Growers delve into ancient methods to improve soil


For The Capital Press

Ehlers Estate winery in Saint Helena, Calif., is serious about biodynamic farming practices and about giving all its proceeds to further cardiac research.

The winery has 40 acres of estate-grown organic winegrapes and advocates the use of "ancient" farming methods.

"We were certified organic in 2008 and are working toward biodynamic certification," winemaker Kevin Morrisey said. "The latter is more complicated, and the process begins with feeding the soil to make it healthier."

This "new" technique in farming has deep roots in the past. It is basically a holistic approach: the view that the whole farming philosophy must be analyzed rather than simply its individual components.

"The soil in this area of Napa Valley is perfect for growing Cabernet Sauvignon," Morrissey said. "It is well drained, and the smaller vines produce smaller berries with more intense flavor."

Planting in alignment with the moon cycles, using ground quartz two times a year to better capture the power of the sun on the vines and other "natural" practices are the norm at the winery and vineyards. In the winter, Morrisey and his vineyard crew pack 25 to 30 cow horns with organic cow manure and bury them in the vineyard. The horns are unearthed in the spring and the cured manure is mixed with water to make a potent compost spray.

"According to the basic practices of biodynamic farming, the cow horn was the ideal vessel to cure the manure," he said. "The compost is sprayed two or three times on the soil. As a result, you can see tremendous life in the soil, a lot of worms and nice earthy smells and humus. It doesn't look like soil that has seen Roundup."

Ehlers' Cabernet Franc is reminiscent of deep red fruit. The "One Twenty Over Eighty" (a vintage evoking normal blood pressure) is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot that spent 18 months in oak.

Grown in the vineyard's most rocky soils, "1886" Cabernet Sauvignon is the priciest at $95. The estate also produces a crisp Sauvignon Blanc.

The tastings, held Tuesday through Saturday, are by appointment only and offer visitors a different wine experience. The 9:30 and 11:30 a.m. 90-minute "Ehlers Intensive" includes a walk through the vineyard, a stop at the cellar for a barrel sample and concludes with a sit-down tasting with current wines. The cost is $35 per person. The Salon, held at 1 and 4 p.m., is an elegant way to learn and taste Ehlers' estate-grown vintages. Seated service is paired with nibbles; cost is $20 per person.

"The owners are very passionate about giving back, wanted the estate to go into perpetuity, and passed it into my hands," Morrisey said. "This is not just a job for me; I am a steward of the land."

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