Old is New Again at Antiquum Farm

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2_horsesStephen Hagen stands among rows of Pinot Noir vines at his vineyard, Antiquum Farm, a few miles outside Junction City. Hens peck at the soil. Gray sheep graze in the shade of the vines, with the Coburg Hills sleeping purple on the horizon.

“Every vineyard owner will tell you that their grapes are different,” says Stephen, 44. “Ours really are.”

Some of Willamette Valley’s best winemakers agree. Antiquum’s Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris grapes are in demand from some of the area’s top wineries, including Antica Terra, Rex Hill, and Harper Voit.

In addition, Stephen works with consulting winemaker Drew Voit on his own label, Antiquum Farm. This year, Antiquum Farm will produce about 2,000 cases of wine, up from 1,500 in 2015 and 400 cases in 2014. Despite Antiquum Farm’s relatively low production, its wine has become a cult favorite. At the winery’s first wine dinner last spring at the prestigious Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, Antiquum nearly sold out of its library.

Stephen points out two major factors that set the grapes at Antiquum Farm apart. The farm sits about 800 feet above sea level, giving the vineyard a felicitous combination of warm days and cool nights. This allows the fruit to stay on the vine longer, to develop complexity without becoming mouth-searing alcoholic. Plus, the combination of fruit, acid, and longer hang time gives the juice a pillow-like texture and casts notes of citrus, apricot, nectarine, and passionfruit—unusual in Pinot Noir.

The other thing that sets Antiquum Farm apart is its reliance on farming techniques that would have been more familiar to our great-grandparents than to today’s farmers. Stephen uses Belgian draft horses to sow the cover crops between rows of grapes, and sheep, chickens, and geese weed and fertilize the fields.

The son of a high school physics teacher and a homemaker, Stephen grew up in Junction City. After high school, he studied acting in Chicago, then moved to Los Angeles to seek work as an actor. To pay the bills, he took a job as a garden designer and discovered that he enjoyed having his hands in the soil. He loved a garden’s beauty and its ability to draw the garden’s owner away from Southern California’s rat race and back to the earth.

Stephen’s wife, Niki, was a garden design client at the time. He cherished his childhood running “free range” through the countryside outside of Junction City, so he and Niki bought an old hay farm only four miles from where he grew up, with the plan of turning it into a vineyard. In 1999, they planted their first Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris vines on what is now 21 acres of vineyard.

But Stephen was uncomfortable with the grass they mowed between the rows of vines. Shouldn’t it be used to feed animals instead of discarded? And wasn’t there a better way to manage the vines than with chemicals and machines?

In 2007, he began in earnest to examine alternative ways to farm. He considered letting pigs and goats forage in the vineyards, but settled on sheep. He now has a herd of 20 to 60 Katahdin and Dorper sheep, the number fluctuating with lambing and the time of year. The sheep are wide-bellied and homely. “They look like goats,” Stephen says. But they’re hardy, he says, unlike the Babydoll sheep he tried at first.

1_sheepinthevinesAlthough the sheep are invaluable in the field, they had to be trained not to devour the fresh shoots of grape leaves — and the grapes themselves. Stephen discovered Fred Provenza’s work in sheep aversion training. By administering a medication that induces mild nausea at the same time he feeds the sheep grape leaves or grapes, Stephen teaches the sheep to instead graze on the hay and clover growing between the rows.

Sheep aren’t the only livestock pulling duty at Antiquum Farm. Hens peck at weeds. Stephen’s son, Juel, 10, periodically rolls the portable chicken coop through the vineyard to spread the chickens’ work across the fields. Juel sprinkles chicken feed on the weeds to encourage the hens to feast. Stephen’s daughter, Daisy, 13, rides her horse through the vineyard from time to time to inspect for pests or disease.

Two shaggy Turkish Akbash guardian dogs, Mike and Eva, keep the mountain lions away from the sheep. Mike and Eva live with the flock 24 hours a day, and Eva is especially fiercely protective of her flock. “Mike and Eva have provided an elegant and utterly enjoyable solution to a bad situation,” says Stephan.

When it’s time to plant cover crops between rows of vines, Olivia and Ike, the farm’s two Belgian draft horses, are led to the fields. “Anything that slows you down and makes the pace and scale more humane is bound to make you pay attention,” Stephen notes. “You’re right there in the vines, noticing how wet or cool the soil is, how far along the fruit is.”

Stephen’s bent for experimentation has led him to play with varying how long he lets the grapes grow before harvesting them. He has discovered that due to the area’s cooler nights, he can let the fruit hang longer than many farmers would dare. Conventional wisdom holds that a farmer should minimize the bunches of fruit per vine to boost that fruit’s quality. Stephen isn’t convinced that this is universally true, and he’s experimenting with letting some vines produce more fruit than others — and comparing the results.

After the grapes are harvested, Stephen and his winemaker consultant Drew Voit create wine that makes the most of his crop’s full-bodied, complex-yet-plush fruit. Antiquum Farm produces three Pinot Noirs: Juel, Passiflora, and Luxuria; a Pinot Gris, Daisy; and an unusual rose-hued Pinot Gris, Aurosa, that rests five days on skin.

Stephen surveys the slope of orderly vines soaking in the afternoon sun. “Good farming is about observation, memory, and flexibility.” Working the field with animals connects him intimately with the vineyards. With a horse-drawn plow, he is in the soil, feeling its give and texture. Tending the sheep, he sees what is green — and where — in the vineyards. Kicking at chicken droppings, he glances up the tidy row of vines to inspect for weeds.

“Memory” is his ongoing experimentation and application of the prior year’s lessons to the next. Should he harvest earlier? Prune with more vigor? “Flexibility” is about the willingness to shift tactics as needed.

“These vineyards are an expression of the way we live.” Stephen shades his eyes from the afternoon sun. Eva growls at Mike in their shed as Mike tosses his food dish with a clank. Hens cluck near their coop. Before us lie acres of grapes that will, in years to come, find their way to tables across the nation. A fine expression indeed.


Angela Sanders writes about food, culture, and history from Portland. www.angelamsanders.com

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