Rekindling My “Death of Stars” Essay

 

FROM THE STARS, TO THE SEAS, TO YOUR GLASS

Every winemaker has an a-ha moment.  Mine came about when I saw an unexpected pile of rocks in one of the vineyards I work with in the Rogue Valley.  Embedded in several rocks were ancient marine shellfish, fossils and shell imprints that date back to a subduction that happened off of the Pacific coast about 250 million years ago.  From this discovery, I began researching the dirt and geology of Southern Oregon, learning from historical state documents going back to when Oregon was still a territory with a mission toward statehood – documenting natural resources that would help determine Oregon’s value as an addition for state status – resources like lumber, fishing, mining and farming that would provide jobs for its citizens and create wealth for the state.  I learned about the limestone quarries that spread throughout Southern Oregon.  These discoveries excited me and validated my choice to make Cabernet Franc, Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec from this soil-rich region.

I waxed poetics about these incredible soils in a newsletter a few years ago, highlighting the 2015 harvest season…

 

ONE of my hobbies is learning about Quantum Physics. I think I may launch a second label someday dedicated to the phenomena of energy, relativity, and the universe. Until then, I continue to marvel at the mysteries of the universe and how everything is connected. Astrophysicists credit the formation of all matter on earth to the death of stars. That’s right. We’re all made of stars. And, everything around us originated from stars.

Carbon, nitrogen and oxygen atoms are in our bodies, and in all matter on earth, along with atoms of all other heavy elements, which were all created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. All organic matter containing carbon was produced originally in stars, and the universe was originally just hydrogen and helium, so the carbon was made later, over the course of billions of years.

“The material from a supernova eventually disperses throughout interstellar space. The oldest stars almost exclusively consisted of hydrogen and helium, with oxygen and the rest of the heavy elements in the universe later coming from supernova explosions,” according to “Cosmic Collisions: The Hubble Atlas of Merging Galaxies,” (Springer, 2009).

And, here we are, star material beings, looking at star material liquid in a star material glass. Everything is connected.

When I walk through vineyards, my eyes are all over the place. Mostly, they’re gazing downward at the earth. I love exploring the vast landscape and geology of Oregon’s young wine regions. Though our vineyards are nascent compared to the Old World, what makes some of our soil series special – especially in Southern Oregon – predates some of the soil series formations in Europe. That said, I have recently made an exciting discovery. I hadn’t previously considered the soils where I source my grapes from as anything more than clay loam soils. Admittedly, I was somewhat disconnected. Easy to be when you live five hours away. But, this year I discovered one of the vineyards I work with has very similar ancient oceanic material to that of the Loire Valley. Not just in theory. I literally stepped into this discovery while doing my usual rounds in the vineyard. It’s no coincidence that I found my way down south to produce wines inspired by my favorite region in France.

So, how is this all connected? Let me back up about 100 million years ago, to what was known as the Upper Crustageous Period, when much of the Loire Valley was under ancient seas of the Paris basin during the time in pre-history known as Turonian. In the Middle Loire, near Anjou, chalk layers were deposited. This rock, called Tuffeau, is chalky limestone which is made up of Bryozoa – marine organisms which lived in masses of floating colonies. Exposure to air cemented these deposits by iron and magnesium oxides – valuable elements added to the soil. When mixed over time with sandy and flinty clays, over millions of years, the Tuffeau has created these nutrient rich soils perfect for vineyards.

When I walk through vineyards, my eyes are all over the place. Mostly, they’re gazing downward at the earth. I love exploring the vast landscape and geology of Oregon’s young wine regions. Though our vineyards are nascent compared to the Old World, what makes some of our soil series special – especially in Southern Oregon – predates some of the soil series formations in Europe. That said, I have recently made an exciting discovery. I hadn’t previously considered the soils where I source my grapes from as anything more than clay loam soils. Admittedly, I was somewhat disconnected. Easy to be when you live five hours away. But, this year I discovered one of the vineyards I work with has very similar ancient oceanic material to that of the Loire Valley. Not just in theory. I literally stepped into this discovery while doing my usual rounds in the vineyard. It’s no coincidence that I found my way down south to produce wines inspired by my favorite region in France.

So, how is this all connected? Let me back up about 100 million years ago, to what was known as the Upper Crustageous Period, when much of the Loire Valley was under ancient seas of the Paris basin during the time in pre-history known as Turonian. In the Middle Loire, near Anjou, chalk layers were deposited. This rock, called Tuffeau, is chalky limestone which is made up of Bryozoa – marine organisms which lived in masses of floating colonies. Exposure to air cemented these deposits by iron and magnesium oxides – valuable elements added to the soil. When mixed over time with sandy and flinty clays, over millions of years, the Tuffeau has created these nutrient rich soils perfect for vineyards.

Likewise, another oceanic soil series with ancient shellfish fossils is Falun – sedimentary rock formed from marine deposits laid down during the Caenozoic era, about 60 million years ago. Thousands of tiny shells, crushed or whole, are generally mixed with sand and clay to form ancient marine soil series. Falun is common in the regions of Touraine and Anjou, in the Loire Valley.

falun loire
Falun sedimentary rock with ancient marine fossil, Loire Valley
photo courtesy of C. Henton, http://www.letastingroom.com

Cabernet Franc grows well on the cretaceous chalks of Saumur, and throughout the Loire, as does Sauvignon Blanc, and the other many varietals that make up the varied vineyards in the region. There are more grape varietals planted in the Loire than any other region in France – Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Gamay Noir, Grolleau, Pinot Noir, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Melon de Bourgogne, Chardonnay, Menu Pineau, Pineaud’Aunis, Pinot Gris, and Romorantin. The soils and climate are perfect for such variety.

Let’s skip a stone across the pond to Southern Oregon. A few weeks ago, I was navigating a handful of the vineyard sites where I source my grapes, and, after walking through a unilateral trellised block of Cabernet Franc vines new to my program, my tour guide and grower, Michael Moore, of Quail Run Vineyards, LLC, pointed out a large pile of rocks. I wondered what that pile was about – at first, it looked like a bit of an eye sore – debris from clearing out a field for new vines.

rock pileOcean bottom rock pile, Crater View Vineyard Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon

As we approached the pile, it took me just seconds to see the treasure he was excited to share with me. Right smack in front of the pile was a slab of rock with small white inflections feathered and embedded into the surface. It was an ancient marine fossil!

marine fossil in rock
First impression – ancient marine fossil in ocean bottom rock –
excavated in Crater View Vineyard, Rogue Valley.

I nearly fell over in excitement! I was like a giddy kid in a candy store! I climbed up the 10 foot high rock pile and explored every large and small rock – in hopes of finding a small enough sample with a shellfish imprint or fossil to take home with me – no luck. The few rocks found with beautiful prehistoric fossils were too big to move.

Michael showed me a few more rocks with crustaceous imprints. He looked at me very seriously, then, and explained these rocks were 250 million years old! That significantly predates the soil series we’re talking about in the Old World. We’re talking about rocks from the time of the dinosaurs!

He pulled out his phone and played a recording by one of the state’s geologists, Scott Burns, who is a professor at Portland State University. Burns was speaking specifically about the geology in nearby Talent, Oregon, but, as part of the same soil series and the same range of what’s in both the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.

These rocks were all originally from the bottom of the ocean! The blue rock in one of the photos I took (posted here) is blueschist. There are three types of original terrain in Southern Oregon that include volcanic rock, ocean bottoms, volcanic muds, and islands. Eventually, the terrain was uplifted and turned into limestone (as in the Oregon caves), and the rocks formed were mostly blueschist and phyllite.

blueschist
The gray blue rocks here are blueschist rock from the bottom of the ocean,
literally pushed into the modern landscape of the Rogue Valley from the off-shore Cascadian plates that moved 250 million years ago!

These metamorphic rocks are found in orogenic belts, which are associated with subduction zones which consume crust, produce volcanoes, and build island arcs. The formation of an orogen is part of the tectonic process of subduction, with two scenarios, where either a continent rides forcefully over an oceanic plate, or where there’s a convergence of two or more continents, creating a collision. In the case of the Pacific Northwest, and what we were looking at, we’re talking about the first scenario.

The processes of orogeny can take tens of millions of years and build mountains from plains or the ocean floor. Imagine the Cascadian fault line, or subduction zone. This is the area along the coast where two plates meet – the Juan de Fuca, and the North American. This has been in the news recently, due to predictions that the Pacific Northwest is due to expect an 8.0 – 9.0 earthquake from the movement of these two plates along the Cascasdian subduction zone sometime in the next fifty years.

The rocks we were looking at were pushed up as a result of a tectonic subduction that happened about 250 million years ago, forcing ocean rock up into what’s now the Rogue and Applegate Valleys. When this part of the Crater View Vineyard we were in had been recently cleared for new vine plantings, the pile had been examined, and the fossils and imprints had been discovered.

mollusk shell in rock   shell imprints
Ancient shellfish fossils (left) and imprints (right) in 250 million year old ocean
bottom rock from the Pacific Ocean. Excavated from Crater View Vineyard.

How is blueschist a connection?  Because limestone is one of the blueschist facies.  In the Loire, sedimenary rock soil series includes several rocks, including sandstone and blueschist.

Ancient marine rock, blueschist, limestone, sand and clay, shellfish fossils and imprints… there’s something connecting these two places. There’s a reason why there are so many wine grape varietals planted in Southern Oregon – much like the Loire Valley! There are real connections here – even if simply just an idea, or something as complex as the universe connecting people, places, and moments. And, isn’t that why we drink wine – to connect people, places, and moments? I looked at Michael and I think we both had stars in our eyes.

As I stood on that pile of ancient marine rocks, looking around at the beautiful vineyard where I get some of my Cabernet Franc, all of my Malbec, and now all of my Sauvignon Blanc – I felt connected to the universe in a new way. The stars made all of it. But, the earth pushed and pulled itself into these beautiful craters, volcanoes, ranges, valleys. The earth took its star material and created habitat and life. And, it did so in a majestic tapestry of both unique and similar forms. For the first time, I felt validated for my crazy decision to focus on Loire style wines. The whimsical name I borrowed from my friend and colleague, Herb Quady, means everything to me now. Loiregon. We’re not in the Loire, we’re in Oregon. But, the two places are connected. And, it’s not simply because I wanted there to be a connection to justify my intuition to craft Loire style wines here in Southern Oregon. It’s bigger. I now see why I was meant to make Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc from this place, and in a style that reflects the glinting mirrored ancient star material from the Loire.

The first pick of the vintage came in on Monday, August 24th. The Sauvignon Blanc from Crater View Vineyard has nearly completed fermentation – and is already showing much like a PouillyFumé – with its creamy texture and hints of gunflint or smoke, or wet straw, and then floral notes of elderflower and jasmin, and flavors of flint, lime zest, melon and grapefruit. The Cab Franc from Mae’s Vineyard is on queue for delivery this week for the limited edition Blanc de Cabernet Franc.

I’m happy to announce I’m now making my wines at Raptor Ridge Winery in Newberg, a nice and easy close drive from my home in Southwest Portland. Delighted to be in this beautiful space among wonderful friends.

It’s been a very good start for my first milestone – here’s to the Fifth Vintage!

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