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Epyllion Vineyard, Oregon – Lars & Cynthia Nordström

April 1, 2012

“As organic farmers, it is our goal to improve the health and the quality of the soil for the next generation of farmers.”  Lars & Cynthia Nordström

 

In the spring of 1986 we bought 8 acres of pasture from a local cattle rancher with the idea of planting a vineyard and building a house where we could raise our two toddler boys. The property was located in Beavercreek, ten minutes southeast of Oregon City. The land straddles a ridge and slopes to the east and west, with a general southern exposure. The elevation ranges from 750 to 780 ft. The soil consists of four feet of red clay called Jory, and below it are thick layers of varying kinds of lava.

Neither of us knew very much about growing grapes, but we were familiar with the wines produced in Oregon and we knew what we liked to drink – mostly reds. And we also knew that we wanted to grow our grapes organically. So after a busy summer visiting local grape growers we had a plan: Over the next couple of years we would plant almost 7 acres of grapes, and reserve the remaining land for our house, outbuildings, garden and orchard. We decided to grow two grape varieties we liked, Maréchal Foch and Pinot noir, and started planting the vineyard later that year.

During the first couple of years we lived in Portland and commuted out, but it was far from an ideal arrangement. In the fall of 1988 we moved here and the following winter we finished planting the vineyard. As we battled weather, weeds and gophers, we learned that organic grape farming was not always an easy task. The Maréchal Foch grapes grew well, and they turned out to be resistant to one of the major problems facing Oregon grape growers: powdery mildew. No matter how diligent we were with our sulfur spray, the Pinot noir always showed sign of disease. Besides, the vines were more difficult to grow.

After the 1993 vintage we decided that the Pinot noir vines were not for us, and started digging them out. Since becoming a grape farmer, I had done a lot of reading about grape varieties resistant to powdery mildew, a group collectively known as French-American hybrids. That winter I decided to embark on a long-term evaluation project of some of these varieties. By now we knew that we had a relatively cool site with low vigor, so we wanted grape varieties that would ripen early, have at least an average yield, and make a decent wine. Today, fifteen years later, after evaluating over twenty different varieties, we have found two other reds that we really like: Léon Millot and Chelois. Among the whites, we like Phoenix and Vidal blanc.

Léon Millot Grapes

As organic farmers, it is a wonderful relief not to have to fight the powdery mildew. We save both time and money by not having to buy the chemicals, maintain a spray rig and spend hours on a tractor. An added benefit we get from not spraying for powdery mildew is that we do not add acidifying sulfur to our already low pH soils. But there is another aspect to grape farming that every grower in Western Oregon has to contend with from March to July: vigorous vegetative growth on the vineyard floor. Chemical growers use herbicides to control this growth, and organic growers mow and/or till to keep it down. However, both organic methods consume a great deal of tractor time and the burning of fossil fuel, and tilling can easily cause erosion on sloping land. You can look at grass and herbs in the vineyard as a nuisance, of course, but you can also see it as a food source for ruminants. Letting animals graze this vegetation is a much more sustainable approach.

After years of experiments with geese and various sheep breeds, we now pasture about a dozen short-legged English Southdowns in the vineyard. We let the sheep into the vineyard after the harvest in October, and they feed on the grass there until May, when we move them to a relief pasture for the summer. They do a wonderful job until mid April, when the grass outgrows their appetite and we have to start mowing.

Currently we have five acres of grapes planted. Our average yield seems to be around 2 tons per acre. We sell our grapes to two wineries, Chateau Lorane and King’s Raven.

website: www.epyllionvineyard.com

 

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