Dynamic Dialogue

Doug Tunnell.  Photo by Marcus Larson

Doug Tunnell talks organics and his respect for the land

Before planting and establishing Brick House Vineyards & Wine Company in 1990, Doug Tunnell worked as a foreign news correspondent from 1975 to 1992.

He worked in Beirut — off and on for about six years — then moved to London, Bonn (West Germany), Paris and Miami over the next several years. 

While traveling the globe, Tunnell never shed the Oregon-born heritage of a kid who grew up in West Linn and attended Lewis & Clark College. 

By the late 1980s, the urge to make a change in career direction began to pull at him. He set out with a mission: to grow organic Pinot Noir in his home state, specifically, the northern Willamette Valley. 

It took nearly two years before he discovered a 40-acre parcel just off Lewis Rogers Lane on Ribbon Ridge, near the eastern end of the Chehalem Range. Tunnell bought the property in 1990 and hired vineyardist Joel Meyers to plant the first 12 acres later that year. Eventually, 29 acres were planted, 19 to Pinot Noir and the remainder to Gamay Noir and Chardonnay.

It wasn’t until 1993 that he was able to move in on a permanent basis. “I had to finish out the last two years of my contract with CBS and sell my house in Miami,” he said. “Then I made the move and really got everything going.”

Tunnell made his first wines at Cristom in 1993, working under the watchful eye of winemaker Steve Doerner. He bonded his own winery on the Brick House farm in 1994 and is quick to express gratitude to Doerner and Paul Gerrie of Cristom, as well as Mike Etzel of Beaux Frères, John Paul of Cameron and John Thomas of Thomas Wines for their generous advice and assistance during the early years.

From the outset, Tunnell insisted his operation be completely organic, and in 2005, Brick House became Demeter certified in Biodynamics, a method of organic farming that emphasizes the holistic development and interrelationships of the soil, plants and animals as a self-sustaining system.

Tunnell and his wife, Melissa Mills, live on their farm at Brick House Vineyards near Newberg.

OWP: When and how did you first become interested in wine? 

DT: Okay, I confess. I think it all started with the bottles of Liebfraumilch my friend Tim and I were able to buy at a certain German restaurant in Portland before we were of age. They were cool ceramic numbers with colorful Bavarian-looking labels in German. We had made the leaps from Gallo to Ingelnook, Ingelnook to Almaden! But in Liebfraumilch, we believed we had found both veritas and a slick new way to impress our dates. 

OWP: Which Oregon winemakers do you most admire and why?

DT: I most admire those winemakers who truly appreciate the value of working with Mother Nature — even in the most challenging years — instead of against her. In practice, that means I most admire winegrowers who — among other things — seek out vineyards that are fuzzy with grasses and other plants under the canopy from lack of herbicide sprays; who carefully consider their soils and its vast reserve of microbial energy; who value native yeasts; who are compassionate with animals; who value wines that may be a little lighter in color and softer on the palate because they are worked with a gentle hand. I most admire those winemakers whose whole approach to life is consistent with the way they make their wines. They live with the understanding of the limitations of our ability to shape what Mother Nature gives us. That means they live and work out of honesty and with great humility. They leave a light footprint. These are the winemakers — and the wines — I find easy to love.

OWP: If you could grow any variety in your vineyard, what would it be and why? 

DT: The three varieties we grow now (and have from the start) — Pinot Noir, Gamay Noir and Chardonnay — are the only three varieties that really wind my clock; and they certainly keep me wound. There is plenty in the working with them to constitute a life’s pursuit.

OWP: You’ve been farming organically since the beginning of your wine career. Why is it important to become certified? 

DT: It’s about truth in labeling. Truth in communicating with consumers. It was clear to us long ago that there would be increasing interest in organic products of all kinds, including organically grown wines. The corollary of that trend is that there would inevitably be more and more efforts to co-opt the organic claim. 

Many people still don’t know that it is easy to insure that you’re purchasing an organic wine if you simply see the word “organic” on the label. The TTB closely monitors every word and every image on wine labels and won’t pass one making an organic claim unless it is accompanied by a federally recognized certification document. When you see that, anyone can access the organic standards and discern the details of what is and what is not in the wine they just purchased. We submit to regular on-site inspections. We generate a detailed paper-trail that shows everything we do or add to any barrel. Demeter Biodynamic certification, which we’ve had since 2005, works in a similar way. It’s a way of offering a guarantee of a truly naturally grown and produced product. 

OWP: Why practice Biodynamics?

DT: We came to it after growing organically for 12 years at Brick House. It was really a very natural outgrowth, an extension of our commitment to farming in a particular way. Biodynamics offers a clear path to enriching and enlivening our soils, using the most natural methods imaginable. There is convincing science to support the fact that soils farmed on a Biodynamic program have greater microbial diversity than conventional and even organically farmed soils. Biodynamics also offers what I consider to be a very healthy perspective on farming and the farm, in general. In the Biodynamic world view, the farm is seen as a living organism with its own cycles, energies and life forces. The remains of one harvest are recycled into the field as compost, contributing to the health of its soils. If the soil is well cared for and full of life, the farm’s vineyards or orchards will be healthy, too. Healthy plants, healthy fruit, healthy wines. The farmer is also seen as an important part of this organism — the one who makes decisions on behalf of the farm — adjusting the crop loads, organizing the fertilization program, deciding the ratios and ingredients for that compost pile. And if you don’t believe we humans contribute to the life forces of the farm, just have a look one day at a 30-ton pile of straw and cow manure as it ramps up to 160°F. It’s volcanic! 

That said, we are not in any way doctrinaire about Biodynamic farming. We don’t pretend to “have the knowledge.” Some of my favorite “Biodynamic” moments had everything to do with villagers in Baja or farmers in Uttar Pradesh or fish biologists in New Zealand, who most likely have never heard of founder Rudolph Steiner. We’re interested in the age old ways of looking at agriculture, one that was understood and practiced centuries ago in many different cultures around the globe. We’re just returning to it with some updated tools and technologies. 

OWP: What has sustainable grapegrowing taught you over the years?

DT: My wife, Melissa, put it best not that long ago: “The nature of farming is to surrender. When you choose a farm, you choose humility.” 

OWP: Are there any similarities between journalism and the wine business? 

DT: I see many similarities between my previous life in journalism and my current life in the vineyard … but, I should explain, I rarely worked in the newsroom. My job was to be able to take the night flight to “somewhere,” drop into the middle of a situation — a story— and make heads or tails out of it by the time people in the United States sat down to dinner. “They’re evacuating Americans in Lebanon … meet the crew in Cyprus … take the boat to Jounieh…” Sure, it was exciting and sometimes dangerous, but most of all, it required that we think on our feet and exercise great resourcefulness. We were often alone and surrounded by people with whom we could not readily communicate. We had to make do with limited resources and produce results in what might be extremely uncomfortable circumstances, most of which were completely beyond our or anyone else’s control. 

Today, it’s nitrogen necrosis or a hailstorm in the vineyard. It’s four days of nonstop rain just as the Pinot Noir is ready to pick. It’s understanding Mother Nature’s language. Resourcefulness is still vital. On the farm, there is no shortage of challenges … and no dearth of stories, too.

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