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Wine, Water & Dirt: Part 2 by Don Wallace


Wine, Water & Dirt: Part 2

By Don Wallace aka “The Dirt Guy”

My first article talked about two problems that caused farmers a lot of anxiety. The one I hope to flesh out in this article is why modern vineyard plantings were failing at such a short lifespan back in the early 90s. 

In the 1990s, some of us in the wine business realized the way we were farming most of our vineyards was dramatically shortening their life. On one hand, we had pre-Prohibition plantings that were still viable. They had spent most of their lives being farmed essentially organically  ~ and on the other hand we had modern plantings that weren’t doing so well. 

To be fair, a lot of these plantings were suffering from Phylloxera. Quoting a friend, “we were creating little junkies” because the generally excepted farming techniques at the time were discouraging the development of a healthy root system. This is just one of several protocols that were causing problems. 

I could go on by talking about fumigation vs. fallowing, thinking that if you provided ample “N” (nitrogen) that you would get the same result as what building your soil naturally provides. Take for example, two people. I know people are not plants but, say one eats a healthy diet, stays relatively fit and the other one DOESN’T. They both get colds, which one do you think is most likely to progress to something worse like pneumonia? 

It also seemed like a lot of materials that were approved and were used in our vineyards were chemicals looking for a new home post WW2. In response to all of this and more we knew that we, in this case the California Wine Institute, needed to go to the drawing board. The problem was, as we saw it, a large gap between “modern farming techniques” on one hand and Organic or Biodynamic on the other hand. 

Pollinator plants in vineyards

We needed a new classification or standard that bridged this gap.

I can tell you that almost everyone I know who farms wakes up thinking about farming and then goes to bed still thinking about farming. Most of us can literally walk 20 feet out the door to work and with that comes the pervasive mindset “I want to turn this land I farm, this winery I run, into something better. We want to hand this place over to the next generation in better condition than we got it.

There is a great deal about Organic farming that makes sense, even all of it, if you are willing to except a few things. First, Organic farming doesn’t consider economic viability. Or to put it bluntly and in a form everyone should get, if God sends locust like He did in Egypt ,we’d be in bad shape.  I know how absurd that may sound, but try farming for a lifetime, you can get tired of having the profits sucked up by a bug called a Sharpshooter. 

Another important problem with Organic or Biodynamic Regulations, or maybe the most important problem, is that not all pieces of land are suited to be farmed organically. If you did make that decision to go Organic at these sites the grapes and even the vines can be negatively impacted. Try selling sub-par grapes to a winery and see how long they keep buying them. 

The other negative, in my opinion, is that you get this certification and then you spend the rest of your life trying to maintain it instead of constantly looking for a better way to do things.

Farming needed a new way to look at farming. 

Cover Crops are beneficial for vineyards

The very first idea that was presented to the California Wine Institute addressing this challenge was simple but said it all: Economically Viable + Environmentally Friendly = Sustainable Farming.

We started the Sustainable Farming program with baby steps, suggesting things like permanent cover crops. And “till no till” or cultivating every other row, every other year, came to favor for good reasons. Both vastly reduce erosion/topsoil loss. Great for the vines and the fish and the pocket book. The latter also produced organic material for the soil because the rows that were to be tilled can be planted to plants that provide what the vines and soil need for the next year and beyond.

In the beginning, what got a lot of people interested was that using the newly proposed ideas could save money. You were not constantly compacting the soil around your vines by disking every row and it was good for the land you lived on. To top it off the ecosystem in the ground around the vines started to show healthy signs as well. This is just one example of how Sustainable Ag has and is improving our environment at an ever accelerated pace. 

Create a system that makes sense in every situation, can save you money and you can bite off as much as you can justify and is good for the environment...where do I sign?

The most important part of Sustainable Farming is that it encourages all of us to “THINK”. More and more is happening today because the sustainable mindset encourages innovation in the vineyard and in the winery while always moving in a more environmentally friendly direction. 

Another is that farmers that wouldn’t jump into organic farming have embraced sustainable farming and now are moving toward an environmentally friendly model over time. 

Lastly, Sustainable Farming is not limited to the vineyard or the product. It also looks at the whole facility, asking how can we make this place become more environmentally sound, taking actions like adding solar and improvements on rain water run off for instance. 

The Sustainable Farming program also encourages farmers to treat their employees like the valuable resources that they are. 

I look to the land around me for indications as to weather what we are doing is working. One such example came to me the other day. In this time of diminished bee populations, we have generated three swarms of wild bees on our property here at Dry Creek Vineyard over the last few years. This is occurring while everywhere I read states that they are in danger. This tells me we must be doing something right. The barn owl and at least four different species of bats, blue bird families as well as beneficial insects are active and numbers are growing.

There are people in this county that say Sustainable Ag is hogwash but I can show you proof all around me that this is not so. You can see one of the swarms of bees that we moved into a hive. According to the beekeeper who just held their annual conference at our winery, that is pretty cool. 

At Dry Creek Vineyard, like many others, we make a dry farmed single vineyard wine. We also produce wine from a Certified Biodynamic vineyard and the rest of our vineyards that are Certified Sustainable could be easily converted to Organic for the most part but we don’t because we believe that Sustainable Farming is the best choice for us. Why? 

It’s great for the environment, makes you THINK and is fiscally responsible. 

I hope that this has given you a better understanding and that you will appreciate Sustainable Farming as much as we do.