On a day-long tour of Napa vineyards, a group of more than 100 grape growers and agriculture professionals attending the Napa Valley Grapegrowers’ Organic Winegrowing Conference found themselves on strange new turf.
Eager for insights on the conference’s namesake practices, from organic winegrowing’s big picture ideals down to the minutia of vineyard and winery decisions, participants would hear from a handful of Napa producers living by the rigorous standards of organic farming today.
A morning stop at Wheeler Farms gave one gaggle of growers a glimpse of the groundwork needed for going organic.
Owned by Daphne and Bart Araujo, the custom crush winery on Zinfandel Lane grows less than 10 acres of vineyards. Planted to Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, the vines are farmed in keeping with both organic and biodynamic practices.
The Araujos took on both philosophies around the turn of the millennium while farming their prior site, the famed Eisele Vineyard in Calistoga. The two winegrowing practices now go hand in hand at Wheeler. Key to both is avoiding artificial inputs in the vineyard, from pesticides to herbicides and fertilizers.
Viticulturists Miguel Luna and Steve Matthiasson were on hand to break down the finer points of the site’s winegrowing.
At the start, the property’s old vineyard was torn out. Then, Matthiasson recounted, the plot was planted to a cover crop, the soil prepared, compost spread and the new vineyard planted. Through it all, he noted, the vineyard has never been fertilized.
“So much vineyard development is spoon feeding in all your little 4-10-10 (fertilizer) or whatever. And I just don’t think that needs to be the case.”
Owing to the composting, the cover crop regime and the choice of rootstock, there’s simply never been a need at Wheeler, he said.
To Bart Araujo, digging test pits to figure out soil composition is invaluable in planning for organic farming, as it’s used to determine where and what is best to plant on the site. Then there’s preparing the soil.
Setting up a vineyard with minimal soil preparation? Not for Matthiasson. For him, to get a good, deep root system, solid soil prep is a must.
Depending on the soil, ripping deep enough to get below compacted layers will give roots the needed room to expand down and out, he explained. The idea is that vines will then be able to fend for themselves for decades to come.
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“There are so many vineyards that didn’t get good ground prep and now you have to water and fertilize them for the life of that vineyard, because they don’t have the root system,” he said.
Deep preparation can be tough on the soil, he said. So in comes the compost. About 20 tons per acre helps repair the soil from the trauma of ripping. Then, ideally, cover crops can then take the lead on fertility.
The goal threading through each step of organic setup is to ultimately channel the site’s potency into the finished wine without the need to lean on any synthetic crutches.
For Daphne Araujo, farming organically means feeding the soil, rather than the plant.
“To me it would be laughable to say it makes more sense to just add nitrogen versus feeding those microorganisms in the soil,” she said. “That doesn’t get enough weight in the sustainability arguments.”
Matthiasson seconded, nodding to the “ancient symbiosis” between the plants and the soil’s microorganisms. “There’s no reason that we have to be relying on these chemicals like Band-Aids nonstop.”
The vines today are spaced at 6 ½ feet by 7 feet, which Luna said makes weed control simpler. Some shovel work is still needed here and there, but for the most part the vineyard work is done by machines. Pest management is all done by tractor, he added, as it proves more effective and offers more coverage than if it were done by hand.
A complex matrix of wire trellising opens the center of the canopy letting light and air reach the vines from the top and the sides. With this setup, preventive spraying can also reach deeper into the vines, tipping the fight against mildew in the farmers’ favor. The spacing makes cane pruning tricky, so the farmers opt for spur pruning in what Matthiasson calls a game of three-dimensional chess to coax out the vineyard’s potential for growth.
“Part of the organic farming is dialing in the vigor to the site,” Matthiasson said. Too much vigor and there is an endless fight against mildew. Not enough vigor and the struggle becomes an issue of fertility.
What about yield?, someone asked.
“The yield follows the vine balance,” Matthiasson advised. “We don’t have a number that we’re trying to get. We’re trying to get vine balance.”
Overall, he said, for growers and wineries aiming to incorporate organic practices, the steps to earning organic certification are preferable to other avenues producers can take for sustainability recognition.
“Because it’s so codified, it’s easy to incorporate as a personal principle,” he said. “Whereas the sustainable LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) stuff is so amorphous, it’s easy to compromise or to say, well, next year.”
When it comes to the rigor of organic winegrowing, he said, “You’re either organic or you’re not.”