The wine world is always changing. Trends come and go. Technology disrupts and reshapes. Tastes evolve and shift. Staying true to who you are can be tough regardless of circumstance, but in winemaking, it can sometimes be downright impossible. Working with wineries who manage to keep it authentic despite the industry’s many pressures is a top priority for us at DCanter. Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden is one example of a winery doing just that.
Bill and Barbara Steele have owned and operated Cowhorn, a certified biodynamic farm and vineyard in Oregon's Applegate Valley, since 2002. The husband-and-wife team possesses an honesty and passion for the winemaking craft that’s evident in every bottle they produce. We caught up with the Steeles to learn more about getting into the wine business, the biodynamic process, their one-of-a-kind organic tasting room, and what they love most about winemaking.
Wine Life: You both previously worked in finance — how did you make the transition into wine?
Barbara: I wanted to make a change. I had been working with farms in California on financial modeling and helping them with the financial side of things. I decided I wanted to get into it more fully. Bill’s family lives up in Central Oregon, and we would vacation there every year. We had just come home from our annual vacation, but we didn’t really want to leave in the first place. We just thought, “Well maybe now is our time to move to Oregon.” And I’m not kidding you, two weeks later we had found a farm. Serendipity.
For the average person who has no idea what “biodynamic wine” means, how would you explain it to them?
Bill: First, there are no synthetic chemicals anywhere on the property, no chemicals used in the fields, and no chemicals in either the foods or the wine. Two, you won’t find a monocrop biodynamic farm in the world, for example all spinach or all grapes. We do about 8,000 pounds of asparagus a year. We also grow lavender, hazelnut, and, of course, the vineyards. The point is we’re not mono-cropping. And third, the biodynamic process is an inspirational goal of creating a closed-loop system. What going biodynamic teaches you is to minimize the number of outside influences you bring onto the property. What that means is the farmer plants what’s appropriate for their spot.
Your new tasting room goes hand-in-hand with that philosophy. Can you talk about that?
Barbara: It was built in accordance with the practices of the Living Building Challenge. The Living Building Challenge — or LBC in the building world — is similar to the biodynamic standard in agriculture. It’s building something according to a set of rules to try to eliminate certain volatile or chemical compounds. In the Living Building Challenge, you’re creating a space to be the healthiest building you can create. So every site is different. Some sites are blessed with natural resources — some with water, some with sunshine. Here in Southern Oregon, we are incredibly lucky to have all of the above.
We decided to build a tasting room that was in ethos similar to the intention behind the farming. We didn’t want to have all these healthy plants and all these healthy critters, and then have our employees come to work and be in a chemical-filled or sick building. We all know the stories of things that have happened in our lifetime, like lead paint, asbestos, and now mold. Bill really pushed us to go for the highest level of achievement: They call them “petals” in the LBC method, which means you can reach net-zero energy, net-zero water usage, and so forth. Long story short, we got them all, and there are only about a dozen of these buildings in the world that have done that. We’re the only tasting room, and the only small business to have achieved it.
That’s pretty amazing.
Barbara: It is amazing, but I’ll tell you what’s even more amazing. The building is magical in that when we set up to build it, there weren’t builders who knew how to do this stuff. A lot of cutting-edge engineering and intellectual capital was put into these buildings. We spent a year just looking for subcontractors who wanted to learn about this. Once we found them, and they started working on it, they said things like, “I’ve been laying concrete for 20 years. I haven’t done anything this exciting before." When we opened the building, it just felt alive. There is so much respect built into those walls by the contractors.
What separates your biodynamic wine from all the other biodynamic wine out there?
Barbara: When you’re farming in a biodynamic farm, you’re observing your farm and looking for your farm’s personality and its characteristics. What our customers enjoy about our wine is the truthfulness of them. They can come here, see our building, and get to know our people. They understand that we’re walking the walk.
Bill: I would agree. Also, we use the native yeast that lives here on the property to ferment our juice. Most wine people buy contains pre-packaged yeast from labs. Ours do not. Barb and I have always used the yeast that has grown up on the property. When people talk about “terroir” — our sense of place — our sense of place is basically our yeast. In fact, we’ve had our wine tested at a lab in Napa. They did a DNA fingerprinting of the wine for yeast strains. We have six yeast strains on the property, each of which is unique. They cannot find them in their yeast strain database. So again, that gives us a sense of place.
Aside from the biodynamic aspects of it, how would you describe your wines?
Barbara: Folks on the East Coast tend to get more European-style wines. But for us here in Oregon, between Washington state and California, we have wines that are really intense in terms of flavor. They have that New World quality of a lot of flavor intensity, but they have Old World qualities of being lower in alcohol and being softer in oak and tannins. They have more ability to give away their characteristics of their terroir because they’re not covered up by alcohol from the warmer regions. Our wines really appeal to people who like a wine that’s more flavor-driven.
What do you enjoy most about your work?
Bill: There’s a mental challenge with the data collection involved, which is very akin to what Barb and I did in our prior financial careers. And we have 50,000 plants to take care of, which is the physical challenge. You get the best of both worlds: mental and physical. And with wine, it’s social. It’s about people coming together and pure enjoyment. We get a lot of kudos for how our wines help to bring people together over a nice meal, and that’s very rewarding.
Stop by DCanter today or shop online to explore Cowhorn’s biodynamic wines for yourself!