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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Vineyards Going Organic

Air Date: Week of

Cy Musiker reports from the vineyard region of northern California where a number of wineries are incorporating organic farming techniques to improve the taste of their wine. From techniques in crop cover to using natural predators, growers are experimenting with an array of interesting methods.


CURWOOD: If you are among the growing number of folks who drink wine, you know there's almost a dizzying array of choices out there. There's the variety of grape, of course, but also the soil, the weather, the region; heck, even the barrel could affect the aroma and flavor of wine. And now some wine makers are saying that pesticides, fumigants, and synthetic fertilizers commonly used in many vineyards today have an impact on taste as well. The chemicals can also be expensive and damaging to the environment. As Cy Musiker reports from Northern California, a push to cut costs, boost consumer satisfaction, and protect the environment is leading more and more vineyards to go organic.

(Footfalls in a vineyard)

MUSIKER: Paul Dolan, president of Fetzer Vineyards, is walking by a row of Cabernet Sauvignon at company headquarters in Hopland, about 100 miles north of San Francisco. But Dolan's not looking at the slowly-ripening grapes; he's looking at the ground.

DOLAN: We're farming all of this organic. We have cover crops in all of our organic vineyards. We use things like purple vetch or oats or different types of peas. And the reason we use the cover crops is they attract what we call beneficial insects, so that the insects that used to attack the leaves or attack the fruit now have a predator in their midst, and so we've eliminated the need to have to spray and we've just totally balanced the environment above the soil.

MUSIKER: Many growers are also using cover crops to reduce the use of chemical fertilizers. But Fetzer Vineyards, which makes more than 2 million cases of wine a year, has been the most aggressive winery in California in converting from traditional farm practices to organic. During the past 8 years Fetzer has switched 1,200 of its own acres and encouraged its contract growers to convert 3,000 acres of their land to organic practices. The company is also making a big marketing push for its wine called Bon Terra, whose labels, Dolan says, trumpet the certified organic origins of their grapes.

DOLAN: We've actually started a club of growers so actively involved that they're willing to share the information, willing to spread the word to other farmers throughout California. Because ultimately, our goal is that all of the grapes in California are grown organically by the year 2,000.

MUSIKER: But Fetzer doesn't make organic wine, because like most wineries Fetzer still uses sulfites as a wind preservative. For organic wine, you have to visit some of California's smallest wineries.

(Hammering sounds)

MUSIKER: Tony Corturri is knowing the bung, the wooden plug, out of a barrel at his family's tiny winery on Sonoma Mountain. He draws a sample of 1994 Zinfandel and takes a taste of the dark red wine which will soon be ready for bottling.

CORTURRI: Nothing's added to the wine; it's real simple. Natural yeast fermentation, unfiltered, unrefined. It's a pretty pure representation of the vineyard and the vintage.

MUSIKER: Corturri uses only organic grapes for his 3,500 cases of wine a year, and he doesn't add any sulfur beyond what's used to control mildew in the vineyards. This is organic wine. But Corturri doesn't use his wine's all-organic status as a selling point.

CORTURRI: Because the problem being, it's real easy to get stuck into a niche. In any food industry, and especially in the wine business, if you make a big claim organically grown, no sulfites added, it starts looking like a health food as opposed to a wine. And our position is that number one, it's a fine wine. And oh by the way, and if you're interested, the grapes are grown organically, nothing' s added to the wine.

MUSIKER: This ambivalence runs through much of the wine industry's natural farming movement because, among other things, organic wines, especially whites, have had a poor reputation for quality. Even at Fetzer, which pays a premium to its organic growers, Paul Dolan says he isn't convinced consumers care.

DOLAN: For us it's become more of a philosophical way of operating, and a competitive edge from a quality standpoint. We're not so sure that the consumer really is all that interested in buying environmental products; they just want it to taste good. And what we're saying is, organics makes things taste better.

MUSIKER: It's not that you can taste the agricultural chemicals in other wines, but Dolan claims organic grapes have more of the subtle flavors that make good or great wine. But other factors are also pushing grape farmers to reduce their chemical use. A few growers, Fetzer among them, have managed savings of up to 10% per acre when they switch to organic farming. Growers have also watched state and Federal regulators shrink the arsenal of their available pesticides. Many growers are also worried about farm worker safety and the safety of their own families in homes adjoining the vineyards. Even growers who hesitate at going completely organic are using a lot fewer chemicals.

KLUG: Along the creek here, we just passed one of our owl houses and one of our hawk perches. We've also done some pretty aggressive tree replanting along this riparian corridor...

MUSIKER: We're getting a tour, now, of a vineyard owned by the Robert Mondavi Winery in Carneros, at the southern end of Napa.

KLUG: We've got the hawk perches and owl houses for predatory avian species to help us with mouse problems, gopher problems, vole problems. With the cover crops, they're kind of the down side.

MUSIKER: Vineyard Director Mitchell Klug and wine maker Tim Mondavi are explaining how the winery has developed a new 400-acre vineyard and worked with other growers to restore neighboring Wichika Creek. Tim Mondavi says the winery takes seriously its responsibilities as stewards of the land, but they have no plans to register any vineyards as organic. The winery sometimes uses the mild herbicide Round-Up for weed control. Sustainable methods have meant higher costs, but Mondavi says they've been worth the investment.

MONDAVI: We love what we're doing so much, we want to do it again next year. But we want to do it at a better level. And so we're putting out these experiments to teach us how to do it. So is this change expensive? Yes, it is. Who's at the head of the pack? Who's able to produce better quality? Who's able to command regard for the value of their more expensive wine?

MUSIKER: The Robert Mondavi Winery has switched to integrated pest management and other sustainable techniques in nearly all its 1,200 acres of Napa vineyards. So Mondavi has joined Fetzer and Sutter Home, Buena Vista, even Gallo, which owns the largest organically-farmed vineyard in California, in leading the industry's use of these techniques. Dennis Culver is a full-time integrated pest management consultant to a group of dozens of growers in the Lodi region of the Central Valley.

CULVER: The growers, you know, have 2 options. They can either put their heels down and say we're not going to change and we're going to fight this all the way. Or they can be progressive and say well, we know we're not going to have all of these pesticides to use in the future. We know it's good for the environment and good for the workers and say okay, we need to find another way. And we need to start looking at those now. They are going to have to go back to doing a lot of the things that their grandfathers did.

MUSIKER: Still, there are no hard figures on how many of California's 350,000 acres of wine grapes have been converted from traditional to sustainable farming. Some vineyard consultants guess about a third. But if wineries like Fetzer find commercial success labeling their wines as made from organic grapes, the change in farming practices will surely accelerate. For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in San Francisco.



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