Protect the land, hug a hard-working farmer

A grape grower asked me if I wanted to borrow some boots. I looked at my snow-white, canvas sneakers and then his steel-toed LaCrosse work boots that safeguarded his calves in rubber. Then I studied the muddy path from my car to his hoop house. And then I declined.

I ain't no poseur, a city slicker hoping to blend in with the noble souls who start the day outside in the fog, rain or snow, working until their hands are dirty and their throats dry and who, at the end the day, toast their progress with wine they helped create.

More than my flimsy footwear separates me from these soil superstars, water wranglers and grand reapers. These ag geniuses are my heroes. And if you drink wine and have bothered to learn the name of the winemaker, then clear out some brain room for the name of the grower who put the flavor into the grape to begin with.

Am I hopped-up on viticulture? You bet. That's because I can't even get foolproof chia seeds to grow grassy fur on a fake pet, let alone nurse a temperamental tempranillo or other wine grape from bud-break to brix-indicated harvest. I am, in a word, a farming flop, a dirt dud, a clod.

Despite never having cultivated an understanding of cultivation, I found myself on a recent Saturday hanging out with members of the Southern Oregon League of Women Farmers. The group was on a wine tour, visiting Wooldridge Creek Vineyard & Winery, Red Lily Vineyards and Wild Wines.

After a full day of slogging from one end of the Applegate Valley to the other, drilling winemakers while standing inside intentionally cold storage rooms and swirling and sipping red wines aged in oak barrels and white wines from stainless-steel tanks, the farm gals were all snugly cheerful in their faux fur-collared mukluks as I shivered in soggy Keds.

These boot-wearing femmes sure know how to fraternize. They asked Wild Wines owner Carla David hard questions about her straw-bale tasting room, the types of yeasts she uses to kick-start fermentation and how many raspberries, aronia berries and blackberries she needs to grow to make about 500 cases of wine a year.

It was no surprise that Carla rarely uses grapes in her fruit wines. But standing inside her newly minted production room with walls the color of sunflower petals, she said something shocking: She has spread dandelion seeds across her property off Little Applegate Road.

The tillerettes laughed.

"I have millions you can have," offered a farm gal.

"You're probably the one person on the planet who wants more dandelions," quipped another.

But to Carla, a farmer and herbalist, dandelions are not a weedy nuisance but liquid gold. Or at least, something she can sell for $20 a bottle at stores, farmers markets and to people trekking the Applegate Valley Wine Trail.

It takes thousands of petals to make a bottle of her dandelion wine. In 2011, she produced 34 cases of wine with 13 percent alcohol, and she only has four cases left. She sold out of her 2010 linden flower wine made from what she calls honeybees' "favorite nectar."

"It's been slow and steady," said Carla, who recently received a hefty U.S. Department of Agriculture matching-funds grant to hire a winemaker and ramp up production. Now, she makes a dozen different varieties, including peach, ginger and elderberry.

Someone asked what the term "wildcrafted" means when referring to wine (apparently, it's not related to witchcraft). Heidi Dawn, leader of the Southern Oregon League of Women Farmers, stepped forward to explain that it's a thoughtful way to harvest. Plants are taken from their natural environments, but enough are left behind to sustain the animal life that depends on them.

Impressive. Later I found out that Heidi also coordinates the Southern Oregon Farmer to Farmer Network through Oregon State University's Small Farms Program, raises her children and writes a blog (

I also learned that with the amount of wine-grape acreage doubling since 2000, more farmland has been preserved, more young families are nesting in Oregon and there are more opportunities for growing. I think I need new shoes.

EVENT: Every Friday, people get together inside the newly constructed farm stand and tasting room at Dunbar Farms in Medford to pick up organic eggs, grains, beans and produce.

Hard to resist, too, are hearty loaves of bread made from wheat grown on the farm and Rocky Knoll claret ($29). The red-wine blend is made from the property's cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot vines, some planted in the 1970s by the late patriarch Dunbar Carpenter.

On Wednesdays, I receive a fact-filled email from Dunbar's grandson, farmer David Mostue, alerting me to what he has fresh to sell and inviting me to pick up my grocery order between 4:30 and 7 p.m. Friday.

Randy Gold, a viticulture powerhouse in Southern Oregon's grape-growing business, and his wife, Rebecca, often start their weekend at Dunbar, taking in views of the vineyard, farm and Table Rocks.

Sign up for the invite list at Or check out the "honor barn," self-serve farm stand, open daily at 2881 Hillcrest Road in Medford.

TASTED: Troon Vineyard in Grants Pass is the first Rogue Valley winery named a Top Ten Hottest Wine Brand by Wine Business Monthly. Judges applauded the venerable vineyard business for being a pioneer in the region and staying dynamic by introducing unknown varieties for such wine as the 2011 Foundation '72 Vermentino ($18). Owner Chris Martin planted the grape in 2007 after enjoying its "freshness, low alcohol and food friendliness" on a trip spent tasting the cuisine of Sardinia and other food-loving places in Italy.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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