Sonoma Winemakers Welcome Sustainability in Their Vineyards


IN MARCH, A class-action lawsuit was filed in California alleging that many lower-priced California wines contain dangerously high levels of arsenic. Fear not: this sort of allegation is as ubiquitous as quinoa and kale in any Marin restaurant. While it is a well-known spouse exterminator of crime headlines and lore, arsenic is a naturally occurring element and trace amounts are contained in most agricultural products. The amounts cited in the lawsuit are well below accepted limits for most of the world including the U.S., the EU, Canada, and Japan. Nevertheless, whether or not the suit has any merit, it raises some interesting questions about the wine industry.

My first harvest in California was at the Robert Mondavi Winery in 1980, and for most of my longtime experience as a wine and travel writer, the words sustainability, organic or biodynamic never came up. Only in the past few years have they become part of everyday conversation. I first heard of biodynamics seven years ago while working on a book about pinot noir.

Educating the Consumer

Here in Marin, we obsess about the source of our food and how exactly said food is grown or cultivated. These days, few are the farms that are not certified sustainable or organic, but what about wine? That goes into our bodies too, in some cases with great regularity and in significant quantities, but who questions the source? “A very small percentage of customers ask about how the wine is made,” says Magid Nazari, owner of Ludwig’s Fine Wine & Spirits in San Anselmo. “People are buying solely based on how the wine tastes.”

This lack of public knowledge hasn’t stopped the wine industry from taking steps to improve their practices. Sonoma County Winegrowers have a goal of 100 percent certified sustainable vineyards in the county by January 2019. Sonoma may be the first in North America with this aim, but Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand is the world leader in the wine sustainability movement, with efforts dating back to 1994, and claims to now have 95 percent compliance. It’s achieved this goal in part by using a big carrot to encourage sustainability certification: without it, wineries cannot enter wine competitions. And no medals equals fewer sales.

Without a similar carrot, will Sonoma be able to achieve similar results, and does it really matter? It certainly does for Jean-Charles Boisset, the proprietor of the Boisset Collection, with wineries in both Sonoma and Napa. “Of course we are behind this initiative 100 percent,” he says. “We believe that sustainable farming practices help us to achieve a better expression of terroir as we strive to promote biological diversity within our vineyard ecosystems rather than attempting to limit it.”

Duckhorn Vineyards
Processing merlot grapes at Duckhorn Vineyards, St. Helena, Napa Valley

Sustainable Winegrowing

Sustainability is an agricultural buzzword, though the average consumer may have trouble understanding what it really means. So many organizations are issuing credentials — Fish Friendly Farming, National Organic Program, Demeter USA, SIP, CSWA — that the term is confusing even to those in the business. As Sonoma Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse says, “Sustainability is complicated, but the results are simple. We are doing the right thing for the environment, for people, and for our businesses, in both growing grapes and making wine in Sonoma County.”

The term should apply to any consumables business that expects to be around a long time, notably the wine industry, given that a vine takes at least three years to produce enough fruit to make decent wine and many smaller producers are multigenerational family businesses.

Paul Dolan, the godfather of sustainable winegrowing in California, compares a vineyard to a living organism that “has a circulation system, which is the water flowing from the mountains into the soil and the vines, and a respiration system that is the wind and air circulating around the leaves and clusters.” This holistic approach is the cornerstone of sustainable farming, complemented by responsible treatment of employees, neighbors, and community.

Still, as one New Zealand winemaker says, “I cannot be green if I’m in the red.” A popular misconception holds that all vintners and grape growers are either wealthy landowners, only a notch below hedge fund managers on the economic scale, or else part of huge conglomerates. Well, there are a few hedge fund managers making wine out there along with a few big corporations, but in Sonoma County, 80 percent of all vineyards are under 100 acres and 40 percent are smaller than 20 acres. Not exactly big business. They are often run by small farmers trying to make a decent living who nevertheless embrace the whole sustainability concept. Their raison d’être is passion, not profit.

Somerston Wine Co
Petite Syrah harvest, Somerston Wine Co., Napa Valley

Going Organic

Beyond sustainable, some wineries are certified organic (an even bigger buzzword) and/or biodynamic, for which certification criteria are rigorous. For instance, while certified sustainable vineyards are technically still allowed to use agrichemicals such as Roundup (a bone of contention for some wineries), organic certification prohibits agrichemical use.

Many vineyards today are producing organically certified fruit, and even more wineries are promoting their wines as made from organic fruit. Yet once the grapes pass through the winery doors, how the fruit is treated and vinified is at the sole discretion of the winemaker. Organic in the vineyard is not the same as organic in the bottle: between wines made from organic fruit and wines made organically, there is a big difference.

More than a few Marin restaurants have “organic” offerings on their wine lists, and the designation is almost always incorrect. Even if a wine is made from organic grapes, any number of nonorganic substances may be added; for a wine to be labeled organic — that is, with the USDA organic label — the nature and amount of these additives must be strictly controlled. The sulfite level, for instance, must be less than 20 parts per million. Note: anyone who has tasted wine made with little to no sulfites will usually avoid it in the future. And it certainly doesn’t age well.

Heitz Cellars
Heitz Cellars, Napa Valley

The Biodynamic Buzz

Biodynamics follows the organic philosophy and runs with it, forbidding not only use of agrichemicals but also any other external substances — what’s known as farming in a closed system. Only compost and special, somewhat outlandish preparations are applied to the earth and the vines; work is determined by phases of the moon. Horses are sometimes used to work the vineyards and farm animals are an integral element in the holistic system.

Biodynamics, based on the ideas of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, subscribes to the concept of life energy and the earth as living entity. It has become an easy target to poke fun at: a field preparation involving filling a cow horn with cow manure, burying it in the ground in the autumn, leaving it to decompose during winter and recovering it for use in the spring is one practice even some biodynamic producers question. But the approach has its advocates: Jean-Charles Boisset, of Raymond Vineyards in Napa and DeLoach Vineyards in Sonoma, is a flag-bearer for it, and biodynamic exhibits at both wineries provide a fascinating look at this century-old farming method.

One of the more interesting developments in the past few months was the purchase of Benziger Family Winery. The Benzigers have taken great pride in their biodynamic, organic and sustainable farming. At the Glen Ellen winery, visitors can take a 45-minute biodynamic tour through the vineyards, winery, and insectary, where plants are grown that attract beneficial bugs to kill organisms harmful to the vineyards. So it was somewhat shocking when The Wine Group of Livermore, producer of Two Buck Chuck and several of the wines named in the arsenic lawsuit, bought the endeavor: a less likely pairing is hard to imagine. Nevertheless, it appears that The Wine Group intends to continue the Benzigers’ legacy and up its own stake in the sustainability game, which can only be a good thing for the industry as a whole.

Whether or not sustainable production results in better- tasting wine, it does at least support better treatment of vineyard workers, long-term care for the land, and the making of wine that captures a sense of place.

But why not try an empirical test? Drink a bottle of sustainably produced wine one night and nonsustainable the next. Which one leaves the bigger hangover?

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Sustainably Sonoma”.