Mobile Chickens: Farm Ecosystems and the Evolution of Wine


Exactly two years ago I spent a most delightful day visiting Brian Marcy and Clare Carver at Big Table Farm. They embody a holistic lifestyle built upon hard work and a set of focused priorities. When I visited the farm they were in the process of clearing a hillside for a future vineyard. They were moving ahead into what Brian called “grass farming”. One example – mobile chickens.

“Instead of cleaning the coop, we have ours on wheels so we can move it around with the tractor. So as a concept, there were no plans we could find but it was something we came up with so we could have laying hens. They’ll eat the grass – it’s like salad. It also thwarts predators, because they habituate. If we get lazy, we start losing hens.”

Such thoughtful management of the entire farm ecosystem informs Brian’s winemaking and the ways in which their animals are cared for. ” Everything we’ve done in the past is informing what we’re about to do” Brian explains.

“The winemaking has been an evolution. I learned from others for 10 years, 15 for myself. Here we have single phase power and I couldn’t find a destemmer that fit so I just decided to forego it. The force of circumstance. You work with nature. We’re learning about soil, how active it is, a whole unseen aspect of life that to me is just fascinating. The micro-biology. That’s the contribution that animals make to the health of the world is the microbiology they move around in their guts. Ruminants are basically fermentation vessels on legs. They’re so powerful in terms of creation of food and fiber. They convert cellulose into protein and fat in a way that nothing else can.”

Apart from all that is involved with running a farm, growing grapes and making wine, Clare is a fine artist, whose stunning work can be seen on her Instagram as well as featured on Big Table Farm’s letterpress wine labels. I have just tasted three of this spring’s releases. BTF always keeps wines balanced and elegant, with alcohol levels often below 13%. In 2021 they pushed it just slightly, to good effect.

Big Table Farm 2021 The Wild Bee Chardonnay

Some Wild Bee was produced in 2020; my most recent review is for the 2019. Both vintages were finished well under 13% alcohol, and hitting 13% seems to be a tipping point for overall quality. Seven vineyards contributed to the blend; the flavors favor green and yellow fruits, green tea and citrus, especially grapefruit. A slight chill (ten minutes in your fridge) perks up the flavors without muting the aromas. Drinking very well on the second day, this is a very young wine which will benefit greatly from additional bottle age. 1133 cases; 13%; $34 (Willamette Valley)

Big Table Farm 2021 Pinot Noir

This is a compendium of all the vineyards sourced by Big Table Farm. All whole cluster, native yeast, foot-stomped, basket press – this is a fine expression of artisanal winemaking. Aromatic, elegant and refined, this is one of those young Pinots that already shows the depth and balance to evolve beautifully over time. Wow did this open up on the second day. Crushed roses, wild berries, sassafras and a touch of chocolate keep it fascinating. 1846 cases; 13.2%; $50 (Willamette Valley)

Big Table Farm 2020 Funk Estate Vineyard Syrah

It’s a funny wine law anomaly that allows Big Table Farm – located hundreds of miles west of the vineyard – to accurately label this with the correct AVA, yet Rich Funk, who owns the vineyard and whose winery is maybe five miles away, cannot use The Rocks District on his own wines. It’s an impressive commitment from BTF’s Brian Marcy to work with distant grapes from a variety that is not a natural for the Willamette Valley. This subtly captures the essence of the AVA, with medium ripe mixed berry fruits, a dash of the typical Rocks District ‘funk’ and a long finish with coffee, chocolate and caramel. It’s a perfectly structured wine should age nicely over the next decade. 146 cases; 14.4%; $68 (The Rocks District)

Last summer I was introduced to the wines of Arenness Cellars and wrote about them here. I liked the wines very much, and was especially intrigued with the approach being taken by owner and winemaker Bob Bailey. Though based out of Portland, his main focus is on the wines of Washington, and particularly single vineyard Cabernets. I am now “test driving vineyards” he told me, meaning purchasing grapes from one particular vineyard each year in order to compile a portfolio of wines from the sites that most suited his winemaking.

Starting in 2017 he began making a single Cabernet Sauvignon from a different vineyard in a different AVA each year. Walla Walla’s Golden Ridge in 2017; Yakima’s DuBrul in 2018; Dionysus in 2019. The latest (2020 vintage) sources from both Les Collines (Walla Walla) and Klipsun (Red Mountain).

There is also a Ribbon Ridge Pinot Noir. All Arenness wines are made in one or two barrel quantities but well worth seeking out. Currently the only wine listed for sale on the website is the 2019 Dionysus Cabernet.

Arenness Cellars 2019 Dionysus Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Good grip, texture and weight with a mix of blackberry, black cherry and cassis fruit flavors. There’s a nice streak of cigar box, cracked walnuts, a hint of char, espresso and black rock, all refined and balanced. This is a fine expression of Washington Cabernet from an iconic vineyard. Note that the blend includes 5% Golden Ridge Merlot. 50 cases; 14.2%; $44 (Columbia Valley)

Given the tiny production I’m posting up previews of upcoming releases. I encourage you to sign up for the mailing list in order to have first crack at them.

Arenness Cellars 2021 Pinot Noir

Just bottled after being aged in neutral oak, this still shows some rough edges from the barrel time. Bold berry and cherry fruit flavors punch through, laced with vanilla along with subtle suggestions of sea shells, seaweed and lovage. 14.2%; $37 (Ribbon Ridge) (Summer ’23 release)

Arenness Cellars 2019 Les Collines Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

Walla Walla is better known for Merlot and Syrah, but here’s a single vineyard Cabernet making a valid claim for first class status. Clear varietal character is fully evident, with a generous support system of herb, earth and fungus. It’s smooth and supple, with inviting aromatics, though it lightens up as it fades. 14.5%; $44 (Walla Walla) (March ’23 release)

Arenness Cellars 2020 Les Collines Vineyard su_m Cabernet Sauvignon

Here again is a preview as this vintage won’t be released until this coming fall. Side by side with the 2019 this is tighter, more focused, with pinpoint highlights of cassis, graphite and licorice. It’s a big step forward from the excellent 2019, with well-managed tannins that guide the finish. The tight focus and persistence suggest that this will cellar especially well. It has a different label and is designated ” su_m” – I have no clue what this means! 14.4%; $48 (Walla Walla) (Autumn ’23 release)

Arenness Cellars 2020 Klipsun Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

From a block nearing 20 years old, this is a well-built Red Mountain Cabernet with firm tannins, polished and just ripe enough, showcasing a core of cassis fruit. Graphite highlights command attention as the wine trails out gracefully with strength and precision. 14.1%; $48 (Red Mountain) (Autumn ’23 release)

At the south end of the state and a long way from Big Table Farm is Troon Vineyard Winery, another producer applying sophisticated farming to make exceptional wines. I’ve been corresponding with Troon vineyard director Craig Camp about the massive changes coming since he first joined the winery about seven years ago. In the early going I had some difficulty putting aside my less than optimal impressions of the wines, which I’d tasted since the original owner was running the show.

Then six years ago I got this email from Craig:

“I’ve been sending you samples for a while now and I hope you have a feeling for the direction I am trying to take Troon. The first samples you received were from the  2013 vintage, which were made by a previous winemaking team in a conventional way. When I arrived, winemaker Steve Hall had already started to make our first steps towards a more natural winemaking style. These 2014 wines, which you have now tasted a range of, were already finished when I arrived. I was here to participate in assembling the final blends of the 2015s and you will be getting samples of the red wines from that year later this year.

“However, for the 2016 vintage I was here from start to finish and these wines fully reflect my goals for our winemaking. All were native yeast ferments, no additives (enzymes, acids, sugar) and no new oak barrels were used.”

PG: Since that time the estate vineyard has been replanted and converted entirely to biodynamic practices. But the story doesn’t end there. Just a few months after this email arrived the winery sent out this press release.

“The historic Troon Vineyard winery business in Oregon’s Applegate Valley has been acquired by Dr. Bryan and Denise White of Arlington, Texas., subject to customary regulatory approvals. The Whites previously purchased the vineyard adjacent to Troon, which is now known as White Family Vineyard. The Whites will be combining the two properties as they convert Troon to become a producer of exclusively estate bottled wines of world-class quality.

“The combined Troon and White Family Estate vineyards will include 95 acres, of which 40 are currently in vines. An aggressive planting and grafting program is planned to ensure only the best varieties for the Kubli Bench are planted. Total production under the Troon Vineyard label will be 7500 cases.”

The changes kept coming. Four years ago Nate Wall was promoted to winemaker, and Camp noted it this way. “Nate brings tremendous energy and focus to Troon. We have literally recreated Troon Vineyard in the last two years and his passion and creativity will elevate our wines to the quality we have envisioned and beyond.”

PG: I refresh you on this background because just this week Troon became the second vineyard in the world – and fourth farm overall – to receive the Regenerative Organic Alliance’s Regenerative Organic Certified Gold designation. This is a comprehensive agriculture certification that requires farms to increase soil health, provide excellent working conditions for employees and treat animals in fair and humane ways. Growers must also maintain organic certification.

“Like our Biodynamic certification,” says Camp, “these achievements were a complete team effort, with everyone focused on not only our mission to constantly improve our wines and produce but to convince other farmers that the results are worth the effort. Regenerative agriculture is not only good for the Earth but is a sustainable business model. The ROC slogan is ‘Farm like the world depends on it.’ It does and we do.”

PG:  I want to offer my sincerest congratulations to the entire Troon team, from ownership on down, for achieving such ambitious and difficult goals in a remarkably brief time.

Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt
Paul Gregutt has been covering the wines and wineries of the Pacific Northwest since the mid-1980s. From 2002 to 2012 he wrote a weekly wine column for the Seattle Times and authored two critically-acclaimed editions of ‘Washington Wines & Wineries – The Essential Guide’ (UC Berkeley Press). He served as the Northwest editor for Wine Enthusiast magazine from 1998 until 2022. Early on he was an original staff member of both the Seattle Weekly and KZAM-FM. He lives with his wife Karen and his rescue dog Cookie in Waitsburg (pop. 1204), a farm community about 20 miles NE of Walla Walla. When not tasting and writing about wine he writes songs, plays guitar and sings in his band the DavePaul5 ( Follow his writing at PaulG on Wine,, and in the Waitsburg Times.


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