Every summer I look forward to spending the last weekend of July in McMinnville, Oregon for the International Pinot Noir Celebration (IPNC), a wonderful wine festival where guests enjoy three days of tasting beautiful Pinot Noir from world-renowned winemakers, including Grand Cru Burgundy and Champagne, and sharing delicious meals from Pacific northwest chefs.
IPNC is also a venue for celebrating leading lights in the industry and learning about regions and new trends in wine production. This year I had the privilege to organize and moderate a seminar for IPNC’s University of Pinot sustainability, with presentations by producers from several regions. University of Pinot offers IPNC guests a wide variety of informative seminars each afternoon on such topics as sensory evaluations, regional updates from New Zealand, California, and Austria.
My seminar, Ecology/Biodynamos, included the following producers who showed off their lovely wines that were cultivated using a variety of sustainable approaches and practices:
--John Balletto, Balletto Vineyards, Russian River Valley, Sonoma, California
--Jason Lett, The Eyrie Vineyards, Dundee Hills, Willamette Valley, Oregon
--Patrice Ollivier, Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair, Marsannay, Burgundy, France
--Kim Crawford, Loveblock Wines, Atere Valley, Marlborough, New Zealand
--Moe Momtazi, Maysara Winery & Momtazi Vineyard, McMinnville, Willamette Valley, Oregon
The presentations and discussion with the audience explored what it means for a wine to be sustainable and the differences between organic, biodynamic and sustainable certifications.
Each panelist described their sustainability approach; what motivated them to pursue sustainability; and how their wines reflect their agricultural practices and care for the environment. While their practices differ in some respects, they all agreed that a sustainable wine should not be judged exclusively on the environmental or social impact indicators and certification. It should be able to exhibit characteristics that match consumer preference and respond to consumer needs, including obviously the consumer’s desire to protect the planet and support wine communities.
John Balletto started farming in Sonoma County at the age of 17 in 1977 after the untimely death of his father. He grew the family's vegetable farming business into the largest in Northern California at its peak (70 different vegetables on over 700 acres). Seeing a bright future for wine grapes, John and his wife Terri transitioned to grape growing in 1995 and started selling fruit to renowned Sonoma County winemakers. The first wine made under the Balletto label came in 2001and in 2010 the vineyards were certified sustainable by Lodi Rules.
Practices at Balletto Vineyards include planting cover crops; natural pest control, composting grape pomace to spread and till back into the vineyard soil; recycled water; solar power; help with housing for field workers and their families. Balletto has been a leader among Sonoma growers in their quest to be 100% certified sustainable.
Balletto stressed that sustainability matters to the consumer. He presented research of frequent premium wine drinkers in the US who understand that sustainability means the wine is made from sustainably grown grapes, that the farmer used best practices to minimize impact in the environment, that the winery does strategic planning to ensure long term success, that this means the winery is economically self-sustaining and that they minimized the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizer. Educating consumers regarding sustainability is critical because the consumer provides the license to operate, i.e. the resources to stay in business.
Jason Lett of The Eyrie Vineyards spoke of the vineyard’s history. “Sustainability” wasn’t part of the wine industry vernacular back in 1965 when the founders David and Diana Lett started; it just felt it was the right approach to business and farming. Since the planting of the first vine, Eyrie has farmed deep and has never used herbicides, pesticides, tillage or irrigation. Jason shared a fun story of the impact of no intervention in the soil: “One day I tromped out to the vineyard, grumbling, ‘Of course, they’re short on nutrients. They’ve never been fed!’ I took a LOT of samples, sent them off to the lab, and prepared my case for fertilizing the vineyards. I was expecting to see big deficiencies. When I got the lab results back, I was shocked: There was no problem. I took the analysis to the local soil fertility expert and he confirmed my analysis. He told me the soils were fine, and no additions were needed. In all those decades, rather than fighting with the surrounding plants for water and nutrients, the vines had been forming alliances with them. Together the community of vines, plants, and soil organisms had built a stable ecosystem that has sustained the fertility of the soil. It was the first of many lessons I have learned about trusting the vine first. What I have learned is that we tread best when we tread lightest.”
All five of Eyrie estate vineyards are certified organic, and two of the three local growers they purchase fruit from are also certified. But they take organic certification as just the first step, and then build on it. Every year, Jason and his crew walk the red volcanic soil of the vineyards, visiting each one of the 50,000 vines 12-15 times throughout the 4 seasons. From pruning to harvest, the work is done by hand. The philosophy of The Eyrie Vineyards is that while they are hands-on in the vineyard, winemaking is restrained to preserve the varietal flavors and expression of the vine that they work so hard to achieve in the vineyards.
Eyrie believes that a natural approach makes the best wines. By bringing new energy to their founding principles, The Eyrie Vineyards produces wines that represent the true character of the grapes…and the people who grow them.
Patrice Ollivier described the history of his family as owners of Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair which they purchased in 1978. Located in Marsannay-la Côte, the family’s goal was to bring the Domaine to life by the acquisition of renowned appellations in the Côte de Nuits and the Côte de Beaune, such as Bonnes Mares Grand Cru. Comprised of 20 hectares in Burgundy, where they produce Grands Crus, 1er Crus, Village and regional wines, their production is 65% Pinot Noir; 15 % Rosé and 20 % Chardonnay. Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair’s philosophy is based on “top quality” and their wines are offered in the finest restaurants, cellars, and specialty shops throughout the world.
Domaine Fougeray de Beauclair is working toward organic certification because Patrice believes it is the right thing to do and also that this definitely improves the taste and quality of the wine. Patrice is convinced that less intervention is a key to producing great wines. Currently Fougeray de Beauclair follows the rules and requirements for Haute Valeur Environnementale (HVE,) a three-tiered system and certification developed by The French Ministry of Agriculture in 2001, that encourages farms and vineyards to focus on increasing biodiversity, decreasing the negative environmental impact of their phyto-sanitary strategy (i.e., measures for the control of plant diseases, reducing the use of pesticides and fungicides), managing their fertilizer inputs, and improving water management.
HVE is less strict than organic requirements in terms of the elimination of chemical inputs in the vineyard, but it emphasizes other points, such as the promotion of biodiversity, which makes it much more aligned with sustainable agriculture systems that have concerns about vineyards being monocultures.
Kim Crawford spoke about Loveblock Wines. Loveblock Farm is certified organic by BioGro New Zealand, yet they incorporate practices that are centuries old such as composting to promote biodiversity to build the soil, and they are very conscious of climate change and therefore draw from modern technology and equipment to make the vineyards more carbon efficient.
At Loveblock they recognize that turning to organic farming can be more costly, the yield can be lower, and the demands on the farmer in terms of time and commitment are greater. Natural compost, cover crops and livestock are used to enhance soil health. A resident population of beneficial insects is established to control pests and weed growth is managed mechanically by under vine cultivation and mowing. Although the demands are greater, Kim believes the land rewards the farmers’ dedication with greater quality and longevity in the wines.
When I visited Loveblock on a trip to New Zealand a few years ago, I recall the stunning views (and the fierce wind!) atop Loveblock’s vineyard, perched high on the hills overlooking Marlborough's Awatere Valley, and I had the impression of an agricultural monoculture of vineyards in the valley far below. During the seminar I asked Kim about this and he too expressed his concern that Marlborough is becoming a monoculture and his worry about the long-term harm by the industry to the environment.
Kim is also committed to sustainability. Loveblock’s Pinot Noir vineyard in Central Otago is certified sustainable by Sustainable Wine New Zealand (SWNZ). While some chemicals are used under this regime, they are limited to the minimum and applied to specific Loveblock blocks. Also, the SWNZ standard provides a framework for companies to continually work to improve all aspects of performance in terms of environmental, economic and social aspects of their businesses.
Moe Momtazi’s Maysara Winery & Momtazi Vineyard comprise a biodynamic farm of 532 acres located in the foothills of the City of McMinnville with 260 acres of this land planted to vines and the rest preserved as forest, pastures, reservoirs and meadows. Momtazi does not import any fertilizer (chemical or mineral) to the farm, instead make their own compost using the manure from the animals raised in the farm and medicinal and dynamic herbs and flowers and native plants grown there.
“In our farm everything comes from within, and the goal from the start has been to make a complete eco-system by these practices and encouraging wild and domesticated animals toward this endeavor,” Momtazi said. “We have shied away from mono agriculture and have planted many fruit trees that have an affinity with grapevines. We have planted many good insectary plants to encourage bees, butterflies and good insects.”
“As for wine making aspect we do make our wine the old fashion way by not using any enzyme, commercial yeast, adding sugar, or adjusting acidity. We have worked diligently to re-learn what our ancient ancestors knew of the properties of these near and far planets and how their orientation effects agricultural production and work task.”
As an immigrant himself to the US in 1983, Momtazi expressed his concern for workforce sustainability. “Taking care of our employees is very close to my heart and I want to help other people understand what most of these migrant workers go through, living in the shadows. We are very fortunate to live in a community in Willamette Valley that cares for these folks and help them with health care and immigration issues that the federal and state government cannot or won't do. It is critical to take care of these workers,” he said. The 2015 Maysara Immigrant we tasted dedicates 33% of the sale proceeds to Refugee & Immigrant programs servicing permanent residency, family-based visas, low-cost immigration counseling in Oregon.