Cow horn manure? Key ingredients to the latest wine making trend in the Livermore Valley

Wednesday, July 10, 2019
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It's not black magic! The secret to the new wine-making trend: A cow horn filled with cow manure mixture that is put into the ground for six months and is dug up when the planets are in alignment.

LIVERMORE, Calif. (KGO) -- Page Mill winery is trying to take wine-making in the Livermore Valley to the next level with what some would call a bizarre new approach. It involves burying a cow horn full of a manure mixture underground for several months and digging it up when the cosmos are in alignment.

No, it's not black magic. It's called biodynamic farming.

"This biodynamic method is compost and preparations while you try to visualize and understand the vineyard as an organism," said Tommy Vanhoutte, Page Mill's winery manager and an expert in biodynamics and sustainability. "You start revitalizing the soil with a soil activator made out of horn manure and different plants. It has been a very great result that we want to keep going to."

The biodynamic movement is not new to the Bay Area. Sonoma and Napa wineries like Araujo Estate, Joseph Phelps and Grgich Hills have used it's principles for years, but it's a relatively new movement in the Livermore Valley.

Page Mill Winery has always prided themselves on the fact they are an organic winery. Originally located in Los Altos, the winery operation moved to the Livermore Valley in 2004.

"When I moved here the thing that I discovered was the value and the quality in the grapes in the Livermore Valley," said Dane Stark, owner of Page Mill Winery. "It is an underestimated region."

But after 14 years of organic farming, Stark decided they wanted to take it a step further and embrace biodynamic farming.

The method of biodynamics was developed by an Austrian Philosopher, Dr. Rudulf Steiner in the early twentieth century. Steiner believed that to attain an organic crop one must pay attention to the cosmos and the earth.

Steiner also championed giving more to the earth than taking, which is where the interesting cow horn manure method comes in.

It's known as 'biodynamic preparation 500' and contains six different kinds of plants: stingy nettle, yarrow, chamomile, dandelion, valerian, and oak bark. They are composted with cow manure and placed into a cow horn. The horn is then buried into the ground during the spring and the fall seasons.

After six months the manure and plant mixture turns into a very nutrient-rich, condensed, natural fertilizer.

But when the mixture is dug up it is an important decision.

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"When we unbury this preparation we wait for a certain planetary aspect. We want Mercury which is the heat planet to be in a certain orientation with the moon," said Vanhoutte.

The idea is that the fertilizer is uncovered and used in line with the rhythms of the of the Earth that influence all living organisms, including those in the soil where grapes are grown.

Once the manure is removed from the horn it is placed in lukewarm water and is vigorously stirred toward the region of your heart clockwise and counter-clockwise motion for an hour. A super concentrated and non-synthetic fertilizer is made and enhances the soil for the vineyard. A single drop of the natural fertilizer will cover a meter of soil.

"You use the preparations in the spring time and in the fall. You use the spray 2-3 times and the same amount in the spring time when the soil is about to wake up or go back to sleep," said Vanhoutte. "Once it is settled then we can really see the difference of harmonious fruit producing and the certainty of the aromatics and the fruit concentration that you can find in the wines months later."

Page Mill winery also incorporates chickens and babydoll sheep who are used for keeping pests and weeds away.

Stark and Vanhoutte hope to have their first vintage using biodynamics in 2022.

"The biodynamic wines are meant to be more vertical and you feel the wine getting in your body. It is meant to be more therapeutic wines than the conventional ones that you see," said Vanhoutte. "Wine is all about patience that is for sure."