MI Sustainable Winegrowing Trip – Day 2

Sacramento was clouded in fog this morning. Typical to form that fog, which helps makes growing conditions ideal in Sonoma and Napa, receded by the time we arrived in Sonoma.

Our meetings today revealed two keys insights; sustainable wine production, whether organic, biodynamic, or sustainable can improve farm practices, and that wineries’ commitment to holistic farming and wine production improves retention of skilled labor instilling a sense of ownership over the grape and wine production, which in turn helps improve wine quality, increase connectedness to the community, and drive innovative farming practices.

We met with Robert LaVine, the Sustainability Manager, for the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission (SWC). In the last year, the Sonoma Winegrape Commission has made a pledge to be 100% certified sustainable by 2019 and has released a 100-year plan to preserve agriculture in Sonoma County. Robert, who has an extensive background in wine sustainability and grower outreach, assists Sonoma county growers with the process of self-assessment and certification. While the goals of the SWC are ambitious, Robert’s straight forward approach to engaging growers draws on the tents of sustainable concepts: improve farming practices through self-assessment and education, maintain outstanding winegrape quality, reduce environmental impact, and preserve ecosystem integrity for future generations of Sonoma County farmers.

Benziger Family Wineries has been a champion of sustainable wine production in Sonoma sounty over the last twenty years producing a range of wines made from organic, biodynamic, and sustainably certified winegrapes. Chris Benizger welcomed us to their estate nestled in the hills outside Glen Ellen. The history of the property is as diverse as the multiple insectaries placed strategically throughout the property. Originally, the grapes were farmed traditionally, and while production and quality was sufficient, the vines were unhealthy, and the grounds silent. The dramatic need for change sparked a transition to biodynamic farming principles, which reshaped the business strategy, and reinvigorated biotic life on the property. Today, visitors are treated to tours of the vineyards to absorb the impact of, and rationale behind, biodynamic farming principles. Chris Benziger pointed out that his vineyard teams, who have to be highly trained and educated on biodynamic practices, welcomed the transition to biodynamic. They have embraced their role as stewards of the land, which has in turn improved the quality of the wine grapes and the success of the business.

Similarly, John Williams, Owner and Winemaker of Frog’s Leap Winery, has found that his vineyard staff compete to work the same vineyard rows each year; their efforts impact the long term health and productive of those rows, and reflect the vineyard team’s ownership in the final product that comes from those grapes. Frog’s Leap, similar to Benziger Family Winery, has blended sustainability into nearly every aspect of vineyard and winery operations. They dry farm organic grapes. Most of the facilities are LEED certified. The winery is a living farm with vegetable and fruit production that allows Frog’s Leap to retain full time staff year after year that are committed to the success of the winery. As John gave us a tour of the Frog’s Leap property, his philosophies and anecdotes are firmly rooted in sustainable wine production, and clearly, it works. John has been making wine in Napa Valley since the 70’s and Frog’s Leap has produced wine from California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) grapes since 1989.


By Cam Brown