• By Mary Lindsay •
“The CCOF inspectors spent three days inspecting at Silver Mountain in 1991, realized I had been farming organically since I started the vineyard in 1979, and awarded organic certification immediately,” said Jerold O’Brien of Silver Mountain Vineyards. O’Brien is proud of this certification, a testament to all the hard work and diligence that organic growers need to adhere to. The vineyard at Silver Mountain was one of the early vineyards to be certified organic and the first in the Santa Cruz Mountains to earn this distinction.
Organic inspections are rigorous, so certification is no easy feat. Today, there is a small but growing group of certified organic vineyards in the region. And, in recognition of Earth Day on April 22, four of them have formed the Organic Wine Trail of the Santa Cruz Mountains as an opportunity for the public to learn more about what it takes to grow organic wine grapes. Each of the wineries has a certified organic vineyard, and a tasting room where you can enjoy the wine they produce.
Organically Grown Equals Good Stewards of the Land
“Very simply, growing organically is about being a good steward of the land, but there is a lot that goes into it,” explains O’Brien. “And we should clarify that growing organic grapes does not mean that we make organic wine.”
As O’Brien points out, vineyards that grow organically and produce organic grapes do not necessarily make organic wine. The addition of sulfites that help prevent the wine from spoiling is against organic standards. Although sulfites occur naturally in the wine, it may not be added. For example, although Silver Mountain grows organically in the vineyard, it does not produce organic wine. “I want my wine to be able to age well,” explains O’Brien. Wines made from certified organic vineyards can be labeled as ‘organically grown’.
Ridge Vineyards is the latest (and largest) vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains to be certified organic (and the largest acreage in Sonoma County to be certified as well). The move to organic growing has taken several years of conversion and is ongoing. Only organic soil amendments, crop protectants and fertilizers can be used for a period of three years and an inspector reviews all the records before the acreage can be certified. Then, inspection continues to be done annually.
Ridge has had a non-invasive style of winemaking and the move to organic farming is in line with this philosophy. “We have chosen organic certification so that our farming – free of conventional chemicals and additives – is as traditional as our winemaking,” explains David Gates, Vice President of Vineyard Operations. Says Paul Draper, CEO and Head Winemaker, “True organic farming focuses attention on the health of each individual vine, and on the soil’s microbiological life. We are stewards of the land. Farming organically is the right thing to do.”
What is Involved in Growing Organic Wine Grapes
The criteria for organic certification is very specific. Synthetic chemicals are banned – no synthetic pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Insecticides and fungicides certified for organic use are made exclusively from natural products. The goal is to protect the environment and promote a healthy, diverse ecosystem by eliminating chemical pollutants and contaminants.
Bill Cooper at Cooper-Garrod Vineyards says, “If you are not able to use synthetic products then you have to farm in other, better ways. Farming organically is more difficult and expensive, but sustainable best practices in the vineyard is the responsible way.” For example, instead of applying fertilizers the organic grower might use compost (including kelp or manure) to enrich the soil. At Cooper-Garrod the compost source is readily available – at the horse stables on the property. And in fact, you can go horseback riding here, and Cooper-Garrod offers an Eco-Ride (see www.cgv.com for more information). At Silver Mountain, O’Brien built a composting pad and composts the vine cuttings after pruning and the pomace after crush.
Cover Crops and Natural Treatments
Best practices also means addressing problems before they start, for example by avoiding soil erosion and pollution. In addition to compost, cover crops enrich the soil and prevent erosion. Weeding is done mechanically or by hand. Fungal diseases (most notably powdery mildew) are treated with sulfur and Stylet oil (natural products). Grape pests are treated with pheromones and microbial products, soaps and oils, and by the introduction of natural (beneficial) predators, including predatory insects. A vineyard can be certified organic only after three years of conforming to the protocol.
Uniform Standards for Organic Certification
Organic certification in the United States is governed by the Department of Agriculture, which sets uniform standards for certification. Most of the vineyards on the Organic Wine Trail are certified by the CCOF (California Certified Organic Farming Commission) headquartered in Santa Cruz. Ridge is certified by Organic Certifiers, Inc. Inspections for organic certification take place once a year, and detailed records must be kept. Vineyards are examined for cover crops and for the states of pests and diseases, and products added in the vineyard are required to be fully traceable. Suppliers have to be organic: for example, cow manure cannot be obtained from a farm that uses antibiotics to treat the animals.
In the Santa Cruz Mountains, four additional vineyards are certified organic: Big Basin, Kathryn Kennedy, Portola Valley Vineyards, and Storrs.
More Sustainable Practices
In addition to organic certification, most of these vineyards (and others in the region) engage in sustainable practices. This includes solar arrays for energy generation; water farms to harvest rainwater; wildlife corridors; solid waste management and other practices that are not covered by organic certification but are important sustainable practices’ in the vineyard and winery.
Cooper-Garrod is currently the only vineyard and winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains to be Certified Sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Both Cooper-Garrod and Silver Mountain, as well as Thomas Fogarty Winery, have built large solar arrays. Silver Mountain’s is the largest in the region at 46kw. The 6,000 square foot Triple Green Roof at Silver Mountain supports 264 solar panels and serves to collect rainwater that feeds a 30,000-gallon water farm.
Bill Cooper of Cooper-Garrod sums up what organic and sustainable grape growing is all about. “Being a responsible steward of natural resources is a key vision for us. This property has been in the family for more than 100 years and it is important to us to maintain a healthy and sustainable environment as a continuing legacy for succeeding generations.”
For more information on the organic and sustainable practices of the Organic Wine Trail, see the individual websites:
- Cooper-Garrod Vineyards: http://www.cgv.com/vineyards
- Ridge: http://www.ridgewine.com/About/Sustainability
- Silver Mountain: http://www.silvermtn.com/index.shtml
- Alfaro Family Vineyards: http://www.alfarowine.com/
For more information on visiting the organic wine trail wineries, visit www.organicwinetrail.org
Featured Image at top:
The 46 kw solar array at Silver Mountain Vineyards, part of the “triple green canopy” that also includes the 6,000 square foot roof which provides shade for winery operations. Photo by Mary Lindsay.