Vines share place with other friendly fruits

A teacher, scientist and stockbroker walk up to an Oregon wine tasting-room bar.

The owner behind the counter shakes his curly mane and tells the wide-eyed visitors that the wine grapes here receive special treatment. Planting, pruning and harvest are guided by lunar cycles, and the berries' vitality is nudged along by a buried cow horn filled with cow manure.

If you're waiting for a punch line, stop. This was the scene when I visited Cowhorn Vineyard & Garden with my friends, who work in sundry professions and have assorted interests in wine.

A funny thing did happen, however, on the way to tasting the wine. We grew in admiration for owners Bill and Barbara Steele and the thoughtful way they have managed the once blackberry-laden land they bought in the Applegate Valley in 2002.

Like many hands-in-the-soil Oregonians, they let the farm cycle through the seasons, with the least amount of human interference, chemicals or additives. Adhering to strict Demeter-certified Biodynamic standards, they also follow a rigorous regimen created by Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian scientist and philosopher who also founded the imaginative Waldorf education concept a century ago.

But Cowhorn isn't a way-back machine to the horse-and-buggy days. A well-used lab and vanguard viticulture research, some of it centered here, help the Steeles monitor grapes and wine progress as much as walking among the vines and tasting what's in the barrels.

Granted, the tenets of this exacting approach to holistic farming can propagate good-natured teasing, but the proof is in the product. Robert Parker's Wine Advocate has bestowed 91 points or better on seven of Cowhorn's whites and reds.

The Steeles' 117-acre property also scores with fans of its purple asparagus, which sells out at Ashland Food Co-op before I can park my eco-wheels and samba inside.

Like the Day family of RoxyAnn Winery, Mostues of Rocky Knoll Vineyard and others committed to healthy sustainability, the Steeles grow wine grapes in harmony with fruit trees and vegetables. In one off-the-path patch, inoculated hazelnuts are mysteriously trying to stimulate punctilious Perigord black truffle.

During our tour of the land, we trudged on roads and trails that align with terroir shifts, not man-made straight lines. Here, the land clearly dictates its use.

My motley crew had a mix of responses to Cowhorn. We started near a ribbon of water, which the Steeles have cleaned up so that it now attracts native plants and beneficial bugs.

Because their nearby house doesn't have air conditioning, Bill installed two beach lounge chairs in the shallow water to serve as instant cooling devices. I wanted to stop the tour right there, plant my toes in the spring and chill out with a bottle of Cowhorn 2012 Spiral 36 ($28), a viognier, marsanne and roussanne blend.

Wine Spectator columnist Matt Kramer honored the 2011 Spiral 36 as a wine of the year.

But my unwavering friends wanted to see more of the kaleidoscopic landscape, so we rambled past a new native-bee habitat and finally reached some of the Steeles' almost 48,000 syrah, grenache and other plants.

The retired elementary-school teacher in my group — let's call her Sally, as that is her name — appreciated that Bill and Barbara respect the interconnections of soil, water, animals and plants on the land.

George, the chemist, was impressed that they were making complex wines without the help of commercial additions and that they used only native yeasts that came from their fields.

Jim, the stock-market expert, said it was refreshing to meet someone like Bill who played down his accomplishments. Bill introduces himself as "assistant to the grape."

Jim, who grew up in Indiana, added, "Farming is never easy when you are at the mercy of the weather, but I found it quite interesting how they have built such an infrastructure, such as the water-pumping system, to try and even the odds of a successful crop production."

Jim, George, Sally and I marveled at the property's biodiversity. We then looked at each other, flashing on the fact that we really had little in common, but like Cowhorn hazelnuts, artichokes, cherries and syrah grapes, we knew we still could have a fruitful friendship.

Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or

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