Doug Tunnell returned to his native Oregon to grow wine after a journalism career with CBS News. Since his early plantings in 1990, Doug has been a quiet force in the advancement of organic and sustainable viticulture in the Northwest. Now also Demeter-certified biodynamic, Tunnell’s Brick House Vineyard is one of the world’s premier examples of truly sustainable viticulture.
Over the past 25 years, what have been the key reasons why biodynamic winegrowing/making has become such an important practice, especially in Oregon?
Oregon’s winegrowers are a naturally restless bunch. They are part of a still youthful industry of strong wills, open minds, and a determination to improve, even if—perhaps especially if—improvement calls for challenging convention. Add to this the gift of a gentle, forgiving climate and relatively pristine soils, and you have fertile ground for natural, organic winegrowing.
But for some, organic alone still doesn’t quite “scratch the itch” to always improve. For the restless organic winegrower, biodynamic agriculture offers some suggestions that move an organic program into a more pro-active mode.
First, it regards a farm as a complex, interdependent living system. Then biodynamics calls on the farmer to set to work enlivening all the life forms of that system that contribute to the farm’s well being. There are many ways into this ancient, sage advice on how to work with Mother Nature instead of against her. It is more than just “chemical free.” Biodynamics has many of us building massive compost piles, spraying herbal teas, and attempting to feed the microbial life of our soils year after year. I think it is an approach that holds special appeal for those of us who make wine. It affords even the most minute, unseen organisms at work in our vineyard ecosystems special importance, just as we do when encouraging the yeasts and bacteria—the life forces in a tank of grape juice—to do the real work of creating our wines.
Looking forward, what will be the critical success factors for broader adoption of these practices in the Northwest?
I’m confident that Northwest winegrowers will continue to move toward more earth-friendly practices. Industry is providing more tools and better alternatives every year. Whether or not this results in more certified organic vineyards, more biodynamic practitioners, or more farmers and winemakers fusing suggestions and ideas from a myriad of sources is really not important as long as we continue to see the wisdom of working with Mother Nature rather than in spite of or against her. We need to avoid falling into the trap of being overly doctrinaire. The challenges may be greater outside of the appellations of western Oregon. But as long as we can show that how we grow our grapes is mirrored in the ever-increasing quality of our wines, future generations will doubtless build on the steps and missteps of the natural winegrowers of today.
Slide photo: Jim Halliday