Sustainable Practices in Winegrowing

Published in Central Coast Farm and Ranch Magazine, Summer 2005

Farming Practices That Leave a Smaller Footprint Have Moved Beyond Central Coast

By Mark Storer

Last fall, the Wine Institute of California and the California Association of Winegrape Growers presented the first report measuring the sustainable practices among the state’s grape growers. The goal was to get 10 percent of the grape growers involved in the study. What it got instead was a whopping 42 percent response rate.

Covering some 125,000 acres of grapes, the survey found that sustainable practices are at their highest level ever in California, far more than anyone thought. Based on the report, the USDA awarded $475,000 to the institute to fund its work.

“I think everyone is using some level of sustainable practice,” said Gladys Horiuchi, communications manager for the Wine Institute, after the survey results were announced. “This report is just people in our program.”

Using a self-assessment system with four categories, Level 4 being the most sustainable, the group was able to get a fairly clear picture of the types of practices in use. “Sustainable practices are sort of tethered together. There isn’t any one that’s really more important than another,” Horiuchi explained.

Still, the survey breaks down the practices into what is called the “Sustainable Practice of the Month” section. They include: Cover Crops; Reduce, Reuse and Recycle; Regulated Deficit Irrigation; Canopy Management; Wildlife Corridors and Habitat; Communicating with Neighbors and the Community; Sustainable Pest Management; Assessing and Reducing Energy Needs; Composting; and Controlling Erosion.

A committee of wine growers from all over the state, including from the Central Coast, began formulating the survey in 2001. Indeed, it was the groundbreaking work of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, the group with the most visibility on sustainability issues on the Central Coast, which originally produced its own [Kris O’Connor] 1,000-point self-assessment tool for wine growers that spurred Wine Institute and Association of Winegrape Growers to produce the survey.

“Clearly,” Horiuchi said, “they were the pioneers.”

At the core of the sustainable practices movement is the philosophy. It’s become cliché to simply say, “these are just good practices,” which in most cases they are. Kris O’Connor of the Central Coast Vineyard Team says that participation in the team’s Positive Point System has grown by leaps and bounds.

“Over the last 10 years, we collected over 600 Positive Points System evaluations. We processed 320 PPS evaluations last year alone, which is off the chart in terms of participation. We’re definitely moving beyond our core constituency now,” she said.

The practice of sustainability moves far beyond pest control, however, as mentioned above. “Sustainability addresses water management, cover crops, erosion control, employee safety, [Kris O’Connor] recycling, all of it,” said O’Connor. The Vineyard Team’s recent move north to a larger office in Paso Robles highlights its increasing involvement on the Central Coast not only in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties, but Monterey, Santa Cruz and everywhere in between.

“We just finished up our three year Clean Water Project. We helped winegrowers keep soil and water in place, thereby reducing the risks of non-point source water pollution. And we were tremendously successful at these demonstration sites,” O’Connor added. “The project’s results gives us tangible success stories and helps us reach a wider audience.” In addition, the Vineyard Team has a BIFS program, or Biologically Integrated Farming Project. Funded by the University of California’s Sustainable Agriculture and Research and Education Program, BIFS provides field monitoring in vineyards, assesses the needs of each particular vineyard, and helps growers reduce their use of specific high-risk agricultural chemicals.

“We’re helping them adopt new practices in order to avoid higher-risk materials. In some cases, the entire ecological balance of a vineyard changed for the better with the program allowing growers to substantially shift their chemical inputs,” O’Connor said.

Dave Corey, owner, winemaker and wine grower of Core Wines in Santa Maria, has taken the sustainability model and made it his own. “My whole focus is the soil help-no herbicides, hand hoeing for weeds, natural products for fertilizing, yucca extract, fish emulsion, and seaweed. You don’t get that immediate hit, but you get consistency and longevity,” he said. Corey, who also leases and manages the Alta Vista Vineyard in the Cuyama Valley, admits his level of commitment is above normal.

“You have to have the passion for it and believe in the philosophy.”

But sustainable practices are not all about organic or biodynamic farming. And it certainly would not be accurate to say that every winegrower can immediately adopt practices that completely avoid the use of pesticides or herbicides.

Curtis Winery of Los Olivos, part of the Firestone family of wines, shares the philosophy of sustainable practices. He echoes a truism that is heard over and over in this business: Sustainable practices come down to a host of variables that must be considered separately when a vineyard manager is making his choices.

“We believe in the whole principle,” said Chuck Carlson, winemaker at Curtis. “But we cannot commit to it 110 percent. We have to make sure we have a crop.”

The Firestone estate battles its own specific vineyard issues. Some 550 acres are under grapes now and as the vineyard is in some places quite old and in others brand new, each has different needs.

“So we use fungicides occasionally, but not in large quantities,” Carlson said. Like so many winegrowers, Carlson says that the realities on the ground have to be taken into account and blended with the desire to leave as little a footprint as possible.

“Another thing we have done is a lot less cultivation – letting more cover crop grow up,” said Carlson. Cover crop can become home to beneficial insects which helps manage pests. Carlson is also concerned with soil erosion and water use. “Some of the other properties that we have are on hillsides, so we’re concerned about erosion and leaving the land alone.”

Sustainable practices also mean adopting a more preventive approach to such things as pests.

“Canopy management and other things help manage pests. So we have smaller infestations or none at all,” said winemaker Carlson. “We have an open canopy and when we do have to go in, we use minimal amounts of specific pesticides.” Carlson is echoing what so many winegrowers are finding out, namely that sustainability incorporates a number of practices and all may not necessarily be implemented at once.

The Vineyard Team’s O’Connor agrees.

“We adopt a holistic approach to pest management, for example, from understanding the life cycle of the pest and its habits – which tells a winegrower a lot about what they have to do and when. This allows them to use cultural practices and soft materials – reduced risk materials – that are specific for your target, are timed properly and achieve good results. By using IPM practices, growers can avoid broad spectrum materials that can cause secondary outbreaks and have longer term risks to the environment and a grower’s bottom line.”

That holistic approach is what sustainable practices is really all about. Farming for sustainability is not just a matter of organic farming. Rather, the approach is one of applying to a vineyard a host of concepts that will help a particular vineyard survive. In specific instances, like during the recent mealy bug infestation in some vineyards along the Central Coast, specific pesticides, like Admire, did have to be applied. Without them, the vineyard would have succumbed and died.

Many winemakers do not own or lease their own vineyards either. This creates a dependency on vineyards around the area to look after their own sustainable interests. Mark Crawford Horvath of Kenneth-Crawford Wines is one such winemaker.

“We do not have any direct involvement in sustainable practices in the vineyards, but we do think that they are a critical aspect of winegrowing. Each of the vineyards we work with practice a degree of sustainable growing and I think all would consider their vineyards sustainable.”

The practice of each vineyard keeper varies and that is acceptable in winegrowing. The goal is not total parity, the goal is sustainability and variables such as vineyard age, type of grape, cover crop, canopies and 100 others will cause different winegrowers to use different practices.

“We really see the terms sustainable and quality to be linked,” said Crawford-Horvath. “The sustainable practices for canopy management, for instance, are very much the same as those we use to coax higher quality fruit out of the vines.”

Practicing sustainability at its heart is a question of balance, and balance after all is what winegrowing is about. Grapes, more than most crops, rely on a harmony of soil, sun, water and too much or too little of either, in even small amounts, can ruin an entire vineyard. When the variables of pests, soil erosion and harmful weeds enter into the equation, balance becomes the focal point of farming practices that seek longevity, quality and consistency.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *