How Does Organic Winemaking Work? PART I
Image courtesy of author.
This is the first of a two-part article looking at how the largest maker of organic wine in the US was able to make so much wine using biodynamic and organic methods.
I recently traveled to Bonterra, maker of the most "wine made from organic grapes" in the world, to find out that very question. Grapes, as you may know, are very sensitive to temperatures, locales, and especially to bugs, so just how does Bonterra manage to bring so many organic grapes to market? This is a question posed not just by commercial farmers, but by the backyard farmer as well - just how do you farm without chemicals. For Bonterra, it's a mix of trial & error, and biodnamics. Bonterra, bottled by Fetzer, is currently the worlds larges seller of wine made from organic grapes and this year produced their second season of their first certified biodynamic wine — the McNabb.
According to Dave Coball, one of the wine-makers at Bonterra, "it makes it a lot of fun to be a farmer. You get to play with different plant materials, different locations, try out different theories and methods." There are several "ranches" that make up Bonterra and each are slightly different in terms of elevation and thus temperature ranges, each needing slightly different tweaking. Its this larger swing in daily temperatures in each location that gives the grapes their darker color.Organic Methods
Walking through the vineyard, Coball pointed out a few of the methods that Bonterra has implemented to keep their vineyards healthy and pesticide free. According to Coball, leaf-removal (walking through and pulling off leaves) is the best way to avoid "powder mildew," over any pesticide you can buy. Experimenting with several cover crops, highlighted the benefit of Queen Anne's Lace, which attracts several predator bugs, all of which eat among the bugs attracted, thus keeping these bugs off of the vines.
The property is alive with bluebirds and barnswallows, which feed on bugs. Chickens also root around the area and eat worms. Bonterra also has a partnership with their neighbors who own a sheep paddock, and lease to area FFA students, who then let the sheep run through the vineyards eating weeds and fertilizing the area — this way everyone gets what they need out of the relationship for free.
Wild pigs come down from the hills each fall into the property, but the farmers at Bonterra actually welcome them. The pigs completely ignore the grapes but will go row by row and eat all of the weeds, as well as, leave fertilizer all around the vineyard. Deer and wild turkeys are a problem, but there are fences to keep them out and the winemakers at Bonterra are not overly concerned with them.
What is Biodynamics?
Biodynamics is the theory that getting back to the earth, becoming more in-tuned with the seasons will improve the health of your farm. Bonterra is in a very good location for winemaking, both in terms of their location along the Russian River, and their proximity to the marine effect, which helps to drop temperatures every evening, thus making great grapes.
Diversity also helps to grow healthy grapes and this is something Bonterra has really experimented with. They use crop rotation and diversity of plant and animal species to making everything stronger through heterogeneity. "If you have nothing but grapes, then you can have a specific population of bugs that can live alone on those grapes." Using areas that are too small to grow grapes, Bonterra grows lavender, olives and other plants in what it refers to as animal corridors.
The winery partnered with a private organization to grow two types of lavender on the property. The oil from the lavender is used for soaps and for sale in the fresh flower market in San Francisco. The winery benefits because having diverse plants on the property makes everything healthier by attracting some of the bugs to the lavender and away from the vines. The vines self-pollinate so the winery is not directly dependent on bees, and yet Bonterra has several hives on the property to help with biodiversity. Around the fourth of July, the lavender is in full bloom and there are millions of bees swarming, providing habitat for the bees.
A special mixture of cover crops, such as wheat, barley, oats, clover, beans, seeds and other plants, are planted between the rows of vines to improve soil qualities, attract pests, and encourage biodiversity on the property. The cover crops help to change the rate at which the vines grow, for example, if a vine is growing too fast and becoming stressed out, the winemakers can add cover crops to slow the plants down. Predators like spider mites and leaf hoppers like fast growing, stressed plants, thus if you can keep plants growing at a slower, sustainable pace, you will also cut down on bugs.
Another aspect of biodynamic farming is to "prepare" the farm with the changing of the seasons. So, Bonterra sprays silica over the vines at the spring equinox and sprays biodynamic manure on the ground at the fall equinox. Biodynamics is an old tradition that mixes the science of farming with the things that cannot be explained. There are many "preparations" that a farmer can choose from in order to encourage a good season, these are just two of the things that Bonterra has chosen.
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