Johan Vineyards is owned by Dag Johan Sundby, a Norwegian immigrant who headed to the Williamette Valley, Oregon, USA in 2004 to establish the 85 acre Johan estate vineyard. In 2007 Dan Rinke became vineyard manager there, and under Dan’s direction, within 3 years the vineyard became biodynamically certified. It is an exceptionally beautiful spot in the Van Duzer Corridor AVA – plentiful hot days and very cool nights thanks to the winds coming through the corridor from the coast.
Being a biodynamic vineyard they have 30 acres set aside as a biodiversity preserve, which includes majestic virgin oak savannah and biologically active riparian zones, plus beautiful lakes and ponds. The air is alive with birds and butterflies. As it says on Johan Vineyard’s website, “Steiner outlined a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos. Much like Steiner, we see our vineyard as an individual organism that will eventually showcase its own identity through the fruit it develops.”
Dan is a hugely inspiring farmer, he has a clear understanding of the ‘why’ behind everything and is able to marry the somewhat esoteric recommendations of biodynamics and explain it as practical grounded insights. Ian Nelson, their budding new vineyard manager, has been working with Dan for the last 8 months and is now doing much of the viticultural management on a day-to-day basis. They are continually experimenting with different techniques and practices to build a more resilient and ecological vineyard, they showed us three of their current trials which we wanted to share far and wide!
1..At Johan they practice minimal soil disturbance to enable the fungal networks to prosper and retain as much carbon in the soils as well. This means all the rows have a healthy cover of grasses and herbal mixes, though they do still do undervine cultivation to keep weeds under control there. In order to experiment with cover crops between rows, they have planted different pollinator mixes. As Dan explains, “We did the flowering reseeding annual/perennial mix in the tasting room block to increase the diversity of cover crops used in the vineyard and to add more forage for native pollinators.”
2..They cut out old wood last winter from the surrounding hedgerows and have turned them into woodchip piles, located at different sites around the vineyard. The aim of the piles is to foster more fungal diversity in the vineyard – all based on the principle that greater diversity will keep any problematic fungi in check and not allow fungal disease to set it.
3..The third experiment is planting elderberry in place of dead vines in an area with particular difficulty. The elderberry is able to form both ecto and endo-mycorrhizal associations – Dan explains exactly why this is important, “We are interplanting with elderberry (we also plan to plant some shrubby native willows this fall) because they have associations with both Endomycorrhiza and Ectomycorrhizas. Endomycorrhiza is the type of mycorrhiza that grape vines have an association with, but Ectomycorrhizas are what have been proven to work like a network – sharing minerals, nutrients, water, carbon and plant hormones between different plant species. So the plants with dual species associations, such as elderberry and willows, are what I call “hub species”. Think of the airline maps with some major airports being the hubs. It’s nice to fly direct to your destination but sometimes you have to fly to a hub airport to get to the final destination, this is just more efficient for the airline companies. The same is true for sharing needed nutrients in an ecological system. The hub species make it possible to link the two networks together.”One of the reasons Dan started using Sectormentor at Johan is because he is transitioning out of doing some of the day-to-day vineyard management as Ian takes it on and using Sectormentor makes things quicker and easier for both of them. Ian nips around the vineyard on his little quad bike using the map on the Sectormentor app to take him to the different sample sites or blocks he needs to visit that day (Ian is still learning the vineyard, so the map is super helpful as he zips from clone to clone!)
Johan is planted with a number of different varietal-clone combinations on small 1-2 acre plots. These management blocks are used to ensure that each part of the vineyard is well cared for and they know exactly what is going on. We have seen time and time again, that vineyards that focus on smaller management blocks are more successful in farming ecologically and profitably.
When it comes to yield predictions and management decisions, Johan have a strong focus on data to help them make informed management decisions. Ian is relatively new to the vineyard but thanks to Sectormentor he can easily see the variety, clone, rootstock of each location. Once Ian has gone out and done the % flowering, or cluster count etc at each site, that data is all immediately available on Sectormentor so Dan and Ian can check in back at the office and see how the different blocks are progressing, as well as update initial yield predictions and harvest dates.
In the early days of Johan a few plots of the vineyard were leased out — but they will finally come back into Johan management next year. Dan and Ian are very excited to have the final plot of vines coming back into management by Johan themselves. This plot has been managed chemically for years – Dan will immediately start transitioning it to a biodynamic plot but it inevitably takes some time as the soil must recover and become truly alive once again. The team are very keen to see and document how the soil does change through this transition, so Dan and Ian will use some of the key soil health tests – VESS, slake, invertebrate counts, infiltration rate to track how alive the soil is and how it evolves.
When we visited we were lucky enough to be taken on a tasting journey through all of their wines, with winemaker Morgan – my oh my, if you ever get the chance to try a Johan Wine you are in for a treat. All that hard work in the vineyard definitely pays off, the wines are beautiful, natural wines that reflect the beauty of the complex, increasingly diverse ecosystem from which they have sprung.We’re excited to keep learning about regenerative vineyard management with Johan Vineyards!