A Signature Variety

original artwork by JoAnn Stevens

Napa has cabernet; the Willamette Valley has pinot noir. It’s conventional marketing wisdom that a wine region has to have a “signature variety” to succeed in the market. This conventional wisdom is a climate change denier. Climate change, or as Jamie Goode so aptly calls it “climate chaos,” is playing hell with wine regions with all their grapes in one basket.

Around the world in Bordeaux, Napa, Willamette Valley and many other famous wine place names, growers are searching for alternatives to their famed signature varieties that are facing climates decidedly changed from the conditions that made them famous.

In Bordeaux, they recently allowed six new varieties, including Portugal’s touriga nacional and alvarinho (albarino in Spain). Pinot noir will not be dislodged from Burgundy anytime soon, but once lesser appellations, that had trouble ripening grapes every vintage, are coming into the spotlight as the revered Crus are now too warm to produce Burgundy in the classically elegant style that made the Côte d’Or famous.

Writes Jamie Goode in WineMag.co.za, “The test case here is Burgundy, the home of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (and, of late, Aligoté which is now getting a bit more recognition by the geeks at least). Vintages have been getting earlier and warmer here, which isn’t always a terrible thing, but is a trend that is scaring many in the region. The region built its reputation on its 930 climats, including some of the world’s most revered vineyards, organized in a hierarchical system with the Grand Crus at the top. The careful matching of climat and either Chardonnay of Pinot Noir, which has resulted in such revered wines, is now under threat. Performing at the limits of where they ripen fully, in interesting soils, these varieties have thrived. But with warmer conditions, the danger is that the fine differences that set these wines apart from other examples of these varieties might be lost. Some people might prefer Pinot Noir in a fruitier, richer style, but that’s not why people see this region as a place of vinous pilgrimage. They come here for the exceptional, fine, complex wines that often require some cellar time to show their best. They won’t pay a fortune for fruity pleasure bombs.”

A climate change research vineyard at Larkmead Vineyards in the Napa Valley includes aglianco, tempranillo and, (again) touriga national. “In order to determine the best path forward for the future and for our unique climate and terroir, we need to continue to experiment,” said viticulturist Kelly Mayer in Beverage Daily. “We’re planning on testing different varieties, rootstocks, cover crops, and more. The goal is to have more biodiversity and climate resilient vineyards.”

In days past, winegrowers mixed the varieties they planted in their vineyards to provide insurance against the whims of nature from vintage to vintage. Multiple varieties with different ripening curves gave you a better chance of ripening at least some of your crop increasing your chances of making a consistent blend each harvest. It’s a shame that so much of this wisdom was lost as industrial farming took over the wine world. Biodiversity was the natural way of agriculture in the past, and it is the answer to almost all of the problems we face today.

What we should aspire to as winemakers is a signature style — not a signature variety.

When we learned at Troon Vineyard that we had to replant our entire vineyard, we realized we had a unique opportunity to build both a biodiverse farm and vineyard. On the farm, that has come to include vegetables, cider apples, food forests, hayfields, livestock, pollinator habitats, and grapevines.

We considered the changing climate, which means warmer and dryer here in Southern Oregon, when selecting varieties for the vineyard, and designed everything to use the least amount of water. All of the varieties we selected were native to Southern France. Late-ripening red varieties like carignan, grenache, counoise, and mourvèdre and high-acid whites like bourboulenc, clairette blanche, picpoul, and grenache blanc will represent a significant percentage of the twenty varieties our vineyard will include when we finish our replanting program next year.

We are not planning on producing twenty different varietal wines. Most of our wines will be blends of these varieties as our vision has always been to produce a signature style at Troon Vineyard. Our goal is to produce wines with moderate alcohol, zesty acidity, and rich, complex flavors in every vintage — for decades to come. With a diverse range of varieties long adapted to a warmer, dryer climate, we can craft blends that can be adjusted to meet the needs of both warmer/dryer and cooler/wetter vintages, which are both expressions of the climate chaos that farmers now have to face.

Varietally labeled wines are quite a new concept in the long history of wine. It did not take off until the 1970s as California wines became more popular. In Europe, it is still the exception rather than the rule. A signature style preceded a signature variety.

Change and diversity have always intertwined as nature found its way forward. Biodiversity is nature’s secret weapon, and the move to monocultures has made our farms less adaptable. In just five years, we have dramatically increased biodiversity at Troon Vineyard. We are already seeing improvements on our farm with better soil and plant health and healthier chemistry in our fermenters.

There’s a lot of conventional marketing wisdom in the wine business. It says we need one signature variety to make the name of Southern Oregon in the marketplace. It tells us that you can’t sell syrah to Americans. It says heavy bottles connote a serious wine. It’s hard to find the wisdom of these wine marketing professionals when none of these preconceptions are true. We prove them wrong every day.

Water Into Wine

Troon Vineyard winemaker Nate Wall uses a pressure bomb to measure water stress in individual vines.

Do we have enough water At Troon Vineyard? The answer at Troon and everywhere on the west coast is no. A resounding no. Even if we did, every farm has the responsibility to use as little of this limited resource as possible.

For now, we have water from our wells, but we are always on the edge of not having enough as we are replanting ten acres of vineyard each year. Young vines need water. Fortunately, the replanting will be completed next year, and for the next several years, as these young blocks mature, they will need less and less water.

Many of our neighbors are not so lucky and have to rely on irrigation districts to provide the water for their crops. In difficult years they can be simply cut off from their water supply if the district finds the water situation too critical.

We aspire to dry farming. After all, it is much easier and less expensive. But the reality of climate change is changing all that. Not only here, but in Europe. Excessive heat stresses vines. Over-stressed vines do not produce great wine.

If you have water available on your farm, there is no sin in using it, only in wasting it or not efficiently preserving what nature gives you.

You start by preserving, and that starts with no-till. Bare ground wastes water. Our climate on the west coast gives us rain only during the winter months — and that cycle is no longer reliable. When it rains, we want to absorb it deeply into our soil instead of having it run off. An additional one percent of organic matter in your soil can retain twenty-thousand gallons per acre on average. If you have some clay in your soil, like we do, even more. Bare soil wastes water.

No-till is nature's answer, but we want to give her some help, and that helping hand comes from technology. Step one: don't water the vines if they don't need water. This is a wine production strategy called deficit irrigation. Your vineyard is exposed to water stress during specific parts of the growing season, which maximizes the efficient use of water and produces larger yields per unit of water applied. You are trying to maximize yields for a reduced amount of water used instead of growing as much as possible using excessive irrigation. Drip irrigation is the ideal method for this strategy.

For this system to work, you must bomb your vines — a pressure bomb (see photo above) that is more properly called a pressure chamber. This takes the guesswork out of irrigation as it precisely measures the water stress each block is experiencing. Wine grape growing is all about stress. You don't want too much or too little, as going too far in either direction will lower the quality of your fruit.

We've also added weather stations that include groundwater sensors so we can exactly know the water content of our soil along with the matric potential. You can never have too much data about water.

These last technological additions were not the first steps in our plan to precisely control water usage. The first step, which started in 2017, was a total redesign and restructuring of our well and irrigation system. Today, computers meticulously distribute the minimum amount of water required for each block.

In the vineyard, head-trained vines predominated as we replanted. These bush-trained vines protect the grape bunches from the sun and shade the under vine area reducing evaporation.

We've tried everything to conserve water, but it will not be enough for us to be totally dry-farmed. Due to climate change, aspirations to farm without any irrigation on the west coast are not realistic. In the summer months, the lush green hills of western Oregon transform into a desert. The once reliable winter rains are now fickle, and our soils hold less water at the beginning of the growing season.

Decades ago, when I moved to Oregon, the mild summers made air conditioning the exception. Now it's the rule. This is the world we live in today. The most important thing is to try to make it a better world, and water is key. Our strategies are all well and good, but you have to have water to save. Sustainability is not enough – we have to make things better.

Troon Vineyard an Wine Enthusiast American Winery of the Year

"Located in the Applegate Valley of Southern Oregon, Troon Vineyard has a long history dating back to 1972, yet recent years have seen it become one of the most forward-thinking wineries in the U.S., as it is one of just two to have become Regenerative Organic Certified through the Regenerative Organic Alliance. The recent certification follows a conversion to biodynamic farming that has revitalized the estate’s soils while also providing a template for other wineries both locally and around the world to reduce their environmental footprint."

There are almost twelve thousand wineries in the United States. We are humbled to have been selected from among so many passionate, dedicated winegrowers to be one of five wineries nominated as American Winery of the Year by The Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s annual Wine Star Awards. We are honored to be mentioned alongside exceptional stewards of the land Eyrie Vineyards and Wild Arc Farm.

Our work on this farm is important, but our true mission is to inspire other farms to adopt our regenerative agriculture and Biodynamic farming philosophies. We are proud of what we have accomplished on our one hundred acres, but our dream is to convert millions of acres and farmers to this vision of the future of agriculture. "Farm like the world depends on it" is the slogan of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. It does, and we do.

In addition to this exciting news, The Wine Enthusiast has selected Oregon's Rogue Valley, which includes our own Applegate Valley, as a nominee for Wine Region of the Year. The Rogue Valley is among the most exciting of the world’s emerging fine wine regions. Blessed with a diverse range of varieties, mesoclimates, and soil types, the Rogue Valley is uniquely prepared to face the challenges of climate change, while continuing to produce classically styled fine wines.

It is an incredible year for Southern Oregon as both our region and Troon Vineyard have been singled out for international accolades!

Finalists for American Winery of the Year

  • Far Niente Winery

  • Hope Family Wines

  • The Eyrie Vineyards

  • Troon Vineyard

  • Wild Arc Farm

Finalists for Wine Region of the Year

  • Abruzzo, Italy

  • Marlborough, New Zealand

  • Rogue Valley, Oregon

  • San Luis Obispo Coast, California

  • Uco Valley, Argentina

To see all categories of the Wine Star finalists, click here.

Life from Life – Jancis Robinson Writing Competition Finalist

Pollinator habitat at Troon Vineyard

Life from Life - Jancis Robinson Writing Competition Finalist

I am honored that my essay on regenerative agriculture at Troon Vineyard has been selected as a finalist in the 2022 Jancis Robinson Wine Writing Competition!

“The Applegate Valley is beautiful and defined by the ancient peaks of the Siskiyou Mountains. It is a region not fully tamed as rugged mountains and national forests account for much of the AVA. Wildlife abounds. But this abundance did not cross the borders of our farm. There was nothing to invite or entice it in. Over the last years, we have extended an invitation.”

Read the entire essay on JancisRobinson.com

The Beholder’s Share

Ginervra dé Benci by Leonardo da Vinci

Recently I traveled to the wonderful Burnt Hill Solstice Festival in Maryland, which also took me to Washington D.C., and on Sunday, I carved out some time for myself. I used that time to visit the National Gallery of Art as there was a particular painting I wanted to see, the only Leonardo Da Vinci painting in the Americas, his portrait of Ginevra dé Benci.

I had recently finished the book Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson and did not want to miss the opportunity to see an actual work by the master as it had been many decades since I saw The Mona Lisa at The Louvre and The Last Supper in Milan. I reread the chapter about the Ginevra de’ Benci portrait and read everything else I could find online to ready myself for the experience. When I found the gallery room, I was transfixed by the work spending the better part of an hour with it. Everything I had done to prepare for the visit elevated my experience of the great painting. I was fully adding my beholder’s share to the art.

When we interact with creativity, it’s not only the creation but us that bring something to the table. This is called the beholder’s share.

The painter Marcel Duchamp said that an artist only does fifty percent of the work in creating art while the viewer, the beholder, provides the rest. This concept was popularized by art historians Ernst Gombrich and Ernst Kris as the beholder’s share. The beholder partners with the artist in bringing meaning to their work. Neuroscientist Anil Seth has incorporated this concept into his theories of consciousness. “Science and art have long recognized that perceptual experience depends on the involvement of the experiencer. The shared idea is that our perceptual experience – whether of the world, of ourselves, or of an artwork – depends on the active interpretation of sensory input, “ writes Seth.

When we interact with wine, it’s not only the winemaker but us that have the opportunity to make wine. There are wines that invite the beholder’s share, and there are those that seek to provide the entire experience on their own — your only job is to swallow.

While working in the Napa Valley, I saw a grape optical sorter at work for the first time and was filled with envy. Certainly, this would improve our wines, and I had to find access to one of these modern winemaking marvels. These machines removed everything but perfect fruit, which came out of the machine looking like the flawless blueberries you see in little boxes in the grocery store. What could make better wine?

The very next vintage, I found one and reserved our time for the upcoming harvest. The machine worked as advertised and cleaned out anything that was not perfect. It took out everything, including the soul of the wine. What was left produced lush, round, velvety wine that rolled down the gullet, neither requiring nor requesting any participation from the consumer — the beholder’s share has more risk than reward for these kinds of wines.

Having only perfect grapes is not how nature envisioned winemaking. In the industrial world of winemaking, there are the giants who mass-produce lower-priced wines without sorting grapes at all and then just correct shortcomings with additives and technology, and then there are the high-priced cult wines who sort ruthlessly yet still use additives. Oddly enough, they end up with similar styles of wines. Supple, easy wines with a ripe, round sweetness (either from dense fruit and alcohol or from actual residual sugar or both) and just enough acidity to still be considered wines.

There are a lot of pop stars who have become rich with music that requires no beholder’s share. They keep pumping out the formula with no thinking required or requested on the listener's part. It’s a much easier way to make money. I see these stars performing with so much going on around them — crowds of dancers and backup singers — and I understand they don’t want me to bring anything of myself to appreciate their performance. They’ll fill in all the blanks for me. Wineries use the same strategies.

You don’t have to be a wine expert to bring a beholder’s share to wine appreciation; you just have to pay attention. I’m not talking about a razor focus with the perfect glass, the perfect meal, or the perfect anything. It’s just bringing awareness, a few seconds of mindfulness when you behold a wine. That experience can range from simply quenching thirst to a life-changing experience. It’s you that makes a glass of wine come to life.

The idea of the beholder’s share is that the artist and the beholder combine to make an artwork meaningful. Your contribution is the part you get to keep. You get to keep it at long as you are conscious. That’s the gift you receive from the creator and the gift you give back to them. It’s that transaction that makes creativity transcendent.

The beholder’s share is what makes winemaking an art; without it, wine is simply beverage alcohol. When you take a second to devote your attention to a wine, you share in its creation with those that grew the grapes and made the wine. At Troon Vineyard, as everyone has become more immersed in biodynamic regenerative agriculture, we have realized that our beholder’s share is in understanding and honoring nature’s plan and expressing that in our wines. Your beholder’s share gives life to our expression of the life on our farm.

We’re all in this together.

Breaking News!

The winemaker dinner at the Burnt Hill Solstice Festival in Maryland

I’m a news junkie, although, honestly, the actual news is unbearable these days. However, I can still escape to the world of wine news as there is little to terrify me there — other than the climate disasters around the world. The Supreme Court threw some salt on that wound this week.

I start the day with a cup of coffee and a deep dive into my RSS reader, which I’ve curated over the many years I’ve been using RSS feeds to focus on all things wine. Wine growing, wine making, wine selling, you name it.

The big news all over the wine Internet this week was the acquisition of the Joseph Phelps Winery by LVMH. Phelps is one of those pioneer boutique wineries that helped make Napa’s name in the seventies but eventually bloated over the years to a reported production of 750,000 bottles.

Now, while that sounds like a lot of bottles in the wine business, many would still consider that a small winery. Still, that many bottles at that price range are quite a few bottles.

With Covid restrictions lifted, we are back on the road again bringing our Troon Vineyard wines to markets across the country. Once again, I have been hitting the wine shops to introduce them to our wines. When reading the news of the Phelps sale, it occurred to me I could not remember the last time I saw a bottle of Phelps wine on a shelf. It seems Troon and Phelps are running with different crowds.

As a small, about 60,000 bottles, biodynamic winery, our wines do not tend to be found in the big chain stores but in small wine shops, wine bars, and restaurants that follow the natural wine scene. These are buyers looking for wines that combine authenticity, personality, and creativity. I am confident that we express those traits in our wines.

There are two different wine markets. There’s the mass market, where 750,000 bottle wineries are small brands, and the natural wine market, where 60,000 bottle wineries are larger producers. It’s two different worlds, totally different businesses.

While reading all the headlines about the Phelps sale, I realized that this was not news I could use. These transactions have no effect on the wine world I live in. I still will not see Phelps wines in the shops that seek out our wines.

I recently returned from the Burnt Hill Solstice Festival, a celebration of natural wines and regenerative agriculture on the beautiful Burnt Hill Farm in Maryland. The event begins with a dinner on the farm for all the visiting winemakers in attendance. It’s an idyllic evening with great views, food, wine, and camaraderie. Everyone there sharing their wines has a shared vision. A news item like the Phelps sale would not be a topic of discussion. It’s just not something with any meaning for us.

Having spent time in both of these wine business worlds, I feel happy — and lucky — to have been at the Burnt Hill dinner with the rebels. Having seen the dark side, I have no desire to go back. May the force be with us.

Top Tier

A favorite demon in the wine trade today is the much-maligned three-tier system. Wholesalers are reviled and blamed for all winery distribution woes. Needless to say, three-tier distribution laws are a mess — fifty messes to be exact. This cesspool of regulations has been created by the beverage alcohol industry, with large wine, beer, and spirits producers matching national mega-distributors in their zeal to pump money into the pockets of state legislators, who are more than easily enticed into cooperation by their largesse. State liquor laws may pretend to protect consumers, but their main function is to protect the big distribution companies — who get what they pay for.

In years past, I had the misfortune to attend the annual convention of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) and a sleazier event you are unlikely to attend. It was a concentrated incarnation of every stereotype of big, alcohol-driven conventions that you’ve ever heard. Here the mega-alcohol producers party with the mega-distributors. One thing I quickly learned is that the WSWA has nothing to do with the fine wine business. But it is a convention of those that make the rules of the three-tier system and they will do anything and pay politicians anything to protect their power and profits. It was not a coincidence that many of the attendees at WSWA dressed like cast members of The Godfather.

Fortunately, there is a hidden tier in the three-tier system and you won’t find them at WSWA. Under the radar of the WSWA and the mega-alcohol producers is a community of distributors who care as much about the wine they sell as we care about making it. They are the top tier and small wineries could not get their wines to market without them. These small to medium-sized distribution companies are populated with foodies and restaurant industry refugees — many with Court of Master Sommeliers and WSET certifications. Most of all they love wines with personality and individuality made with intentionality. While the big companies move boxes of beverage alcohol, these smaller companies sell not just wine, but the passion they share with the winemaker. They have a real story to tell — including their own.

Troon Vineyard is a small winery crafting limited production wines and our wines go in and out of stock and change with the character of each vintage. Our wines are more an irritation than a brand to big distributors. Fortunately, what is irritating to big distributors is inspiring to the smaller ones.

Despite all the aggravations of dealing with state laws one market at a time, the three-tier system would exist with or without the regulations. I will say it would be helpful if the regulations themselves were not so arbitrary and pointless wastes of time. The only way we, as a small winery, can connect with the restaurants and retailers who want to sell biodynamic wines is by working with a sales team that wants to do the same. We would work with these companies with or without the various state laws. We work with them as partners, not burdens imposed by state laws.

Troon Vineyard is a niche brand, selling to niche distributors that sell to a niche customer list. It’s a niche we share with these like-minded wine professionals. It’s a good niche to be in.