Going Green: California Winemakers Lead the Way
Feb. 6, 2016
By Elena Grigashkina, Slow Food USA International Campaigns Intern
Lou Preston & Matt Norelli of Preston Vineyards, Dry Creek Valley, California
Alex Davis of Porter Creek Vineyards, Russian River Valley, California
1) What is the story behind your winery?
Lou: My wife Susan and I settled in Dry Creek Valley in the early 70’s. We acquired some existing vineyards with grape varieties that were favored by the local farmers from earlier times, such as Zinfandel, Carignan, Petit Sirah. Zinfandel has always been an important grape for us. It was the favorite of the Italian farmers who settled in this area and it had proven to be a very good match for the soils here. We did introduced some new varieties, but in every case it was a priority for us to figure out which of the grapes were best suited to this area -not just the area’s soil, but also its tradition.
Alex: My father George Davis bought the property back in 1978and started making wine before it became a big thing in the area. The Russian River Valley was ideal for the cultivation of grape varieties of Burgundian origin, and so he planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I started managing the vineyard in 1997, and I do a little bit of everything on the property, whether it is making wine or driving the tractor.
2) What prompted you to move away from conventional viticulture and toward more sustainable farming practices?
Lou: Our early motivation was that we found that using pesticides created dependence. For a while you can use a little bit and then it doesn’t work, and you have to use a little more. So I actually came to a point where I was very concerned about the health of the land. We lived here at the property, and I did not want to harm my family. There were also visitors and workers. We have used exclusively natural materials and techniques for over a decade now: compost and compost tea, cover crops, and an insectary habitat zone.
Alex: We have been following organic farming practices since 2000, when we stopped using all the synthetic herbicides and other non-natural weed killers. We got certified biodynamic by Demeter three years later. Our farming is based on helping soil, trying to bring out the best from the vineyard from the quality point of view, and trying to get more “terroir” from the vines from the way we farm.
3) All of you have been following sustainable farming practices now for over a decade. In that time span, what changes toward sustainability have you witnessed coming about in California’s wine industry?
Lou: There are people like us, typically smaller vineyards, who are willing to go the extra mile to farm in a more intimate way with the soil, in a way that is not always the most efficient. Yet a lot of vineyards are run by professional managers looking for the greatest efficiency, which often goes hand-in-hand with the use of herbicides and pesticides. To be honest, I think we have a long way to go.
Alex: The trend in California in general is, yes, toward sustainability, but the majority of vineyards are still depending greatly on bad chemicals, herbicides and mildew control agents. The good news is that the industry adheres to and engages in so-called best practices, such as soil erosion mitigation techniques and not using more herbicides than they need to. The vast majority of vineyards are still using quite a bit of synthetics, though. Most of the smaller wineries have moved away from such products.
4) What does it mean to go green at your winery?
Lou: Diversity is the touchstone of our approach to sustainable land stewardship: diversity of crops and species in our ecosystem, the coexistence of cultivated soils and wild lands.
Matt: Each fall we seed vineyard rows with organic cover crops such as vetch, bell beans and mustard providing nutrients to the plants and protecting the soil from erosion. We make our own compost from olive, grape cuttings and other vegetative materials. We run our tractors on recycled vegetable oil from local restaurants, and electrical power comes from our solar photovoltaic system. We are trying to get all of our inputs right here on the farm and then we put it back in the land.
Alex: Soil Management is very important for us. Then, on the wine production side our main approach is to make sure that our actual input is very minimal. I use as little SO2 (sulphur dioxide)* as possible and employ natural fermentation exclusively, using only indigenous yeast that comes from the vineyard.
*Sulphur Dioxide is an antimicrobial agent and antioxidant that helps curtail the growth of undesirable bacteria and protects wine against browning.
5) What are the main challenges the wine industry faces in terms of sustainability? How does it affect you as a producer?
Lou: Instead of looking at a problem today and solution tomorrow, a very short-term action timeline, natural farming has to look way ahead, the next 5-10 years away. There are no easy answers and there are no quick results, because you're letting natural forces take over in addressing the issues of the land.
Alex: As a producer, it is the hand work that makes it more difficult compared with the conventional way of farming. For example, weed control in an organically managed vineyard is a very labor-intensive process as we don’t use mechanical devices. But there is synergy between what I’m trying to do in the vineyard environmentally and the wine I want to produce in the end. All the extra effort results in wines that have more unique qualities, great natural vibrancy, purity, and more depth and complexity than the average wines.
6) How important is sustainability to the consumer? How might they know what wine is good?
Alex: Some people have an apprehension toward wines that are organic or natural. Others, even though they are trying to eat healthy, don’t see wine as a part of their healthy life style. They say, “well, I’m just going to have a little bit of poison, and I don’t really care where it comes from.”
It’s definitely not easy for the consumer to make a purchasing decision. Labeling information is certainly a good start, but the bottom line is that you have to taste wine, you have to enjoy drinking wine in order to develop your own sense. Then there are wines that, even though they have no indication on their labels, are much more sustainable than people might realize, and this is something you can only learn by talking to a producer or a reputable salesperson at a bottle shop. You can go even further: you can look up the winery online, or you can make a trip to the winery yourself depending on the time and effort you would like to put into it.
7) How do you think Slow Food could help foster more sustainable winemaking in the U.S.?
Lou: It takes communication and shared values. At the vineyard, we can develop one-to-one relationships while talking about our philosophy and our practices with a glass of wine in hand. People begin to understand and appreciate what we do. In a larger market, unfortunately, the producer doesn’t have this one-to-one contact. This is where Slow Food can help, to spread the message about the importance of healthiness. The Slow Food message is good clean, and fair food … it applies to wine as much as to food.
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