday. There is no hazmat suit here, so it’s a safe environment.
Bill Steele July 2019
Quite honestly, I’ve asked this same question to other biodynamic growers and the answer is the same.
The truth about industrial agriculture
Perhaps we don’t think about the hazmat suits that are so often found in agriculture. We prefer to think of bucolic farms and quite honestly, agriculture prefers that we have that image in our minds. But it’s there. Industrial agriculture, which is probably where your lunch came from is filled with chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides. The people who work these farms pay a price with their health. They typically don’t get paid much and rarely have insurance. There is a reason that these farms use migrant workers. You see photos in ads of beautiful produce on the vine, not the chemical sprayers and then the people doing the backbreaking work of picking and breathing in the chemicals left behind.
So choosing biodynamics, or even organic or sustainable foods and wines, makes a difference. Perhaps for you, the choice is just for your own health. But there is a bigger picture, with many more facets. We will continue to explore these through vineyards and wineries…but it carries over to so much more in our world today.
If you want to get out and see this beautiful vineyard for yourself… you will find them in Southern Oregon, outside the city of Jacksonville at 1665 Eastside Road, Jacksonville, OR 97530.
They are open for drop ins from 11-4 Thursday to Sunday. You can also reserve a tour or tasting on their website. https://cowhornwine.com/#visit
For more on Cowhorn Wine check out a couple other pieces we have done.
- Digging into Biodynamics and a Tasting
- The Scenic Route – Part 2 Southern Oregon Applegate and the Umpqua Valley