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Can one small winery make a difference?

Posted by Marcy Ostrom | May 7, 2013

At Klickitat Canyon Winery and Meadowlark Vineyard, designing a resilient farming system begins with native habitat restoration. Owners Robin Dobson and Kathleen Perillo say they will know they have succeeded when the Meadowlark returns to nest under their vines.

Robin explains the importance of threatened oak woodlands in an ecosystem.
Robin explains the importance of threatened oak woodlands in an ecosystem.

On a warm, sunny Earth Day situated among blooming meadows, ancient oak woodlands, and stunning views of Mt. Hood, participants at a WSU/Tilth Farm Walk were treated to an inside look at naturescaping and the insect life of a vineyard. Robin has been restoring the native plants and woodlands here since he acquired this land to establish a vineyard in 1992. All 35 acres, including the vineyard, are stocked with plants native to the Columbia Gorge, including blue bunchgrass, arrowleaf balsamroot, lupine, and Garry oak groves. The ground cover from the surrounding woodlands and pastures appears to flow seamlessly in and around the neat rows of grapevines, carefully pruned to produce the best quality grapes. “How did you do it?” the visitors asked. “Patience” was his reply. He told us that it takes 8 years for balsamroot to bloom after planting, yet once established they are extraordinarily drought tolerant, resistant to trampling, and live for decades.

Dr. David James, WSU Entomology and Viticulture Professor, explained to our group that he has been monitoring the beneficial insects and pests present in this “habitat-enhanced” system for comparison with a conventional vineyard in the same region.  So far his research has shown that the number of natural enemies available for biological control here far outnumber those found in the conventional counterpart and corresponding insect pest populations are much lower. And Dr. James has found 9 butterfly species here as compared with only 1 in the conventional vineyard. His next step is to figure out exactly which plants are attracting which beneficial insects so that recommendations for specific plantings can be extended to other producers. A CSANR BIOAg grant has just been awarded that will allow James to further his research on this topic.

While visitors hunted through the cover crops for insects to identify, James explained that what this farmer has done has allowed him to carry out research trials that would have been impossible under standard, three-year grant funding timeframes. The types of native plants that flourish at Meadowlark Vineyard could not have been established in such a short time.  James believes that the entire Washington grape industry has much to learn from a farm like this.

Robin claims that the carefully crafted vegetation in his vineyard can be tasted in the grapes that form his handmade, organic estate wines. Similar to his approach to vineyard management, in his winery he uses no additives to ferment or flavor his wine other than allowing sufficient time for the natural yeasts found on the grapes to do their work.  And there appears to be a payoff to such an approach in the marketplace. A unique place-based identity, combined with meticulous organic growing and processing techniques brings a premium and loyal customers. After the walk, we sampled handmade wines from this estate such as Meadowlark Gold, a blend of grapes that Robin believes best captures the unique taste of his grape varieties. We needed no further convincing.

Klickitat Canyon Winery sells as much wine as they can make through tasting rooms on-site and in the nearby town of Stevenson. While some wines are comprised solely of grapes from this vineyard, others incorporate grapes from neighboring small, organic vineyards, thereby creating a market for others following similar practices.

This was a good day for scientific exploration and learning (all the way to the taste buds) and a vital example of how the knowledge needed for sustainability science can be created and shared. A combination of the local knowledge of this farmer who has established long-term systems experiments, working in tandem with university researchers to carefully document the outcomes, was shared through an interactive process of dialogue and demonstration and readily absorbed by a rapt audience of young and aspiring farmers, established farmers, and agricultural professionals.

While it might be tempting to dismiss such small-scale solutions as irrelevant to the larger wine industry, we may want to look again. Even though I had previously thought a lot about the concept of farmscaping, I had to see this vineyard for myself to fully grasp its potential.

As our search for understanding of resilient farming systems becomes ever more critical under changing climate conditions, it will be imperative to tap into the knowledge of farmers like Robin who have been painstakingly crafting solutions over decades. Finding ecologically-based answers takes patience, yet our time is short. Current research paradigms may need to shift in order to glean critical insights from such already existing innovations on the land.

One thought on "Can one small winery make a difference?"

  1. Deb Stenberg says:

    Marcy, I knew this was one that I was going to be sorry I missed. Thanks for the write-up. I hope Robin and Kathleen can offer more of these sessions.

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