Message in a Bottle

Sara Remington
Sara Remington
Sara Remington
Sara Remington

Message in a Bottle

Red, white--and green--the wine industry is widely embracing chemical-free viticulture that protects both the landscape and farmers while capturing terroir, the true taste of a place.

By Jane Braxton Little
Published: March-April 2011

Bob Cantisano stands, arms akimbo, watching a red-tailed hawk rise out of a vineyard on the banks of California's Napa River. It climbs steeply, silhouetted in the morning light against terraced slopes that stretch across rolling hills in variegated green blocks. He tracks the raptor until it soars out of sight in the cloudless sky. A wood duck quacking on the river brings him back to the vintner standing quietly beside him.

"That wildlife's got to improve your wine," says Cantisano, known by everyone in Napa Valley as "Amigo Bob." A slow smile spreads across his rugged face as he turns to Andrew Hoxsey, whose family owns 635 acres of organic vineyards and the Napa Wine Company. "All it took was you weaning me off chemicals," Hoxsey replies. "Life came back. The wine's better, too."

Across California and beyond, wine-grape growers are embracing chemical-free farming practices. For many, the goal is to produce soils that imbue their wines with terroir, the distinctive place-based flavor every vintner treasures. From boutique brands to large corporations including Mondavi and Gallo, a passion for better wine is sweeping through vineyards and wineries as part of a green revolution that is transforming the industry from the ground up.

In California, where 90 percent of America's wine grapes are produced, owners holding more than two-thirds of the vineyard acreage are involved in a process aimed at organic standards, expanding the certified land from roughly 6,700 acres in 2005 to 10,300 acres today. Others are adopting biodynamic agriculture, a more mysterious practice that combines organic techniques with a philosophy that considers the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system.

A few among this new green breed are even defying a decades-old perception: that wholly organic wines (those made with organic grapes and without sulfites added to help preserve and stabilize the wine) don't sell. These proponents are marketing their wines as organic. They comprise a mere handful--fewer than 30 vintners of the 3,000 in California--but they are daring to go where few have gone before.

Whether driven by idealism or pragmatism, these wine entrepreneurs share a belief that a healthier environment makes better wine. Their pursuit of the perfect chardonnay or sauvignon encompasses everything from the soil to the buildings where the grapes are pressed, the electricity that powers the production, the workers, the community, and the wildlife in surrounding woods and streams. Change is literally in the air as wine producers also work to reduce their carbon emissions.

The industry has reached a tipping point, notes Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Although certified organic represents less than two percent of the state's 526,000 vineyard acres, the green movement is wielding a profound and irreversible influence. "Those who haven't considered organics are busy playing catch-up," says Scowcroft. "Everyone is thinking about it, and more and more are acting on it."

For Amigo Bob, 59, it's a movement whose time has finally come. He has been a consultant for more than 30 years to farmers cultivating everything from olives to oregano, dispensing a mix of science, experience, and simple common sense. A powerfully built man, he has a typical farmer's physique, but nothing else about him is conventional. His black hair, now streaked with gray, hangs halfway down his back in dreadlocks pulled together in a jumbled ponytail. Instead of farmer johns he wears shorts and sandals. This ninth-generation Californian exudes a warmth and amiability that make him as disarmingly familiar as a favorite uncle.

 

Amigo Bob started his first farm in the early 1970s with little more than an aversion to chemicals and the memory of his grandmother, an organic gardener who made her own compost. He grew peaches, plums, cherries, and walnuts along with vegetables in the northern Sacramento Valley. When he couldn't find the seeds and tools he needed to run an organic farm, he turned his barn into an organic supply store. Soon Amigo Bob was offering advice to the back-to-the-landers who had fled to the neighboring hills. "I'd tell them what was working for me and what other farmers were doing," he says. "It wasn't much more than paying close attention to how things grow and sharing what I learned."

Because it came at a time when few others were doing that, Amigo Bob--a man who never joined a 4-H club and holds no academic degrees beyond high school--became an organic agricultural consultant. A founding member of California Certified Organic Farmers, he set up trials on clients' land that experimented with new ways to increase soil fertility. Instead of bringing commercial products onto a farm, he works to create plant and animal diversity so a piece of ground can naturally produce healthy crops.

On this late spring morning Amigo Bob drives slowly along the meandering Napa River in his silver Subaru Forester, license plate WNA BFRE. Beads dangle from the rearview mirror, and Jerry Garcia peers out from a faded decal on the windshield. This is the heart of the nation's wine industry. Vineyards are everywhere. Along with stunning sun-drenched scenery, Napa and neighboring valleys an hour's drive north of San Francisco are blessed with fertile alluvial soils washed down from the surrounding mountains. Commercial wine production began here in the 1850s and flourished until 1920, when Prohibition forced most grape farmers to cultivate other crops until 1933, at which point the ban was repealed.

In the domestic production frenzy following World War II, growers everywhere turned to chemicals. Commercial fertilizers and a nothing-but-grapes monoculture in California's wine region began their reign, stripping the soils of natural fertility and killing off the beneficial insects that helped keep diseases at bay. In the 1970s a dramatic increase in California wine-grape production began a wholesale conversion of coastal areas and native oak woodlands--home to 300 different wildlife species, including the endangered red-legged frog and coho salmon--to vineyards. It was a lethal combination that evoked predictable public outcry. Chemical pollution and the loss of wildlife habitat triggered a government crackdown on pesticides and prompted regulations to protect air and water quality.

The backlash came as a shock to the wine-grape community. These farmers had always prided themselves on a particular connection to the land that infused their wines with their unique taste. But by the 1980s some had realized that their beloved terroir had a toxic taint. They also recognized the dangers the chemicals were posing for their own families and workers. Faced with the new constraints, their response was swift: Wine-grape growers began exploring new ways to produce fruit for fine wines.

 

John Williams, owner of Frog's Leap vineyards and winery since 1981, was fresh out of a viticulture master's program at the University of California-Davis when he began producing grapes and making wine in Napa Valley. A genial man with a scruffy beard and engaging blue eyes, Williams initially bought every chemical recommended: nitrogen fertilizers to beef up the soil and powerful pesticides to kill the bugs. But his vines looked listless and his wine tasted flat, he says. "I was killing that vineyard."

Humbled by his failures, Williams sought help at Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, just north of Napa Valley, in Mendocino Valley. The Fetzer family had started a five-acre garden in 1984 to integrate food with the wine they were showcasing at their Valley Oaks visitors' center. The center's organic garden produced such delicious vegetables that it inspired the Fetzers to try organics in their vineyards, too. Their test block produced fruit so much brighter and more flavorful that they began converting all of their vineyards to organic, says Ann Thrupp, Fetzer's sustainability and organic development manager. Amigo Bob helped design the transition from conventional farming, a series of trials and errors that eventually made Fetzer the largest certified-organic grape grower in the Northwest and one of the largest in the world.

Intrigued by Fetzer's success, Williams tracked Amigo Bob down and asked him for help. On his first visit to Frog's Leap, Amigo Bob delivered a low-keyed lecture. "He talked about the soul of soil--how it's alive with fungus and bacteria; how it will live and be healthy if we feed it properly," Williams says. He became Amigo Bob's first client in Napa Valley and the valley's first wine-grape farmer committed to organic methods. "People thought I was crazy," Williams says. "I was widely ridiculed--almost threatened."

Williams heads to his vineyards through a border of fragrant mint and yellow yarrow. Beyond it is a garden filled with peppers and eggplants. Along with attracting ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects to discourage pests, the garden has drawn a cloud of insect-eating barn swallows and a mouse-hunting American kestrel.

Williams surveys row upon row of shoulder-high vines. Fifteen years ago this 40-acre plot was an agricultural toxic dump. Decades of chemical farming had left lackluster soil. To restore the missing fertility, Williams planted vetches and other cover crops in winter between the rows of grapes. Tilling them into the vineyard each spring added nitrogen and increased the fertility, gradually coaxing the soil back into natural chemical balance. This process also increased the ground's water-holding capacity and created a complex soil structure that encouraged deeply rooted vines. Today, despite summer temperatures in the 90s and average annual rainfall of just 32 inches, Williams does not irrigate this vineyard or any of his 200 organic acres.

Something is clearly working. The vines that surround him are lush with clusters of grapes still marble hard but with the pink promise of purple fruits. Williams scoops up a handful of soil, holds it to his nose, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. "It's alive," he says. "It smells like my grandma's potting shed." He is midway into a description of the merlot he will produce from this rich clay loam when he pauses, head cocked. "The vines hear us talking about them. They know things--the angle of the sun, the phases of the moon. They know we're here."

Williams says his naturally fermented wine made from organically grown grapes has a "whimsical exuberance. It embraces its terroir with open aromas of damp earth and dried fruit." His vineyards are certified organic. But Williams does not label his wine so. Few California winemakers do--less than one percent.

 

The "o" word is a challenge for vintners. At a time when the organic label on other products commands higher prices and a committed following, slapping it on a wine bottle has the opposite effect: Prices plummet, says Magali Delmas, an environmental economist at UCLA. This paradox has plagued the industry since the 1970s, when vintners made organic wines without the sulfites commonly added to increase stability. No one was surprised when these wines turned to vinegar more quickly than non-organic wines.

This image problem has persisted, Delmas says in "The Wine Industry Puzzle," a study she coauthored about the cost of conventional and organic wines. But she found that wines made with organically grown grapes are rated highly by the Wine Spectator, a magazine with independent tasters who review hundreds of wines in each issue. Delmas also found that most vintners don't want to take the risk. 

Yet many of the best producers in the world are following organic practices, says Dana Nigro, a senior editor at the Wine Spectator. In fact, this industry bible selected some high-scoring, eco-friendly wines specifically for Audubon, providing reviews that positively gush with delicious descriptions (see "Cheers!," opposite). Eco-friendly winemakers "believe that if they can live more safely and get great wine, all the better," says Nigro.

Bolstering the industry's shift toward eco-friendly growing is a body of scientific research advancing organic viticulture by replacing the guesswork, says Scowcroft. Wine-grape cultivation is one of the fastest-growing segments of agricultural science in California. "And no one's laughing them out of the tasting room," he says.

For Hoxsey, it was the welfare of his family and workers that helped drive him to convert his vineyards to organic. "We live on this property. We drink water out of wells. We breathe this air." A lean, dapper man dressed in a Western hat and leather boots, Hoxsey is a fourth-generation Napa Valley wine producer who once served as a director of the Napa Community Bank and as chairman of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation board. His winery is one of the valley's oldest, and his vineyards, all organic since 1988, are now the largest organic acreage in Napa County. But he still does not stamp the "o" word on his bottles. "I want to be known for wine--for its value," he says. And, if someone asks: "Oh, by the way, I grow organically."

 

Even Fetzer, a pioneer in sustainable wine-grape cultivation, does not market its wines under the official organic label. All of Fetzer's 960 acres of vineyards are certified organic and so is its winery, powered with 100 percent renewable energy. Its boxes say "Earth friendly winery," but Bonterra Vineyards, the company's sister brand, has bottles simply labeled "made with organic grapes." The exceptions are Bonterra's McNab and Butler wines, which are labeled "certified biodynamic" and "certified organic."

The McNab Vineyard lies at the end of a driveway lined with stately trees. California buckeyes flaunt white-blossomed plumes beside rows of wine grapes stretching across gentle hills. Fields of scented lavender lie just below the vineyards, olive trees on the slopes above. This intentional diversity, a principle of biodynamic agriculture, is designed to unite every aspect of nature to lunar cycles and other natural forces beyond the land, says Dave Koball, Bonterra Vineyard director.

Slim, blue-eyed, and sporting a tidy ponytail, Koball has drawn on his science background to convert the 375-acre McNab spread, a late-1800s sheep and cattle operation transformed into a vineyard, to today's certified-organic farm. To share one of the more mysterious tenets of biodynamics, Koball invites a group of visitors to climb ladder-steep steps into a three-story tower, where windows without glass overlook vineyards that reach across a narrow valley to oak-covered hills. In the middle of the small room is a wooden table displaying three cow horns, each a different size. Beside them is a small flask of powdered white quartz crystals. At sunrise on the spring equinox, Koball puts quartz in a horn and buries it. Six months later, he digs it up and adds copious amounts of water. He then sprays it on his vineyards to attract and bend light onto his plants. The fall equinox ritual uses manure in the horns to stimulate roots. These biodynamic practices help regulate basic biological processes while balancing the life forces of the vineyards, Koball says.

Amigo Bob welcomes these agricultural innovations, but he calls the greening of the wine industry a work in progress. As he and Hoxsey drive slowly away from Hoxsey's vineyards beside the Napa River, they discuss the opportunities for increasing the valley's organic production from the current five percent to 10, 20--dreaming now--even 50 percent. They flush a flock of wild turkeys from an oak woodlot, where Hoxsey grazes cattle to minimize the risk of wildfire. Despite escalating interest in environmentally friendly farming, his acreage is an organic oasis surrounded by fields chemically sprayed and fertilized. As they pass vineyard after vineyard, Hoxsey points to signs of progress. During the 20 years Amigo Bob has been working in Napa Valley, the use of cover crops has mushroomed from none to nearly two-thirds of the acreage planted. One hundred vineyards are now producing organic grapes. Soil is improving. Hummingbirds and bees buzz about in droves.

Farming here has evolved from scorched earth, Hoxsey says. "As long as there are creative people, I see nothing but potential." Amigo Bob just smiles. At the rate the wine industry is going green, he could live to see Hoxsey's optimism fulfilled. For today, a hawk soaring over a field of sweet-smelling soil symbolizes the hope that keeps him going.

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Jane Braxton Little

Jane Braxton Little is a contributing editor for Audubon.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine