by Karl H. Kazaks
Every school child learns about checks and balances. That simple principle has been applied to the vineyards at Klickitat Canyon & Columbia Gorge Winery, where nature’s checks and balances maintain a fluid equilibrium among various competing pressures.
The operation, a partnership between husband-and-wife team Robin Dobson and Kathleen Perillo, does its best to minimize human involvement among the vines. Now that a healthy array of native plants is growing between and around the vines, management is typically restricted to pruning, spraying for powdery mildew, and harvest.
Pest control is accomplished through biodiversity, readily evident in the wild array of vegetation, animal and insect life that lives among his vines. “I developed it this way,” Dobson said, “because I wanted a balanced system, able to maintain itself by itself, without our interceding.” Dobson has a name for his approach: eco-dynamic agriculture. The linchpin is biodiversity. He encourages wildflowers and bunchgrasses to grow between rows and around the edges of the vineyard, to provide habitat for wildlife, which in turn on a net basis helps suppress pests.
The goal is to create a vineyard that is a continuation of the surrounding environment, a field-level biome that blends into adjoining tracts of land. “My philosophy is to make the vineyard part of the ecosystem,” Dobson said. “You want to complement, rather than disturb, the ecosystem.”
The winery’s vineyard is named Meadowlark, after the western meadowlark, a ground-nesting bird that requires the habitat encouraged in the vineyard. The birds live among the vines, providing pest control. They also like to eat grapes. “You have to race against the birds when the grapes are ripe,” Dobson said. “They’re part of the ecosystem too.”
In fact, Dobson is considering removing the trellis from the vines, in part because they interfere with birds’ flight patterns. He’s already using head pruning. “I feel like the vines can take care of themselves with head pruning,” Dobson said. “Vines can be left to be more natural.” Yields are lower, but Dobson said, “One makes these decisions on what one wants and desires, with the recognition of possible consequences.”
Dobson decided to start a winery over 20 years ago. He planted his vineyard, on a former alfalfa field, in 1993. The soil is fairly poor and in some places quite rocky. When putting in the vines, sometimes it was too rocky to use an augur, and Dobson had to dig holes for the vines by hand.
The vineyard is mostly Syrah, along with Grenache Blanc, Marsanne and Viognier (which so far has shown to be the least adaptable to head pruning). The whites are field blended. Dobson chose those varieties, because he found the climate, hot and dry, similar to what he had experienced in southern France. “I usually prune heavy,” Dobson said, “to keep yields low.” He usually drops about 50 percent of clusters. “The yield goes down, but I’m willing to have that.”
The average yield is usually no more than a ton per acre, in part due to the fact that the vineyard is dry farmed. (The vines were irrigated when started.) Dobson also practices leaf removal, to encourage airflow. The resulting low yields leads to intense flavors. “When you put the fruit through the crusher,” Dobson said, “then you can really tell the difference. You can almost smell and taste the flowers in the field.”
To make its entire lineup of wines, Klickitat does buy some fruit, continuing a tradition Dobson started while his vines were maturing and he wanted to start making wine. “At the time, you could go pick grapes,” he recalled.
Today, he only picks his own fruit, buying grapes only from vineyards within 20 miles of the winery. Varieties purchased include Chardonnay, Lemberger and Merlot. All of wine made with estate grapes is organic. The winemaking process begins with the traditional method of manual stomping of the grapes. Maceration is done with whole clusters, and yeast is not added. Neither are sulfites. “The product is nothing but the grapes,” he said. Production is about 1,000 cases per year.
The wines all go through malolactic fermentation. “The reds usually have to do it on their own,” Dobson said. “The whites have to be helped along.” To encourage ML in the whites, Dobson racks the whites frequently and when necessary gives them extra heat in the winter.
Since winemaking is done in what has come to be known as the natural style, some of the resulting wines do have a little “spritziness” to them. With this approach, the true expression of each vintage comes through in Klickitat’s wines. It’s not Dobson’s goal to make one consistent type of wine, year after year.
The wines have good acidity year in and year out, due to the cool, maritime winds in the Columbia Gorge, as well as cool nights. “One of the interesting parts of the winemaking process,” Dobson said, “is discovering qualities that come along with each vintage.
“What makes winemaking fun is nature gives you a product and you have to appreciate that product. It may not be the best vintage, but that’s okay, you appreciate it, and when you do get a good year, it’s fabulous.”
When Dobson first planted the vineyard, he established companion plantings between the rows only in part of the vineyard. “I didn’t know if it going to work,” he said. “I wanted to compare rows with plantings and rows without.”
Since then he’s become convinced of the suitability of his system, and the entire vineyard has been planted to become a varied ecosystem. Many of the plants he started with seed, but for others he did plant starts. “There’s no reason not to make a very diverse system,” he said.
The species he’s planted include rabbit brush, lupine and balsamroot. The rabbit brush he tends to have on the edges of the vineyard, while the lupine and balsamroot are good between rows, as they are top feeders, and die out in the summer, as the vines are in the middle of the growing season. Lupine also adds nitrogen to the soil. “The systems work in harmony,” Dobson said.
It does take patience, however. Some of the native species take a long time to establish. For example, rabbit brush is slow growing, but once established, Dobson said, “can weather many dry summers.”
The effort made into supporting diversity pays off in pest control. Last year, Dobson didn’t have to spray for mites. “We had mites,” he said, “but they didn’t get to an economic threshold.
He does spray boron when he sprays sulphur for powdery mildew. “I usually spray twice for mildew,” Dobson said. “I’m not complaining.”
Researchers have studied his vineyard and found more diverse insect populations than in conventional vineyards. Meadowlark, for example, is home to nine butterfly species, while conventional vineyards in Washington will have just one or two butterfly species. “If you keep that balance and diversity, no one thing is going to be able to take off,” Dobson said.
“The hardest part of the system is having flowering plants through the later part of summer, to carry pollinators through.” Some pollinators do estivate, Dobson noted.
It’s not just a matter of having flowers, either. Leftover stalks and other aboveground matter provide habitat for all sorts of wildlife (as does the root system below ground support a more robust soil biology, which itself has a part in controlling nematodes). “That structural diversity is equally important as flowering diversity.
“A lot of farmers want to have their fields and vineyards look really neat, but nature is not that way.”
Nature does have its own rhythms and system of balancing, however. At Klickitat, Dobson and Perillo have discovered how to incorporate viticulture into that cycle. The result pays off not just in vineyard management, but also in the winery’s lineup of classic, sought-after wines.
Klickitat Canyon Winery
by Karl H. Kazaks