On a dreary Seattle day, an intriguing invitation from Dominio IV showed up in my inbox to come plant a grape vine labyrinth near Mosier, OR at their Three Sleeps Vineyard. I checked my calendar and I had nothing planned for that day. It has been way too long since I’d been to Oregon Wine Country so this was a great excuse to have another authentic experience for my wine geek education. I usually try to get down to their McMinnville winery a couple of times a year to see what Patrick Reuter is innovating around the making of fine wine. I also try to arrange to help out in the tasting room or with the fall crush. However, it has been over a year since I’ve made time to visit my favorite wine making family. While I’ve been hearing for years about their biodynamic vineyard in the Columbia Gorge, I hadn’t managed to make my way to the property. Clearly, now was the time to go learn some more about fine wine growing.
Many moons ago when we toured England as a family, our children insisted that we go visit the labyrinth in Wiltshire, England near Stonehenge. We were fascinated with the distinction between a labyrinth and a maze. A maze is a complex puzzle while a labyrinth has only a single non-branching path which leads to the center. We enjoyed walking through the labyrinth and the kids wished that there was one of these closer to home in Seattle, WA.
Patrick Reuter was so fascinated with the experience of labyrinths that he encountered while working at different wineries in Europe, that he chose the labyrinth as the symbol for Dominio IV wines. For ten years, Patrick has tried to convince his co-owner and wife, Leigh Bartholomew, to let him plant a labyrinth on their vineyard property. Leigh being an amazing vineyard manager at Archery Summit, has resisted because she dislikes driving a tractor in circles through rows of vines. Maybe one day we’ll all find the real story as to why she relented and decided to support Patrick’s dream of having a labyrinth of grape vines that friends of the winery can come experience the journey to the center.
Glenn and Liz Bartholomew who live on the property and run the Three Sleeps Bed and Breakfast along with other family members laid out and prepared the ground for twenty of us to come do the “shape planting.” [Note: As a way to remember the taste of his wines, Patrick invented something he calls "shape tasting."] Glenn had prepared all of the irrigation lines and then augered all the holes for the vines. The rest of the family pounded in the bamboo stakes into the planting holes to help guide the upward spreading of the grape vine.
We all gathered on the front porch of the Bartholomew’s home where Patrick shared his vision and philosophy for the labyrinth. His design challenge was how to lay out the labyrinth so that it would be both an interesting walk and allow the farming and irrigation of the vines to occur. Patrick’s explanation of the labyrinth:
“You’re looking down this row, here, in the center. It’s laid out straight in front of us. There is a pin in the center. There are 12 rows. It is a variation of our Dominio IV logo. The outer rings are called lunettes which are half circles. The half circles have meaning. There are 28 and a half lunettes in each quadrant. It is a calendar. These are lunar cycles. So you can mark the year going around the labyrinth. Each one of these is a season.
“So the way we’ve set it up is you are looking straight east, well not exactly straight east. A little bit off so on solstice on June 21st when the sun comes up, it comes up directly over the entrance. So it gives you the seasons in each quadrant. It is an 11 ring labyrinth but we are choosing to plant the outside ring so that when you are walking the outside of the ring you have vines on both sides of you. This way there aren’t stones on the outside. We’re actually planting the outside ring.
“The inside ring is going to be roses. It will be close to a mile to actually walk it, to go into the center. Then you turn around and you do a loop through the center. Then you exit again the way you came in and go back out.
“It’s not a maze but a labyrinth, so you don’t get lost in it. As long as you are moving forward, you are where you are supposed to be. The idea of connecting this in a whole circle is that each of these rings will be a different varietal. The first three rings are Tempranillo. The next two are Syrah. Then it goes to Malbec, Cab Franc, and Petite Verdot.
“So that blend, what we call a field blend, is kind of an ancient way of planting different varietals together that they think will grow well in a region. Then you make a wine out of it. The idea is to have people come and sign up like you just did. You guys will be the first in the book. This book will go on for all the people who walk the labyrinth. These walks could go on for a 100 plus years.
“We are putting these vines in the ground. And if you do your job correctly (not putting the plants upside down), the vines will last. [Lots of laughter.] Everybody is familiar with what the top of a vine looks like, right?
“These actual vines could be in the ground for over a 100 years. What we are creating here is a place for people to come and walk and go through a journey in and out. It is often a meditation for people to do that. In a sense we are planting a sacred place for people to come, which is really unique and special.
“It is awesome that you guys came. You are the special ones in that way. Thank you for being the first and being the special planters. As you walk the vines in a given year, you leave something behind. Something intangible, that we can’t really talk about. Scientifically, it is a process that you go through of going in and going out of this sacred place.
“Every year we’ll make the wine just from this block. We’ll ferment it in its own fermenter and put it in its own barrels. Then we’ll bottle it on its own. Then we’ll offer the wine back up to the people that walked the labyrinth that year. So whatever your intention, your meditation, will be captured in some way by the vines and taken into the wine and then brought back to your dinner table.
“It’s an interesting circle.
“So that is what we are up to today.
Shape Planting group: “Are we going to live long enough to try this wine?”
Patrick: “Three years. You have to hold on for three years. We’ll be picking in three years so it will be three or four years before we have a bottle of wine from the labyrinth.
“We haven’t figured out how to mark the vines. We are hoping to have great examples of the people who’ve worked on the vines or meditated on the vines. We want to have some representation of the great lives who’ve passed through here. We’ll eventually work that into dedicating the life essence and vitality here. If you want to work that into your planting today, just keep track of which plants you were intentional about and we’ll come back and mark them in a way that stays there.
“So it could be like a Tibetan flag. You know how the Tibetan prayer flag (green, red, blue) is supposed to be flapping in the wind. As they flap in the wind, the Tibetan Buddhists think that is the prayer going into the wind. Every time they flap back and forth there is another prayer being said. That’s my vision of what we want. The marking would be people’s names but also kind of dangle and flap from the vine and that would be ongoing, significant and intentional.
“The first vines that have gone in are dedicated to my uncle who passed away last year about this time. That’s the special vine so don’t crush it. Let’s get on with the planting.”
From his winemaker’s view, he is planting an interesting mix of Tempranillo (the majority of the grapes planted on the rest of the property), Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot. His goal is to produce a “field blend” in a couple of barrels that will be available to wine club members and those who journey through the labyrinth. What we are planting today will be harvested in three years and then take two to three years to age before being released. Once again I am reminded of the long range thinking that one has to do in the wine industry – what we do today won’t be available for the market for at least five years.
Leigh then took over to move us from the visionary spiritual to the pragmatics of how we would plant the vines. We moved down to the labyrinth and Leigh went through a detailed explanation and show and tell of how to plant. First, we put some all natural rock phosphate fertilizer on the mound of dirt piled on the side of the hole. She explained that we needed to mix this in with the dirt and put this in the hole first followed by a couple of inches of dirt so that the fertilizer didn’t “burn” the root structure. Ideally, you wanted to have about a fist of root stem above ground right next to the bamboo shoot pole. With the one example we were now educated to go plant our way around the circular rows. I love the process of see one, do one, teach one approach to experiential learning.
Of course I had to encourage Patrick to plant lots more Cabernet Franc which has become my favorite speciality varietal. I lovingly planted about ten Cab Franc vines with focused intentionality so that they would thrive and Patrick would see the light to plant even more in the future. In addition to the Cab Franc I was able to plant some Petite Verdot and Tempranillo varietals before all of the vines were in their respective holes. It is amazing how quickly what seems like a forever task is finished with 25 motivated wine lovers.
As the planting was winding down, I asked Patrick how the journey would flow through the labyrinth vineyard. In his wonderful way, Patrick started with “I’m not sure. Now that all the vines are in, I have to figure out how to set up a symbol system to guide the flow through these open spaces we have to leave for the tractors. I thought about putting stone markers where people need to turn, but they are so heavyweight for the vineyard. The tractors will run over them and drive them into the ground compacting the root systems.”
I immediately lept to a technical solution to the problem laughing at myself the whole time that I shared it with Patrick. “Look we could do a quick labyrinth navigation app. All you would have to do is get one of those augmented GPS transmitters like wheat farmers use to precisely plant a field. Then the user could look at the app and navigate their way through the vineyard.”
Neither of us could stop laughing at the thought of wine lovers looking to get back to nature and do something spiritual in the vineyard looking at their iPhone the whole time. Some things are just so wrong.
Throughout the afternoon, Patrick and Leigh’s two young boys and a friend were navigating the tall grasses within the maze as they acted out their fantasies of hunters looking to prey on these farmers planting their vines. The lyrics of lions and tigers and bears from Wizard of Oz kept running through my head.
After cleaning up a little, we retired to the front porch to have some tacos, fresh vegetables and of course, Dominio IV wines. The Bartholomews know how to put on a fresh food spread. We started with the 2011 Viognier to accompany the chips and salsa and then moved through a progression of reds – Pinot Noir, Syrah, Syrah-Tempranillo blends, and finally a Tempranillo.
As the evening wound down and the labyrinth planters began to drift off, Patrick suggested that Jeff Weissler of Conscious Wine and I chat a bit. Jeff and I had exchanged emails a couple of months back after I’d written the blog post on Shape Tasting and Patrick pointed me to Jeff’s videos on Shape Tasting with Patrick. We did the “do you know” routine to establish our wine geek credentials. We have many mutual friends on our respective journeys including Bill and Barb Steele of Cowhorn Winery, Alan York, Paul Dolan, and the Benzigers.
Jeff is doing some interesting work promoting his four principles and twelve practices of fine wine making. His focus is on figuring out how to rate wineries over the long term rather than myopically only pay attention to a particular bottle of wine from a particular vintage. I look forward to many great interactions in the future with Jeff as he helps all of us be intentional in what we look for in fine wines and fine wine growers. Jeff posted his video of the labyrinth planting earlier today.
With lots of hugs for old friends and new wine fellow travellers it was time to head back up the road to Bainbridge Island.
As I headed out from the peace and aliveness of Three Sleeps Vineyard, I once again reflected on Brian Doyle’s insightful quotes from The Grail: A Year Ambling and Shambling through an Oregon Vineyard in pursuit of the best pinot noir wine in the Whole Wide World about fine wine growing:
“Grapevines are amazing life forms when you think about it, they plunge their fingers a hundred feet down into the rocky soil, they can live for hundreds of years, they fend off all sorts of insect attacks, and they have been working with human beings for so long, thousands and thousands of years, that you wonder sometimes who cultivates who, you know what I mean? Are people manipulating and taking advantage of grape vines, or are grape vines deftly using human beings to take over the world?“
“On my way back uphill to my car I remember what Jesse told me once, that each vine produces enough grapes to make about three-fourths of a bottle of wine, and I chew on the idea that three-fourths of a bottle of excellent wine is probably just the right amount necessary for two or three people to start telling stories fast and furious,so that each of the vines I pass is pregnant with stories, some of which were never born into the world before, and this idea makes me happy also, so by the time I get to the town where I am supposed to give a talk I am cheerful as a chipmunk.“