Wine Making: Organic and Sustainable
01 Jun, 2009
Modern Technology may be a mixed blessing when it comes to the art of wine making. While some new techniques may have raised production capacity, it could be argued that others have actually caused harm to time-proven practices that promoted longevity of the land and the vineyards—the all-important source of life for wines. In an effort to take advantage of what can be a highly lucrative market, some growers speed up grape production with chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides, and “enhance” wine production with the addition of chemicals and flavoring ingredients.
An increasing number of winemakers, however, have turned against this “tide of progress” and gone back to ways and methods that sustain the land and the vines, support rather than harm the environment, and result in a product of unsurpassed purity. Organic Connections recently visited with two of these viniculturists and learned how wine can be sustainably produced.
While the USDA has a definition of organic farming that mandates growing without the use of chemical pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers, both of these producers go considerably beyond the scope of that definition. Instead of using “organically approved” compounds (as can be done under the USDA definition), they have achieved the utilization of agents that are completely from nature. These particular vineyards not only produce grapes organically but their entire winemaking process is organic as well.
Frey Vineyards is situated in the beautiful Redwood Valley in Mendocino County, California, and was actually the very first organic winery in the United States. Paul and Beba Frey both grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and after they were married settled in Redwood Valley. They raised their twelve children with a total love of the land and agriculture, and in the late 1960s planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Gray Riesling grapes on the ranch’s old pastureland, selling the fruit to nearby wineries. A decade later, sons Jonathan and Matthew Frey realized the vineyards’ potential when a Cabernet Sauvignon made from Frey’s grapes won a gold medal for a Santa Cruz winery. Frey Vineyards was established the next year, in 1980.
Frey Vineyards is a completely family owned and operated business. Seven of the twelve Frey siblings, along with some of their spouses, work full time at the winery. Sustainable practices have been part and parcel of the plan from the beginning; the family knew they were there to stay, wished to contribute to the overall ecological community instead of robbing from it, and wanted a legacy to pass on to their children.
Into the Ground
Wine begins with grapes, and grapes, of course, depend on the land on which they are to be entirely self-sustaining, and most of their growing activities are supported by products in and around the vineyards. In addition to preserving native health, this also helps maintain what is called the terroir (pronounced “terr-wah”) of the crop—something that winemakers in Europe have concentrated on for centuries and US wine making has begun paying attention to as well. Terroir takes into account the special characteristics bestowed upon the grapes by the native geography. Along with soil composition, it includes such conditions as shade, sunlight, amount of rainfall, influence of local bodies of water, and numerous other factors all considered to be an essential part of the character of the grapes.
“We start with returning the grape waste from the winery back to the vineyard as compost,” vineyard manager Derek Dahlen told Organic Connections. “We plant cover crops in the fall—such as oats, bell beans, winter peas, mustard and crimson clover—which helps soil nutrition, and the grazing animals that we use to mow the cover crop help fertilize the soil.” Encouragement of predatory insects and birds is also part of the natural management of the vineyards and reduces the need for pesticides.
Mineral content of the soil is extremely important, and in the past they have used agricultural lime and oyster shells to assist it. But the geographical area in which Frey Vineyards is located is rare in that the native soil is actually quite healthy. “Our soils are not very deficient in minerals and have a healthy microbiological life,” Dahlen explained. “They have a good calcium content and a good calcium-to-magnesium ratio. So, right now we’re set, and we’re training our vines to reach deeper into the soil to obtain more minerals.” Soil-borne pests such as phylloxera and nematodes are a threat to grapes grown using current “modern” methods, and these vines are commonly sprayed with pesticides every five to ten days, producing crops that aren’t nearly as robust as the ones grown at Frey Vineyards. “It’s been our observation that there are a lot of natural predators to phylloxera and nematodes in healthy soil, which the chemicals normally used in agriculture will kill off,” said Dahlen. “That kind of practice allows the pests to flourish.” Due to their care of the soil, Frey Vineyards’ plants have become resistant to such pests.
No GMO Here
A current farming practice in the nonorganic world that Frey Vineyards won’t participate in is that of utilizing genetically engineered crops (also known as genetically modified organisms or GMO). This “technology,” which aims to genetically alter a crop to give it certain properties, consists of infecting crops with viruses or bacteria to implant them with new genes. Genetic engineering has been outlawed in many areas of Europe, and while currently allowed by the USDA without requiring labeling, it is being strongly protested in many organic quarters as highly experimental and potentially unsafe for consumers.
Frey Vineyards was directly involved in the passing of Measure H in Mendocino County, a measure that actually outlawed the growing of genetically altered crops. While GMO has not as yet invaded wine vineyards, research is well underway elsewhere in the US to produce GMO wine grapes. “They say they’re trying to get grapes more resistant to certain mildews and disease,” Dahlen remarked. “They also want to have them resistant to heavier doses of poison they’d like to spray on them, because funguses and insects have become much more resistant.”
Research is also being conducted on genetic modification of yeast, which is used in the fermentation of wine. “This would be a huge disaster,” Dahlen said. “Yeast has a very short life cycle and spreads through the air, which means it would potentially take over native yeast populations and infiltrate every nearby vineyard.”
Locally, however, this is not to happen, thanks to the recent legislation. Also, largely due to Frey Vineyards’ influence and example, a full 30 percent of the wine grapes produced in Mendocino County are organic.
Proof Positive—the Wine
To determine ripening and harvesting times, Dahlen and his staff utilize refractometers, devices that measure the sugar content in the grapes. At the same time, samples of the grapes are brought back to winemaker Paul Frey Jr., who administers what he calls the “chomp test.” Without consulting the numbers obtained through the refractometers, he tosses a handful of grapes into his mouth and chews them up, carefully considering the flavors of the skins, the seeds and the juice. The third test is putting juice from the grapes through a hydrometer in the winery’s lab that also provides a measure of the sugar content. With these methods, they are able to determine usually a few days in advance when particular grapes will be ready to harvest.
The final proof, of course, is in the crop itself, and of that Frey Vineyards is truly proud. “Our grapes do not have any chemical residues of any kind and have a very healthy native yeast population,” said Dahlen. “We make a number of our wines without inoculating with cultured yeast; they ferment on the native yeast that is in the field.” This is a most uncommon practice, as adding cultured yeast is a traditional part of winemaking. Allowing wine to ferment in this fashion retains the intrinsic characteristics of the grapes.
Crops at Frey Vineyards consistently yield ripe, flavorful fruit that results in more flavorous wine. Vines are also not overwatered— a practice that produces grapes that are actually diluted. “Using a limited amount of water during the growing season, encouraging the plants to work harder to get water, giving them little amounts of stress during the summer, pushes them to create a more concentrated, flavorful fruit instead of a heavy, watered-down version,” Dahlen said. “Vines can also get ‘pumped up’ and overproduce as a result of the quick-fix fertilizer normally used, which creates a diluted product as well. Grapes that are grown naturally and allowed to achieve peak physiological ripeness make a very well balanced, complete wine. They generally have a very good acid-to-sugar balance and a higher tannin amount that helps preserve the wine longer naturally.”
Preservation of wine is ordinarily effected through the use of sulfites—preservatives that give wines longer shelf life. Frey Vineyards has completely eliminated these in their wines.
Frey Vineyards produces a long list of wines and has won awards and medals for their Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Pinot Noir, Merlot and many others. You can browse their available products and find out more about the winery at their entirely family maintained website, www.freywine.com.
Tucked away in northern California’s famous and picturesque wine country, Cline Cellars has a rich and colorful history. In the latter part of the 1800s, a gentleman named Valeriano Jacuzzi (yes, the same man involved in the invention of the pump and spa that bear his name) bought a ranch in Oakley in Contra Costa County, California, on which he planted grapes. Jacuzzi’s grandson made many visits to his grandfather’s ranch, acquiring a love of the agricultural life and a fascination with vinification—the production of wine. This grandson, Fred Cline, went on to acquire a degree in agricultural science and management from UC Davis, and in 1982 he founded Cline Cellars near Oakley. In 1991, Fred and his wife, Nancy, relocated the winery from Oakley to the Carneros region of Sonoma County on a historic 350- acre estate with new vineyards and facilities, but they retained the Oakley vineyard.
When Cline founded his winery, he had his own distinct approach. “I’m in it for the long term,” he told Organic Connections. “Most people want to see return on their investments quickly, and don’t mind that in 20 or 25 years they’ve worked a vine so hard that it just can’t withstand a disease coming through. Their vineyards are always changing because they’re always looking for the next quick fix. I’m much more interested in longevity and sustainability. We farm a lot of old vines—we have some that are over 100 years old in Contra Costa County. That has been a good lesson; they’ve been around for so long they’re stable in their production and we don’t have huge inputs into them. So I’d rather wait the long term and reap the benefit.”
The foundation of Cline’s approach is in observation. “We are letting the ground tell us what to do with it, letting the plant tell us what to do with it, instead of just forcing things like so much of modern farming today,” he said. What he feeds his plants is all natural, such as the composts that he himself formulates, mixing them with whey from a local cheese factory. A good amount of fertilization comes from the “wooly weeders”—sheep that graze up the weeds competing for water and nutrients with the vines.
Sheep are also used for “leafing”—removing excess leaves from the vines. One might ask, don’t the sheep also eat the grapes? “You’d think sheep would eat the grapes right there and wipe you out, but they don’t,” said Cline. “If the timing is exactly right, you can get the sheep to eat the leaves so you get more sunlight into the bunches. You put the sheep in the vineyard when the bunches are almost pea sized and take the sheep out when the grapes reach about 14 degrees Brix.” [Brix is a measure of the dissolved-sugar-to-water ratio within the fruit.]
To prevent mildew—a serious problem with the growing of grapes—Cline dusts the vines with organically approved sulfur dust. He also uses a natural compound called Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis) that kills mildew spores. One great source of Bt is crab shells, which Cline and the winery have gotten clever in obtaining. Cline Cellars hosts a crab feed just prior to the Super Bowl every year, which is a fundraiser for his local high school. Eight hundred people attend the event, and Cline keeps all the crab shells.
The nutrition of the soil is of paramount importance, and instead of force-feeding it chemical nutrients as others do, he adds oyster shells either in the compost or directly to the plant to provide potassium and calcium. For trace minerals, he uses rock dust obtained from a cinder cone—the steep slope surrounding a volcano, built almost entirely of loose volcanic fragments called cinders. Grapes grown in this fashion are far healthier and, as such, produce a lot more flavor. “The difference I’ve seen in our grapes is that there is so much character and flavor in them,” Cline remarked. “If you’ve ever had a hothouse tomato as opposed to one that is farm ripened, it’s the same difference; they have the full richness of the biological and mineral components in your soil. When the soil has a good tilth [the condition of tilled soil], it is not compacted and has an ‘airiness’ to it. The plant is healthier because it can mine for more of the minerals and benefit from the bacteria that are breaking down the minerals. These processes impart true flavor into the grapes.”
Another component to Cline Cellars’ production is the timing of the harvest. “You’ll notice in wines that if you harvest them ripe, you get more flavor than if you harvest them not quite ripe,” Cline explained. “You get more acidity when they are not quite ripe. On the other hand, if they’re harvested too late you get a kind of flavor like raisins, with alcohol being more prominent, instead of a balance.”
Like many winemakers, Cline samples the grapes and has learned from long years how to decide on harvest time from their taste, their feel and the appearance of the seeds. As a scientific benchmark, he also uses a refractometer, with which the sugar content of the grapes can be determined. It is sugar that converts into alcohol and is also the primary measure of ripeness of the grapes.
As well as having sustainable farming practices, the Cline Cellars winery runs completely from 2,000 solar panels installed on the roof. The result of a partnership with Solarcraft, this installation has reduced 690,000 pounds of greenhouse gases since implementation and of course is far more energy efficient.
The Bottled Result
“Our intent,” Cline concluded, “is to produce top quality in flavor and use skill in making the wine while maintaining good value. We can do this repetitively and we’re not going to imprint the earth with any negative and bring it down; instead we are improving the earth.”
Cline Cellars’ wines have received many accolades, rave reviews and awards throughout the years. Top winners include their Cline Sonoma Zinfandel, Oakley Five Reds, Pinot Gris, Viognier and Syrah. You can visit their shop, and find out more about their story, at www.clinecellars.com.
To Last for Generations
The methods now being restored by operations such as Frey Vineyards and Cline Cellars are returning the craft of wine making to its rightful place—ensuring it, and our planet, will be there for generations to come.