NEWBERG, Ore. – It won’t be taking root in the Willamette Valley, but Western juniper continues to spread throughout Oregon vineyards as trellising end posts – thanks in part to A to Z Wineworks, one of the state’s largest producers.
“The company is all about being sustainable and looking for more ways to be more sustainable, so Western juniper was a no-brainer for us,” Ryan Collins, director of viticulture for A to Z Wineworks and Rex Hill, told Great Northwest Wine. “It’s a natural wood from Oregon and helping to create jobs in Oregon – not in China.”
Western juniper, known in the science community as Juniperus occidentalis, is a shrub and tree that is native to the high desert east of the Cascades in Oregon. However, decades of fire suppression and livestock grazing allowed Western juniper to take over rangelands, riparian areas and destroy shrub-steppe habitat for species such as the endangered sage grouse. It’s also an incredibly thirsty plant, consuming as many as 30 gallons of groundwater a day.
While Western juniper is a native but invasive species and viewed in the lumber industry as a “junk wood,” it does have value, not only for its durability but also its rustic beauty and Wild West charm.
Western Juniper Alliance looks to grow market
Now there is a growing demand for it, and the Portland-based Western Juniper Alliance is increasing awareness for the sustainably harvested lumber. Earlier this year, the group created in 2013 by the state of Oregon announced plans to market wood from Western juniper in Washington, Idaho and California.
Working with mills in Eastern Oregon on the juniper project is Sustainable Northwest Wood, a company founded in 2008 in Portland that is a for-profit branch of Sustainable Northwest. There’s plenty of work ahead for this group on managing the almost endless supply of Western juniper in communities.
“There’s the environmental side of it, but there’s a human side, too,” said Terry Campbell, director of business development for Sustainable Northwest Wood.
“Historically, there were 1.5 million acres of juniper. Now, there’s 8 to 10 million acres. That makes it a bumper crop, which also gives rural communities in Oregon a chance to improve themselves, too,” he said. “If we can get five jobs in say, Fossil, you are talking a huge impact in that community.”
Since 2013, the market for the wood has grown by as much as 30 percent each year. A to Z Wineworks has replanting projects scheduled during the next decade, and there are plans for Western juniper to be a part of those installations.
“We’ll see how it goes,” Collins said.
A to Z Wineworks follows sustainable path
Wine-loving tourists might catch a glimpse of them because A to Z is breaking ground on its use of juniper within the vineyard near Rex Hill – just north of Highway 99 on the outskirts of Newberg.
“I’d hear about juniper and seen it in other vineyards, so our reaction was, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s put some post in the ground,’ ” Collins said. “We just need to make sure the quality of the posts is there because they need to last a lifetime.”
Collins said others in Oregon have embraced juniper posts before his group, noting grower Stirling Fox and renowned Willamette Valley sites such as Bethel Heights Vineyard, Seven Springs Vineyard and Sunny Mountain Vineyard.
“It’s been relatively popular within the wine community,” Collins said. “Right now, we’re just in the trial phase, but we’re pretty happy with the results we’re seeing.”
Failure would mean a difficult, labor-intensive and expensive transition.
“Replacing posts is not fun, and you don’t want to budget for it,” Collins said. “We hope these will stand up to steel or treated wood posts.”
Western juniper fits with organic approach
Treated wood can contain chemicals such as arsenic, chromium and copper, and the use of chromated copper arsenate – a pesticide used on wood – stretches back to the 1940s. In Australia, Collins said, treated wood for posts is an unappealing but common alternative. Steel is not a viable option.
“With the salt in the air from the ocean, steel will be rusted out within five years,” Collins said.
So the wood often used in trellising posts for the long-lived vines of Australia – “New World” despite the Barossa Valley being home to vines more than 150 years old – is eucalyptus.
“It’s naturally rot-resistant and termite-resistant,” he said.
Campbell likens juniper’s qualities to Eastern red cedar and views it as a practical alternative to old-growth cedar and redwood. Research conducted by Oregon State University shows juniper degrades very little during 30-year trials. The school’s research of Western juniper began in 1928.
“I’m not here to offer people a 50-year warranty – and none of us will be around that long – but with a little bit of luck and properly installed, it will last a long time,” Campbell said. “It has very durable natural properties and that makes it a fit, especially for use in organic vineyards. The organic folks also are looking for that natural look to their vineyards as opposed to steel end posts, but we’d like to see it considered in all vineyard applications.”
Sustainable Northwest works potential markets
A to Z Wineworks is not Sustainable Northwest Wood’s first wine industry customer in Oregon, but it is the biggest, Campbell said, noting juniper has been in place at operations such as Cameron Winery and Eola Hills Wine Cellars.
“Juniper hasn’t worked out for everybody from the longevity standpoint, whether it be based on their site or perhaps it was not installed correctly, but it is a compelling product,” Campbell said. “We’re just starting to penetrate this market.”
Sustainable Northwest Wood works primarily with distributors and vineyard management companies, but Campbell said he’s happy to speak with individual wineries and vineyards. Sales of juniper began in 2012, primarily through distributors.
This year, Campbell served as an exhibitor at the Oregon Wine Symposium in Portland and the Low Input Viticulture and Enology annual meeting in Salem. Next year’s Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual convention is on his radar.
“The LIVE group seems pretty receptive, so that’s the potential of more low-hanging fruit for us, so to speak,” he said.
The supply of juniper from Eastern Oregon is not endless, but it should be plentiful for the next 50 years, Campbell said, making for work in struggling mill towns such as Burns, Fossil and Prineville.
“It’s an industry that’s been built off the backs of some independent-minded folks and small businesses, and they’ve struggled like many small businesses do,” Campbell said.
Harvesting has been challenging this past winter for a variety of reasons, primarily because of wet and warmer-than-normal conditions.
“The ground never froze this winter, which made it difficult to travel the roads to harvest,” he said. “People have just been burning it and running over it with their tractors for years, but we’re using existing roads to get to the timber, so we’re trying to keep the impact minimal.”
A to Z, Sustainable NW grows from workshop
Tannahill’s stated goal for A to Z Wineworks is “not only to be the best winery in Oregon but to be one of the best companies in Oregon.”
The root of Sustainable Northwest’s relationship with A to Z stems from a 2014 Business Oregon meeting where spokeswoman Nancy Hamilton presented a video of the Western juniper project that resonated with Tannahill.
“That’s when we got the order from A to Z,” Campbell said. “I’ve since talked with Ryan Collins a bunch of times. They are a big player in Oregon, and going forward, they are exactly the kind of business to take a look at juniper as an option.”
It’s also helped transform Campbell into new ambassador for the Northwest wine industry. As a consumer, he loves Cabs. His wife is a club member of TeSóAria Vineyard and Winery in downtown Portland. They both are fans of the Bulls Blood.
“I’m learning more about the industry and wine, and there’s a lot to learn,” he chuckled.
Uses of Western juniper stretch past posts
Sustainable Northwest Wood distributes timber products grown in the Pacific Northwest, including landscaping, interior paneling, framing lumber and decking. And while they work with a variety of trees, the focus naturally is on Western juniper.
“We’re making a lot of products out of juniper – not just end posts for vineyards,” Campbell said. “It has this warm, rustic, back-to-the-farm look to it, so there’s an opportunity for juniper to be used in the interior of wine tasting rooms.”
The “Cascade Curtain” phenomenon in both Oregon and Washington often leads to opposing views politically, socially and economically across both sides of those states. Here, the wine industry and the Western Juniper Alliance are working together for mutual benefit.
“The mills and the crafts people – all of us who make up the alliance – are trying to restore the landscape, employ rural Oregonians and find a home for the products themselves,” Campbell said.
“The basic message is that folks have a soft spot for helping solve landscape and human issues in Oregon, so this is really a compelling product,” he added. “And it’s a quality product as well. We’re just trying to connect people to see juniper as an option.”