Colorado vintner makes wine the natural way
Ryan Summerlin June 20, 2009
HOTCHKISS – Even by the standards of Delta County’s North Fork, the regional epicenter of conscience farming, Lance Hanson is taking his farming practices to another level. A year ago, Hanson’s Jack Rabbit Hill, outside the small agricultural town of Hotchkiss in western Colorado, was certified biodynamic.
The vineyard and winery, which had already been certified organic, became one of approximately 50 certified biodynamic winemakers in the country. Hanson didn’t start farming till 2000, but in less than a decade, he has absorbed an encyclopedia’s worth of knowledge about biodynamic farming, from the preparations used to fertilize the soil (the most intriguing is the one that uses a cow’s horn) to Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian philosopher who laid out biodynamic principles in a series of 1924 lectures, and whom Hanson calls a visionary human of extraordinary capabilities.
As extreme as his farming practices may be, Hanson’s look and demeanor and style are not. In a region where dedication to the land seems to be measured by the earthiness of one’s appearance, Hanson has neatly kept hair and a clean-cut wardrobe. Nine years into his career as a farmer and vintner, the 48-year-old still appears barely removed from his last career – selling marketing software to big corporations. And Hanson can speak like a businessman: “This is not a tax write-off,” he said of Jack Rabbit Hill. “We had to make this work. And the way to do it was to scale up.”
By scaling up, Hanson is referring specifically to the size of his vineyards. He started with 4 acres, has gradually grown to 22, and is eyeing adding another 10. “It’s always been about, How do we achieve a scale that’s sustainable?” said Hanson, who runs Jack Rabbit Hill with is wife, Anna. “In Colorado, there’s no market for small, one-to-three acre vineyards.” But Hanson has also scaled up by branching out: In 2005, he added a distillery to his operation, and he now sells as many cases of spirits – brandy, vodka and gin, sold under the Cap Rock label – as he does wine, about 2,500 cases annually of each.
Going biodynamic was also something of a business decision. One of the foundations of the method is making farming a closed-loop system – using the crops to feed the animals; using animal parts and waste to nourish the soil for plants. For Hanson, whose vineyards are several miles up a hillside, biodynamic techniques seemed a smart decision.
“We had a specific problem – the amount of compost we needed to get up there,” he said. “We had to truck it in from a dairy 5 miles away, hundreds of tons of wet manure for 22 acres. Then turn it, spread it on the vineyards. So any opportunity to reduce the amount, we’d look at that.” Part of the solution was to add chicken, sheep and cattle on the property, which totals 70 acres.
Hanson, who used to live in Sonoma, called on some old acquaintances, including growers at Grgich Hills and Robert Sinskey, both biodynamic California vineyards, for an education. “They were all so generous,” he said. “We had as much time as we wanted, walking through the vineyards, asking questions about growing and wine-making. We came back convinced we could do this. The benefits were very real.”
One benefit has been the health of the grapes. Several years ago, one varietal grew troublesome black spots. Hanson sent samples off to prominent viticulture programs, none of whom could identify the problem, nor fix it. Since going biodynamic, the condition has not resurfaced.
Another is the wine. Jack Rabbit’s wines – currently three reds and two Rieslings – are gaining a reputation among wine drinkers who prefer organic, among those with an interest in the Colorado region, and among those looking for something unpredictable. Hanson has also carved out a niche among drinkers who like blended varietals – all three of Jack Rabbit’s current reds are blends.
“It’s all about character,” said Hanson. “Our soil now, it give the wine complexity it didn’t have before. The mouth feel now is rounder. Some people won’t like that, but we don’t care. These things are funkier, earthier; maybe some interesting notes you won’t find in a processed wine.
“That’s what we want in our wine, and that’s how Mother Nature seems to want to do it. Fortunately, we don’t have to do much in the cellar. We’re not taking this commodity called grapes and treating it like a substrate, adding all this stuff, designer yeasts, to make it have a certain taste.”
Hanson has learned that making wine the natural way can be quite easy. When he began making wine, he called a friend back in California for pointers.
“Their view was, this is not hard,” he said. “One guy told me, this is one of the few drinks in nature that can happen just naturally. Fermented fruit can happen spontaneously and accidentally.”
Biodynamic farming, however, doesn’t just happen like wine does.
“People say it’s a natural form of farming, but it isn’t,” said Hanson. “Without the active participation of the farmer, this doesn’t happen. The nature of the preparations we go through, nature doesn’t do that.
“It’s really healthy; you get really expressive fruit that doesn’t need commercial yeasts. The focus is on taking full advantage of nature’s storehouse. The way you do that is by taking a a very active role in the farm.”