You Look Organic

In 1996 when Nick and I bought an old sheep ranch and apple farm on the Sonoma Coast, we wore our hair in pony tails. Perhaps premature baldness was dictating our hairstyle decisions, (we joked that we should take an aerial photo of our balding heads and label the wine TwoPeay.) Could be our decision to pursue entrepreneurial, unconventional careers (for a couple of guys from suburban Cleveland) had unconsciously incited us to wear our hair any way we wanted to (goddammit.) Whether we intended it or not, our hairstyle was a symbol loaded with meaning. One of those meanings may have been that we were earthy, tree-hugging types. This is not inaccurate as we both liked to hike and camp, grow and buy organic, locally-grown vegetables and meat, and support various environmental groups. We had no doubt that organic vegetables often tasted better than conventionally-farmed vegetables and had a more benign impact on the environment.  But when we planted our first 30 acres in 1998, we did not farm our grapes organically.  Not to be misunderstood, we did not farm chemically intensively either, but we used Round Up to control weeds and used the occasional manufactured fungicide and insecticide to control mildew and pests. Huh, why?

Our reasoning was practical; we were in a very foggy and cold location and at the time there were few effective organic fungicides and herbicides on the market that actually worked. The majority, if not all, of the wines that were explicitly marketed as organically-grown emphasized their farming practices as the most important feature of their wine, not the quality and taste of the wine. In most cases, this was for a good reason. The wine might have all sorts of issues due to poor farming conditions that made it taste awful but the wine was organic and that was all mattered to the consumer segment that valued the organic label. Consumers of the great wines of the world, however, – and that was our primary goal, to make great wine – did not seem to value organic farming methods.  All that mattered was taste (and, well, location, location, location). If the consumer did not value organic farming methods, and if the great wines of the world did not grow their fruit organically (or at least not that we knew of at the time), was it possible for us to make world-class wines using the available organic methods? We didn’t know and hedged our bets by being judicious when we used any non-organic products and kept our ears open for alternatives.

A few years later, Nick started to read about new organic inputs and tools that were way more effective than the current lot.  Our cost of farming would increase by $2,000 to $3,000 per acre and certain steps would take a lot longer to accomplish, especially controlling weeds using the new under vine tillers. But in 2003, we switched to 100% organic farming after Nick discovered a fungicide he could spray in rotation with sulfur to control mildew. The chemistry had caught up and we were happy to be as consistent in our business farming decisions as we were in our personal eating and growing decisions. Cost aside, it was not a minor decision. It used to take Nick 3 days to spray herbicide for weed control. Now it takes Nick over 25 days spread over six or seven weeks to till under 51 acres of vines – moving at a mind-numbingly glacial speed. In the meantime, the vines are pushing shoots and growing like mad. Every day we weed, we fall further behind and it takes all summer to catch up. Further Nick and Vanessa must attend integrated pest management classes and fish-friendly farming classes through the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Association to learn about methods for controlling pests using natural methods like attracting beneficial predatory pests. We always used compost to adjust our soil composition but now we make our own so we do not buy inferior compost full of weeds and wood chips. We have not sought recognition for these methods. It is not on our label. Our local environmental groups have not given us any credit for our increased costs in consideration for the environment. We just think organic farming will make tastier grapes as the vineyard ecosystem is healthier and more in balance. Mother Nature can provide a more diverse, harmonious and healthy growing environment than we can by trying to eliminate and add inputs with a blunt sword.

This spring, however, we decided to fill out the forms to certify our vineyard as an organically-farmed vineyard so we could be labeled organic by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farmers). Why did we wait 13 years to become certified organic? Well, as I mentioned above, for a long time organically-farmed grapes had a pejorative connotation in the market and most consumers did not appear to see the value in the farming methods. We farmed that way to suit our own beliefs and did not want to handicap the perceived value in our wine by being labeled as some hippy-dippy wine made by folks who cared more about peace, love and understanding than making great wine. Consumer perception, however, has shifted. Many consumers – particularly in the segment where we sell our wine – see the implied value in organically-grown grapes as they have shifted their personal consumption of produce and meat to organically-grown. Organic farming requires farmers to be in their vineyard every day, paying attention, so they can avoid or catch issues before they become severe and out of control. It requires greater attention and sensitivity to the vineyard’s overall ecosystem and farmers must rely on tactics that promote the health of the vineyard reducing the need for chemicals of any type. Conventional farming can enable farmers to be less attentive as they have powerful tools and chemicals at their disposal in case something goes awry. There can be a cost, however, as they often alter the overall health of a vineyard by being blunt and broad-brushed (for example, using pesticides that kill bad and good insects.)  And, the impact on quality is clear when you taste the results, whether it is a tomato, an ear of corn, an egg, or a grape.

The second factor driving our decision to certify was that 2016 was our 18th year farming grapes at our location and we had learned a lot about the issues we would face out here. The primary objective remains the same – growing the highest quality fruit possible – and not being CCOF certified in the past gave us flexibility as we gained experience as grape growers. If we experienced a fatal threat to our vines that could not be stopped using organic farming methods, we liked having the option to consider whatever means we could to save our vineyard. We only needed this flexibility once, back in 2004, and that was on only 0.2 acres of Roussanne that had an infestation of thrips. At the time there were not any organic chemicals that effectively killed thrips and thrip infestation would have spread and ruined the fruit. Had we not used the manufactured chemical we would have retained our righteousness and purity but lost our crop. We now have a pretty good idea how to farm to avoid pests like that and, if we see them, how to address the threat using organic approaches. As a result, the significant money and time we will invest in certification (permits, fees, inspections, and compliance) will likely not go to waste as we can pursue our primary goal of making great wine while maintaining our certification.

Lastly, some of you might ask why we do not farm biodynamically. If you are a long term reader of our newsletter, you know we do not adhere to biodynamic farming methods as we feel it advocates unproven, dogmatic (pick only on fruit days regardless of the condition of the fruit), slightly religious (atavistic?) protocols in addition to standard organic grape growing principles. “Going bio” has had empirical beneficial results and it is why many great vignerons proselytize the farming method. But the reasons for their results might not be due to “packing the horn” or “stirring counter clockwise to dynamize the mixture” – as biodynamic teaching demands – but the switch to organic farming. Many biodynamic farmers were conventional farmers before they converted to Bio and, of course, the land responded. To farm using biodynamic methods, you must farm organically and that requires the farmer to be in the vineyard, paying attention. And the soil will become healthier. The micro-environment will be healthier. Was it the tea? Was it the moon? Or was it the attention in the vineyard required to be an organic farmer; what organic farmers call the “boot print” impact?

In any event, now that consumers perceive the quality in organically-grown wines and we feel confident we can handle almost any situation using organic methods, it is time for us to let you know how we farm by becoming certified. We are not sure how long it will take to get approval. Usually it is three years with inspections. But, we have records that show we have farmed organically for 11 years and it will likely be much shorter.  Do not think, however, that we have suddenly changed what we are doing, or the objective of our winery – making superior, classic, terroir-driven wines. Nope, we are doing what we have always done.  Now we are just letting you, and people who have never seen our wine before and will see the CCOF mark, know why, perhaps, the wines taste better. And, a CCOF logo is a less freighted symbol of our commitment to superior and well-considered farming methods than a picture of our balding head with ponytails, no?

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