Klickitat Canyon Winery in Lyle, Wash., is proving that respect for nature is good business — and that vintners can care about both grapes and meadowlarks.
The winery was founded 30 years ago by Dr. Robin Dobson, whose main job is working as an ecologist for the U.S. Forest Service. When Dobson decided to retire from winemaking, his son Kiva took over the business.
“I grew up doing this,” Kiva says. “I also studied natural resources and biology. When Dad said he was done with the winery, I said I’ll give it a shot.”
Klickitat Canyon Winery is almost directly across the Columbia from Hood River, Ore. It includes 7 acres of grapes, 7 acres used for other crops, and 20 acres of oak woodland, which they leave as natural habitat.
The winery produces about 500 cases of wine per year. Those include Organic Estate Syrah and Organic Meadowlark Gold, which the winery’s website describes as “a lively wine sourced from our Meadowlark Vineyard. A blend of Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, and Viognier that creates grapefruit flavors with hints of wildflowers and earthiness on the nose.” Other varieties are made with grapes from nearby vineyards.
One reason Kiva took over the winery was his desire to continue Robin’s approach to farming — which the pair calls eco-dynamic agriculture. “By reintroducing the native wildflowers and bunch grasses between the rows and around the periphery,” he says, “we strive to increase biodiversity as much as possible. As a result, our vineyard has become a continuation of the surrounding environment, as opposed to an oasis for non-native and sometimes harmful pests. We think of it as a form of agricultural habitat restoration.”
Kiva says there’s a reason they named the vineyard “Meadowlark Vineyard.” “The promotion of native bunch grasses provides habitat for the beautiful Western Meadowlark, a ground-nesting bird in our region. By reintroducing indigenous ground cover into the vineyard, we’ve brought back the required habitat for the Western Meadowlarks.”
Kiva says most birds can nest in trees, but ground-nesting birds lose their habitat quickly — whether it’s from cattle grazing, mowing, tilling or other agricultural practices. “When we were establishing this vineyard, we wanted to take a hands-off approach, which allows specialized species to inhabit the area.”
There’s even more to Klickitat Canyon Winery than organic wines and sustainable agriculture. The Dobsons have set up a nonprofit organization called the Center for Eco-Dynamic Restoration, which promotes and shares their type of farming with the larger agricultural community. Interested parties are invited for tours.
What, exactly, is eco-dynamic agriculture? “It’s including the entire ecosystem into your practices,” Kiva says. “It allows nature to do the work for you.”
Kiva emphasizes there’s not a list of items to check off. The approach primarily involves using native plants as ground cover, which keeps the water table up, attracts native insects (which helps with pollination and pest management), and helps maintain the soil.
“We didn’t want to see my dad’s concept of eco-dynamic disappear,” Kiva adds. “I thought if I could keep this alive, people would learn about it and start doing it on their own.”
Washington State University research led Chateau St. Michelle to try using experimental plots with native plants. “It’s difficult to get people to want to put natives into their agriculture systems,” says Kiva. “It’s something people don’t know very much about.” But once they try it, “people get really hooked by our methods.”
Kiva supports the Sustainable Farms & Fields bill now before the state legislature. “We’re really intrigued by that program because not only does it try to reduce the carbon footprint of our agricultural systems, but it ties into what we’re doing. Our focus has been recreating natural habitat, which goes hand-in-hand with carbon sequestration. Returning the land to natural systems reduces the carbon footprint of whatever you’re doing.”