Share story

MCMINNVILLE, Ore. — It’s kind of a voyeuristic request of a “biodynamic” winemaker, but I found I couldn’t resist asking every one I met: “Can I, uh, see your cow horns?”

I was in the Willamette Valley just southwest of Portland to meet a special breed of vintner. Just as the climate of this valley between Oregon’s Willamette River and the Coast Range produces some of the world’s best pinot noir wines, the region is also fertile ground for disciples of biodynamics, a regimen of sustainable agricultural practices formulated in the 1920s by Austrian cultural philosopher Rudolf Steiner.

Embracing routines ranging from burying cow horns filled with manure from a lactating cow at the equinox — to be dug up later and spread on vineyards — to planting grapes by phases of the moon, biodynamic vintners are regarded by many in the trade as harmless hippies, woo-woo New Agers, or simply those guys who make really good wine (and who cares how they do it?).

Biodynamics has been variously likened to “kosher farming” or “organic farming on steroids, but without the steroids.”

This week, save 90% on digital access.

Across the state of Washington, only three or four winemakers are commonly known to practice biodynamics, or BD, as it’s often abbreviated. In the Willamette Valley, it’s more like 20. Is this a quirky “Portlandia” sort of thing? Something in the Oregon air? Hard to say, but consider that the Demeter Association (
), which certifies biodynamic growers in this country (slogan: “Healing the planet through agriculture”), is based in the Willamette Valley town of Philomath.

Searching out Steiner’s followers adds a novel spin on winery touring in the Willamette Valley, where more than 300 wineries in seven designated American Viticultural Areas share a landscape with farm pastures, fir trees and hazelnut orchards.

Do the wineries with buried cow horns look different? Find out for yourself.

Smells like coffee grounds

Doug Tunnell was showing me his cow horn.

Kneeling in the yard of his Brick House Vineyards winery, northwest of Newberg, he dug his hand into a ceramic crock buried in a brick-lined pit and rhapsodized about the “soil” that results from the cow manure after it has naturally decayed in a cow horn.

“It’s all about metamorphosis. There’s no smell like manure, there’s just a beautiful compost, forest-floor aroma — it’s kind of like coffee grounds,” said Tunnell, a former CBS News correspondent who spent a lot of time covering wars in Beirut before he decided he’d rather drive a tractor.

And Steiner didn’t stop at cow horns. Other homeopathic “preparations,” as they’re called in biodynamics, range from chamomile flowers packed in a cow intestine — also buried — to yarrow flowers stuffed in the bladder of a deer and hung in the sun to dry.

The amount of transformed manure actually applied to vineyards is hugely diluted, but this is a world where philosophy counts as much as practice. “It’s about microbial stimulation of the soil,” said Tunnell, who acknowledges that his philosophy degree from Portland’s Lewis & Clark College helps him in his current pursuits.

“I think it does apply to what I do now. It lets me be really open and questioning. I’m dazzled by great science but I’m also very aware of how much we don’t know and I’m unwilling to shut myself off from that.”

Besides cow horns, a visitor can find other differences in wineries that follow the biodynamic path. Part of Steiner’s philosophy is that farms should incorporate different ecosystems so as to attract wildlife such as birds that will eat pesky insects. That lends a distinctly different character to a BD wine estate.

Near Forest Grove, as you drive through the iron gates of Montinore Vineyards and up the private road to the 1905 mansion built by a Montana copper baron (Montinore is a mashup of “Montana in Oregon”), few places look less New Age-y. But stroll under giant maples beyond the winery building and you’ll come to a field of blooming wild mustard above a 15-acre lake where the honking of hundreds of Canada geese is the soundtrack.

The meadow and lake aren’t just decoration, but part of what makes Montinore a biodynamic farm. It’s not just another vineyard of endless regimented rows of manicured grapevines, but more like Steiner’s vision of a farm as living organism.

Here, owner and winemaker Rudy Marchesi is shy to talk about cow horns and other rituals that have spawned the term “voodoo vintners” (“It’s like talking about religion,” Marchesi says). But he’s a passionate follower, encouraging biodiversity and aerated soil with cover crops such as oats and rye grass between grape rows and renewing the soil with compost. His devoted mechanic has rigged up a special compost spreader on the chassis of an old Ford pickup that can speed around the vineyard in a fraction of the time a tractor would take. It’s labeled tongue-in-cheekily as the BioDynamic EcoSystem Restorer.

“Working with plants as part of the environment, sometimes it’s very moving … You begin to see the intelligence of life — this intensive force we can’t define, we can’t measure,” said Marchesi, who first came to the subject by seeing his Italian grandfather raise vegetables and grapes on a home plot in the Bronx.

Meet the goats

To see another way that biodynamics changes the look of vineyards, go meet the goats at Soléna Estate Winery, outside the little one-pizza-joint town of Yamhill.

I was there in spring when winery owner Laurent Montalieu got to gush over some newborn kids with floppy ears (“They’re cuter than last year, aren’t they?” he asked a farmhand). When you visit, ask to walk up the hill to see the animals, whose job it is to provide fertilizer.

“As far as the winery facility goes, there are no differences from other wineries. It’s all in the vineyard, with the goats and sheep and chickens and the teas that are being made as we speak,” said Montalieu, a Bordeaux Institute of Oenology graduate whose French birth is apparent in his speech. He stops at an old wine barrel to stir a “tea,” one of many organic brews made from plants such as nettle to be sprayed on the vineyard as natural pesticides.

Montalieu doesn’t seem to come to biodynamics from so spiritual a place as some of his neighbors.

“Both organic and biodynamic are a little selfish on my own part because I want to make a wine that has a sense of place, not because I want to wear Birkenstocks or because Oregon is a green state,” he explained. But biodynamics helps ensure quality by ensuring the vineyard gets plenty of attention.

“We’ll be out on our four-wheelers spraying teas and compost about 13 times more often than an organic grower and we are much more familiar with our vines. We’re out on Jan. 6, on Epiphany, spraying our vines — and in January weather, there are other things we’d rather be doing. Reconnection with the earth is it for me. And if you don’t believe the moon and other planets affect things on Earth then you don’t believe in tides.”

After a tasty lunch nearby at the Horse Radish Wine and Cheese Bar in the two-block downtown district of the town of Carlton, I strolled past 10 wine-tasting rooms, then dropped into a storefront that attracted me because it had nothing to do with wine: the Republic of Jam, which makes more than 350 flavors. Varieties range from Candied Orange with Fennel to Pear Pinot Gris.

Working the counter, young Marissa Long-Peak knew a little about biodynamic vineyards and showed an intuitive grasp of the subject: “With all that’s involved with cow horns and crystals, at least the biodynamic folks are out there looking at their vines, while some winery owners aren’t even in the same state!”

To finish the day, I drove out of McMinnville on Highway 18 toward the ocean beaches and took a side road to Maysara Winery and its Momtazi Vineyard, named for its Iranian immigrant founder, Moe Momtazi.

By now I prided myself on being something of a biodynamics detective, and this was the biggest certified biodynamic vineyard in Oregon.

I spotted the obvious signs immediately: Not only was there an 8-acre lake with chirring red-winged blackbirds atop reeds, but oak trees towered in spots around the vineyard, growing right out of the middle of grape rows — testament to the philosophy that biodiversity is more important than keeping shade off the grapes. In traditionally managed vineyards, it would be sacrilege to leave any trees.

It was as if I’d learned the secret handshake. I couldn’t wait to go in search of another biodynamic winery.

Brian J. Cantwell: Blogging at­northwesttraveler. On Twitter: @NWTravelers

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.