Aug 16, 2010

Sustainability in All Accounts: A Conversation with Doug Tunnell of Brick House Winery in the Ribbon Ridge AVA of Oregon’s Willamette Valley

Doug Tunnell grew up in the Willamette Valley before travelling around the world as a foreign correspondent for the CBS News. He had seen more than his fair share of war-torn life amidst his work travels, and he was growing disenchanted with his current career already when the opportunity to change things dramatically came to him. It was while living in France, already enamored with wine, that he learned the well established Burgundian house of Joseph Drouhin had recently purchased vineyard land in his own home town back in Oregon. This spurred him to redirect his life path and head back to the land of his youth to start his own winery and vineyards.

From the beginning, Doug has been dedicated to organic and sustainable practices throughout the vineyards and winemaking practices. He works with as minimal an impact on the earth each harvest as possible. He and his family are strongly involved in the issues within their community, supporting everything from care for the vineyard workers, to cultural events, to charitable donations assisting with health, homelessness and hunger. In this way, Brick House is a perfect model for sustainable practices within the natural environment, the built environment, and the people within that environment.

His model is relatively simple. He tries to think of everything he does with an eye to the next generations to come.

“What we do at Brick House is just this tiny little infinitesimal point—a little, tiny note in the whole arrangement of the world. And we try to make it as simple and pure as we possibly can and hope that that will have a ripple effect.”

Brick House operates biodynamically. Beyond just organic practices, the biodynamic farmer looks not only to doing no harm to the environment, but also in repairing the environment and making the ecosystem from which the farm itself functions more healthy. For example, intentionally left “wild areas” for birds, animals and insects to live are actually encouraged and incorporated into the farmland.

When he started his vineyard, it was a hazelnut orchard that had used toxins and chemicals in production for decades. Year by year, the land has been restored to a more healthful state, and Doug is careful to allow weeds to be a part of his ecosystem. Invasive species like Himalayan blackberry and poison oak still present problems and need removal, but others like horsetail actually promote habitat. He’s even gotten away from organically approved copper sprays in the vineyard in an effort to ensure metals do not collect in the watershed. Collaborative efforts with other Ribbon Ridge AVA wineries are in the works to promote wetlands areas as well as protection of surrounding forests.

Doug feels that these types of farming practices are guided by his own childhood.
“The easiest way to explain it is that I grew up here in the Willamette Valley, when I was a kid I was a river rat. I went fishing before school and every free moment was connected to the watershed—and I mean IN it. It was near two paper mills so I grew up playing in point source pollution from these mills. The Willamette River was a really dirty river. When I started farming in this same watershed I wanted to explore the possibility of farming grapes organically. At the time there was only one other that was doing it. It was a touch a go thing, but it paid off. With diligence, year after year, we got a crop. Now twenty years have gone by, and I can say that it’s a doable deal in the Willamette Valley.”

Doug converted the old barn and brick house (thus the name Brick House) into the winery, reusing much of the 72 year old space. Double paned windows and an updated insulation system help to keep energy usage low, and he’s just received acceptance from PGE to be part of a program to return power back to the grid from solar panels. His tractors run on biodiesel, and he does his best to keep the production line running as efficiently as possible by ordering only the necessary amounts of glass, labels and barrels.

Other winemakers have gotten a start in the Willamette Valley by working with Doug—both John Grochau of Grochau Cellars and Jim Prosser of J.K. Carriere are among current success stories of the former wine hands at Brick House. And Doug continues education with each visit and interaction with the public—letting them learn not only about the wines, but the philosophy that guides production.

Doug’s former work with CBS still colors his hopes for our future. “In a previous career, I was in twelve or fourteen different war zones. I spent a huge amount of time observing human suffering and human cruelty. In the broad sense I would like to see that eliminated. I hold hope for world peace and elimination of weapons. Why are we living in an armed society? That requires a huge shift in our consciousness and the ability to compromise.”

He speaks wistfully and somewhat poetically about society’s and the planet’s future, but with a constant clarity of purpose that we must—all of us—keep an eye on the bigger picture which is generations to come. It will be through getting around what he sees as the polarizing elements of individuals around us and finding our commonalities that we’ll be able to come together on something he sees as fundamental, if still one of humanities most problematic areas. As an individual, you have to look ahead and remember these larger perspectives and always keep in mind that “what you are sowing is for the future, and for the children,” he says.
Of his greatest lessons in life on this past twenty year venture into organic farming and biodynamic winemaking, Doug remains awed.

“One thing that always astounds me is that we, my family and I, are actually earning a living off the land. I sometimes have to shake my head and pinch myself. It’s quite amazing that this—this 40 acres—is providing us with a living. We have up and down years for sure, and it’s difficult work. But the land keeps working for us. It really hits me deeply as a realization that this is possible. Lesson-wise, in order to achieve this, it requires a considerable amount of imagination and making up solutions as you go along. You must be resilient enough to live with the consequences of those solutions when perhaps they don’t work. We are lucky people who get to benefit from this situation… and that’s really pretty amazing.”

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