Brick House Vineyard
by Christina Kelly
From River Rat to War Correspondent to Biodynamic Farmer,
Oregon's Brick House Winemaker Gives Back to the Land
Few people have seen, up close, the ravages of war and what it can do to the land and everything that grows on it - or doesn't grow.
But Doug Tunnell, owner and winemaker for Brick House Vineyards has not only seen war up close and personal, the impact of the tragedies witnessed by the former CBS war correspondent has greatly influenced how he lives his life today in his estate vineyards of Oregon's Willamette Valley.
The land sustains life and is living - it is Tunnell's mantra since returning back to the United States more than 10 years ago. In fact, the 57-year-old is one of a growing number of winemakers who have turned to biodynamic farming - a practice of farming that is much more than organic, relying on the lunar calendar and ancient practices of viewing agriculture as a living organism rather than a production facility. Tunnell wanted to be as far away from the destruction of land as he could get, and biodynamic farming is not only farming without the harmful use of pesticides and insecticides, it also includes replacing nutrients often stripped from regular farming.
Born and raised in Oregon City, Tunnell grew up a "river rat," swimming in the polluted waters of the nearby Willamette River, where discharges from pulp mills lined the banks. The young teens of the area swam in polluted waters, never considering any physical consequence, but years later, Tunnell admits the goop in the water gave him considerable thought to how he would eventually impact the region's watershed.
"When you are young, you don't think about it - we grew up with the pulp mills - we were the young river rats, and like (most) youth, we thought we were invincible," Tunnell recalled. "I knew, years later, that as a farmer, I would take great care."
Tunnell gravitated towards journalism at an early age, starting with the high school newspaper and later spending time in South Africa as an exchange student with Lewis and Clark College. That experience lead to an invitation to spend time in Beirut with a friend in the summer of 1973 - a year in which the Mid-East War broke out. Running out of money, Tunnell got a job teaching English in Saudi Arabia. (He later returned to the U.S. to attend Columbia's journalism program).
By this time, Tunnell realized that covering the turmoil in the Middle East not only gave him a job, but an eye-witness view of the harshness of war on people and the land. He worked as a copy editor for the Beirut Daily Star as war was looming over the top of him, and later became a radio stringer for CBS, watching as rockets and gunfire pockmarked the land and buildings of the once-thriving tourist-filled city.
"I was turning out 10 to 12 radio spots per day," Tunnell said. "I think CBS finally hired me full time because I was making so much money as a stringer. Problem was, I was in the war zone so much, I never had time to spend the money I made."
He stayed in Beirut until 1979, and over the years, lived in London and Paris before finally returning to the states to work in Miami. By that time, Tunnell had had enough.
He met his second wife, Melissa, 10 years ago, after returning home to Oregon. He had already purchased his vineyard and started his winery in the Ribbon Ridge appellation near Newberg, Oregon.
"Farming for him is a very deliberate, peaceful and thoughtful pursuit," says Melissa Mills, his wife and partner at the winery. "After many years of covering wars, this is how he chooses to live - giving something back to the land in a peaceful way."
Therapy for the Soul: The Wines of Brickhouse
During his journalism career, which took him to France, Tunnell (whose father's family originally came from France), said he learned to love both Burgundy and the Gamay grape of Beaujolais.
"I saw it (Gamay grapes) planted side-by-side with Pinot Noir, just south of Burgundy," Tunnell said. "When I decided to plant my vineyards, I had that in mind."
Brick House is one of the few wineries in North America that produces wine made from the Gamay grape. France produces most of the world's Gamay fruit, but outside of Europe, the varietal remains a black sheep.
When it is pruned sparingly and given its due in the winery, Gamay Noir can be a luscious, dark glass with enough acidity to match a wide array of foods. Its allure is irresistible...even after a thousand years of turmoil.
In a normal year, Tunnell produces three high-end Pinot Noir wines. Most of the wines are determined by grape clones. He also makes small amounts of a refreshing Chardonnay.
It is the Brick House Pinot Noirs - wines that wrap around food like a wool coat on a frosty night - that showcase the care Tunnell takes in his estate vineyards. The wines are lithe, the tannins are soft in the mouth, but round - you won't notice any tartness, bitterness or thinness - his Pinot Noir has flavors of cherry, strawberry, cinnamon and peppery finish. Paired with a cedar-planked grilled salmon, or seared tuna with just a touch of lime and pepper, Brick House Pinot Noir is a great dancer. The wines dip and sway with the food like an ideal Waltz partner.
Tunnell's Brick House is literally that - his farm land came with an old house, circa 1927, built of brick, which is unusual since most farmers during that time built their rural homes with timber from the fir trees that covered the land. He used the inspiration for his winery and label.
The Rhythm of Biodynamic Farming
In yearning for serenity and a place where he could work the soil, Tunnell turned to biodynamic farming. He wanted to understand the natural rhythms of the farm. He wanted to go beyond organic farming.
Biodynamic farming is a wholistic farming approach developed in the 1920s that not only encompasses many principles of organic farming - such as the elimination of all chemicals - biodynamic farming requires close attention to the varied forces of nature influencing the vine.
"If you look at the lunar rhythms of the moon and its influence on water - why wouldn't that affect the growth of plants?" asked Tunnel, who said a number of fish hatchery releases are timed with the new moon due to positive changes in fishery metabolism. "If there are influences of the moon on massive bodies of water, like the earth's oceans, wouldn't it be logical for plants to experience some affect?"
The San Francisco Chronicle described biodynamics as the yoga of winegrowing. "It's a way to focus energy and awareness for peak performance and exceptional health. Sick vineyards need homeopathy; biodynamic vineyards radiate a vigor that can be felt."
Biodynamic agriculture includes four key elements, which Brick House adheres to:
Biodiversity, which is achieved through companion planting, cover cropping, crop rotation and border planting such as hedges. Planting native plants whose flowers and nectars attract beneficial insects is part of that process.
Soil health, which includes proper levels of organic matter, good humus content and soil microbial activity (bacterial, fungus, yeasts, earth worms and so on).
Self-sustainability that involves producing different crops and generates fodder to feed grazing animals (cows, sheep, horses, goats). The animal manure is recycled through compost, which is then used as a soil amendment to perpetuate soil health. If the vineyard does not have animals, the manure is brought in. A number of biodynamic wineries use "Preparation 500," which is female cow horns packed with cow manure, then buried in the vineyard for six months and eventually dug them and spread in the vineyards in a sluice form.
Pest and disease prevention, since healthy plants grown in healthy soil are better to resist pest and disease attacks.
Lunar and Solar rhythms are also important in biodynamic farming and these farmers believe certain parts of plants are stimulated as the moon and sun travels across the sky.
Melissa Mills, Tunnell's wife, a former journalist herself, knew little about wines before she met her husband. But, through him, she has learned that his wines reflect what happens in the vineyard.
"You can taste the changes with each vintage," Mills said. "What you taste is what we've experienced with the land - you have to be willing to adapt and accept what you are given by the land - what Mother Nature gives you."
The couple views their farm as a living, dynamic organism, and each day, expect to see the miracles that nature gives them. They produce the wines by hand, using indigenous yeast fermentation - they rarely fine or filter the wines.
It all comes full circle for Tunnell. As tension and conflict begin, again, in Beirut, this time, Tunnell's view is not of bombed-out buildings and the devastation of war, but of a peaceful, lush view of a vineyard built by his hands. He has not disappeared from the world, but rather,is trying to set an example of what can be done by listening, watching, and nurturing nature's dance steps.
About the Author
Christina Kelly spent more than 20 years as a journalist for West Coast newspapers, covering everything from business to education to the environment. During that same time, she also discovered the joy of wine and food pairing and set out on a journey to learn more.
Six years ago, Christina began writing about wine and left daily journalism to pursue her passion. She has been Avalon’s Staff Writer and Wine Columnist since 2000, covering the Northwest wine industry. She is also the Wine Columnist for Seattle Magazine and continues writing about wine for newspapers and magazines.
One of the most knowledgeable writers on Northwest wines, Christina provides insight into the wine industry, conversations with and profiles on Northwest winemakers, tasting notes and funny/touching stories that embrace a glass of wine. In a field crowded with many choices of wine, Christina provides the information consumers can rely on. Don't miss her columns and articles - a must read for the wine enthusiast.