How does your vineyard grow?
Winegrowers struggle to find a happy balance between vines that are organic and ones that will turn a profit
Once upon a time, chemical fertilizers and pesticides were in vogue.
When they first emerged in the agricultural world, more well-off farmers hopped on the plant-steroid train, leaving others to grow their crops as they always had -- organically.
That trend has reversed in the past decade. Chemicals are out, and organic is in.
Although only 4 percent of Napa County's 41,000-plus acres of winegrapes are certified organic, several wine industry experts say the numbers are higher, as dozens of growers and vineyard managers are crossing over to more organic practices.
Last week a group of Napa Valley's organic elite gathered at Frog's Leap Winery to spur this new trend along, passing along tips and techniques at a two-day "Advanced Topics in Organic Winegrowing" seminar sponsored by the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.
Beyond the environmental and social benefits, several speakers emphasized going organic helps grow the bottom line.
"We don't do it because we're the recipient of an evangelical message -- that you need to give up herbicides and chemical fertilizers, and give 'em up to the Lord, and that somehow nature will work its magical effects," said Ted Hall of Long Meadow Ranch, drawing hearty chuckles from an audience of about 150 growers and vineyard managers.
"It's a farming practice that over time results in an extraordinary quality of fruit at a lower cost. Why else would we do it?"
Hall argued that once established, an organic system costs less because it cuts out pesticide expenses and some long-term health care costs, since farmworkers are less exposed to harmful chemicals.
Grapegrowers are not the only ones taking an organic turn because of the profit potential, Pete Richmond of Silverado Farming Company pointed out. This spring mainstream retail giant Wal-Mart announced a plan to roll out a complete selection of organic foods in nearly 4,000 stores. General Mills and Pepsi are developing new brands specifically for Wal-Mart, said Richmond.
While corporate America is busily creating organic labels and branding strategies, longtime organic gurus like winemaker John Williams of Frog's Leap Winery said organic products will sell themselves for a simple reason.
"The consumer will taste and buy it because it's better," Williams said. "The elephant in the room is growing organic leads to higher wine quality."
Other speakers, like Richmond, called on growers to make sure sustainable practices go beyond the grapes and are applied to their enterprises as a whole.
"In our business the employees mean everything," Richmond said. The ideal he said would be to hire local labor and buy local products to reduce fuel emissions and bolster the Napa County economy.
Other speakers described the farming techniques that make possible abandoning chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
Frank Leeds, Frog's Leap vineyard director, explained the basics of dry farming, an approach so old it seems new again.
Leeds said consistently tilling the land -- a must in dry farming -- leads to deeper roots and stronger, more disease-resistant vines than those growing in typical irrigated vineyards. When roots delve 18 inches or deeper, Leeds said, that's a natural guard against phylloxera, a disease that attacks vine roots.
When vineyard soils are constantly being injected with water and fertilizers, their grapes fail to reflect the unique qualities of Napa Valley soil, added Williams.
"The reason people give for irrigating is higher yields. So, great! More bad grapes!" Williams exclaimed. "The holy grail in winemaking is that wines deeply reflect the place they're grown in that they deeply speak to the terroir of the Napa Valley."
Others highlighted the need to use a variety of cover crops in organic farming to return nutrients to the soil and add plant diversity to what is otherwise a grape monoculture.
Phil Coturri, who manages 400 acres of organic vineyards, said 80 percent of soil nutrients come from the cover crop when there's no artificial fertilizers involved.
"It is the cheapest way to bring in organic matter," Coturri said, adding that a load of quality compost averages about $1,000.
The conference closed with some growers calling on their peers to not only try organic practices, but apply for organic certification through the California Certified Organic Farmers.
"When we hear people say, 'We farm organic but we're not certified because its too expensive,' that is complete hogwash," Hall said. "At the end of the day it's about the integrity of the producer."
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