Each winter, it becomes obvious which California vineyards truly walk their sustainability talk.
When the seasonal rains begin here on the Central Coast, hillsides turn a vibrant green as cover crops and natural grasses spring to life. In organic vineyards, the green stretches uninterrupted between the rows and among the vines. Vineyards using herbicides have neat, brown rows of dirt underneath the vines year-round.
I see lots of telltale dirt rows this time of year when I drive around the Central Coast — including at vineyards whose owners emphasize their “sustainable practices.”
At other times of year, it’s less obvious who is up to what. While the vines are growing (say, April through November) all vineyards keep weeds down so they don’t interfere with the free passage of wind and light among the ripening grape clusters. Organic producers weed mechanically or by hand. It’s not as easy or cheap as spraying Roundup, but it’s essential. No well-maintained vineyard will have weeds in August. But December reveals which wineries preach sustainability but practice expediency. In weed control at least, “sustainable” seems to mean: “We don’t use any more chemicals than we need to.”
Because “sustainable” is a term with no enforceable standards, abuse is likely to grow, as producers look to market themselves to an increasingly environmentally-conscious public. No one within the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau verifies any specifics related to a “sustainable” designation. So while many producers honestly are trying to reduce the environmental impact of their vineyard, there is no way to know whose claims are genuine.
Wine is naturally a pretty “sustainable” crop on its own. Vines are planted and left for decades, meaning topsoil loss and erosion from annual tilling is minimal. Wine grapes are generally watered very little, and with high-efficiency drip irrigation, so they create little runoff. The best vineyards tend to be nutrient-poor, so there is little incentive to fertilize heavily. There are very few devastating grapevine pests, so most vineyards are sprayed with pesticides only rarely. And vineyards are sufficiently valuable that once vines have been planted, the land is rarely redeveloped for housing or other higher-impact uses.
Don’t Assume It’s All Organic
Still, organic viticulture remains rare. Last summer, the vineyard where I’m a partner, Tablas Creek, participated in the Earth Day Food & Wine Festival in Paso Robles, Calif. This event is organized by the Central Coast Vineyard Team, which is (in their words) “a non-profit collaboration of agriculture and natural resource professionals with a shared dedication to sustainable winegrowing.” The event was great, very well attended and organized, and many people expressed keen interest in how each exhibitor was practicing sustainability. When we told the people who came by our table that we were, in fact, certified organic, many were surprised that we needed to make a point of that. They had assumed that all, or nearly all, the exhibitors ran organic operations. Of the 50 or so wineries present, only three were certified organic.
I suppose it’s a good thing that wineries are at least speaking about limiting their negative environmental impacts. And I don’t want to denigrate the efforts that many wineries are making. Any approach that reduces negative environmental or social effects needs to be encouraged. Brian Talley of Talley Vineyards, for instance, deserves particular credit for expanding the notion of sustainability to encompass a good quality of life and affordable housing for employees through his Fund for Vineyard and Farm Workers.
Still, too many wineries treat “sustainable practices” as little more than a marketing ploy.
Our adoption of organic vineyard practices at Tablas Creek is driven by our conviction that — regardless of the marketing benefits — it makes better wines. The Perrin family, with whom my family co-founded Tablas Creek in 1989, has been proprietor of Chateau de Beaucastel in France since the 1890s. The Perrins used chemicals in their farming only briefly in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In 1964, after Jacques Perrin returned to farming organically due to a vague suspicion that something was wrong, he was struck by how much his 1964 vintage tasted like the Beaucastel that he remembered. It was an “aha” moment for him, and they’ve been farming organically ever since.
I’m convinced that organic farming does produce wines with more intensity, flavor and character of place. And I am always surprised that more vineyards haven’t made the organic plunge.
This time of year, it’s clear how few have. Just look for the unnatural rows of weedless dirt.
Jason Haas is partner and general manager at Tablas Creek Vineyard, in Paso Robles, Calif. He also writes the Tablas Creek blog, which was awarded Best Winery Blog in 2008 by the American Wine Blog Awards. He is a president of the board of directors of the Rhone Rangers. He also serves on the board of directors of the Cal Poly Sustainable Agriculture Resource Consortium and on the marketing committee of the Paso Robles Wine Country Alliance.