The Next Wave of Sustainability in Wine

Winemakers discuss three ways to take environmental efforts to new heights

Cowhorn. Photo by Clair Thorington.

By now, the wine-drinking public is familiar with sustainability descriptors like organic, biodynamic, and even natural. They’ve been to LEED-certified wineries, and they may even have heard about a more holistic certification, called B Corps, which takes into account the way a business treats its employees, its environment, and its community. But a new wave of winemakers is working with ultra-sustainable practices—some of which are so groundbreaking they don’t even have a certification yet. SevenFifty Daily spoke with winemakers who are setting the bar with green building and agroecological farming practices to learn why they’re worth pursuing—and how they can help create a more sustainable future.

A “Living Building” Tasting Room

A few years ago, when Cowhorn winemaker Bill Steele was planning a new tasting room at his Jacksonville, Oregon, winery, he had a game-changing conversation with Stephen Aiguier, the founder and president of Green Hammer. Steele and his wife, Barbara, knew they wanted a green building. Aiguier listened as Steele talked about his aversion to chemicals in the field and in the cellar.

“We wanted a building that was consistent with our biodynamic farming philosophy,” says Steele, whose winery is located in the Applegate Valley AVA. “And Stephen said, ‘It sounds like you’re describing the Living Building Challenge.’” Once Aiguier started explaining it, the Steeles were all in.

The most rigorous standard for green buildings in the world, the Living Building Challenge (LBC) was formulated by the Seattle-based International Living Future Institute (ILFI) in 2006. It’s designed around seven performance areas, referred to as petals. Unlike other certifiers of green buildings, the ILFI won’t certify a building until a full year after it’s completed. That’s because some of the building’s petals—namely, energy and water—require 12 months of continuous occupancy before they can be shown to work in accordance with the challenge. The Energy Petal requires that the building produce 10 percent more energy than it consumes; the Water Petal requires (among other things) that 100 percent of the project’s water needs be supplied by captured precipitation or other natural closed-loop water systems.

There’s a reason it’s called a challenge.

For Green Hammer and the Steeles, it was the Materials Petal that posed the biggest challenge—it requires the architect to reject materials that contain any one of more than 800 chemicals on the International Living Future Institute’s Red List. Since there are no reporting standards for the building industry, this means the architect of an LBC project has to call each manufacturer to ask if its products contain any of the Red List chemicals. Aiguier spent more than a thousand hours on the phone with companies, asking questions about their products’ components and microcomponents. When making these calls, he says, “you sound like a crazy hippie. A lot of people essentially hang up.”

Barb and Bill Steele
Barb and Bill Steele of Cowhorn. Photo by Clair Thorington.

But the Green Hammer team persisted. Fortunately, the ILFI has a product database of nontoxic building materials (made without Red List chemicals) called Declare. High-profile companies—Etsy and Google, for example—have publicly signed on to using Declare products in their buildings. As a result, materials vendors are starting to reformulate their products and be more transparent about what’s in them.  

In May 2018, Cowhorn’s tasting room became the first winery tasting room in the world to be named a Certified Living Building. And it’s not that other wineries haven’t tried. Sokol Blosser, which had already achieved a U.S. Green Building Council LEED certification for its barrel cellar in 2002, aimed for LBC with its new tasting room but was unable to achieve certification.  

Dry Farming

After the recent six-year-long drought in California, water conservation is on the minds of many farmers in the West, including growers of wine grapes. As a result, the Old World practice of dry farming is making a comeback. Why irrigate vineyards if you don’t need to—and if dry farming creates better-tasting wines (as its advocates claim)?

Of course, winemakers in most European countries have grown grapes without irrigation for centuries. Rainfall, like all weather, is considered part of a wine’s essential terroir. In France, if you irrigate mature vines, your appellation d’origine contrôlée will in all likelihood be revoked.

Grapevines are able to adapt to dry conditions—on the Greek island of Santorini, for example, vines subsist on just a few inches of water a year.

John Paul Cameron
John Paul of Cameron Winery. Photo by Paul Cunningham.

In Oregon, an organization called the Deep Roots Coalition has been spreading the gospel of dry farming since 2004. Founded by John Paul, the owner and winemaker of Cameron Winery in Dundee and Russ Raney, the founding winemaker of Evesham Wood in Salem, the organization counts as its members winemakers who are committed to no irrigation other than during the first three years of a vineyard’s growth. At a Deep Roots trade tasting in Portland in early November, a sprightly John Paul spoke to the hundreds of gathered wine buyers and sommeliers about the science of dry farming; he paused during his talk and asked, “So why do we care?” He then answered, “Because irrigated grapes make shitty wines!” The statement elicited a round of applause.

Irrigation makes vines lazy, keeping them close to the surface of the soil. When they don’t get water from above, the vines seek moisture deep below the topsoil, which is healthier for the vines (even in drought conditions, the vines can still find moisture from deep below the top layers of soil).

“The wines that really curl my toes always come from regions that don’t allow irrigation,” says Brad McLeroy, the winemaker at Ayres Vineyard in Newberg, who is a member of Deep Roots. McLeroy has dry-farmed since 2001, when he established his vineyard in the Willamette Valley. Like most farmers on the West Coast, he’s had to deal with more extreme weather in recent years. But his vines are able to get enough moisture, even in very dry conditions, because they’ve been trained to reach deep into the soil. “Even in these really warm, dry growing years, our vineyards don’t show much stress,” McLeroy says. “When you irrigate, you train the plant to have its roots more horizontal than vertical.”

Brad McLeroy
Brad McLeroy of Ayres Vineyard and Winery. Photo by Paul Cunningham.

Deep Roots currently has 25 member wineries or vineyards—including Belle Pente in Yamhill-Carlton, Brick House in Ribbon Ridge, Evening Land in the Eola-Amity Hills, Eyrie in the Dundee Hills, and Kelley Fox, who sources from vineyards in three Willamette Valley AVAs. According to Patrick Benad, the national sales manager at Crowley Wines in Newberg, the coalition is expanding its reach. It’s hosting a trade tasting in San Francisco in March 2019.

In Oregon, where rainfall averages 42 inches a year, dry farming shouldn’t be terribly challenging; even so, most wineries there still choose to irrigate. In California, a few maverick winemakers dry-farm—like John Williams at Frog’s Leap in Rutherford, and Tegan Passalacqua at Sandlands in Napa—but there’s no coalition like Deep Roots.

Even in Australia, the world’s second-driest continent, some winemakers don’t irrigate. Keith and Clare Mugford, the winemakers and viticulturists at Moss Wood in Western Australia’s Margaret River Valley, have spurned irrigation for 40 years. Annual rainfall in their vineyard is almost 40 inches (much higher than the continent’s average of 23 inches), with nearly 12 inches falling during the growing season, says Keith. That, combined with good soil types, produces a commercially viable yield. “In 40 years of working here,” Keith says, “I cannot recall any season where our yields were diminished because of drought.” To retain moisture, the Mugfords use soil management practices like mulching, which provides organic matter that keeps the soil loose, increasing its water-holding capacity.  

Chardonnay vines in the Four Winds Vineyard
Chardonnay vines in the Four Winds Vineyard. Photo courtesy of Crowley Wines.

No-Till Agriculture

“It doesn’t make sense to clean cultivate a site,” says Jim Fischer, the winemaker at Fossil & Fawn in the Willamette Valley. He’s referring to the common practice of tilling the soil to remove all vegetation from a vineyard except for the vines themselves. “Tilling every row wouldn’t be any different, to me, than spraying Roundup,” he says. “You are essentially killing off everything above the ground, and disturbing things below the ground.”

Fischer and his wife, Jenny Mosbacher, practice no-till agriculture on their 15-acre Silvershot Vineyards in the Eola-Amity Hills AVA. A growing trend among small-scale farms around the country, as well as larger, conventional farms in the Midwest, no-till agriculture hasn’t made the same inroads in the wine industry—yet. (Though some winemakers till every other row—leaving those in between undisturbed—few practice 100 percent no till in all vineyards.) Interestingly, neither Demeter (the biodynamic certifier) nor the USDA’s organic regulations list no-till agriculture among their requirements.  

The idea behind it is simple. Healthy soil is full of microorganisms and mycorrhizae, which are essential for the health of your crop and which are disturbed when you till. When you refrain from tilling, not only are you preserving the soil’s rich biodiversity but you’re sequestering carbon and preventing erosion. This is key in the case of Fischer and Mosbacher’s vineyard, which has only six inches of topsoil. “The shallowness of our topsoil ties in with why we believe so strongly in no-till farming,” Fischer says. “And that is largely to fight erosion.”

Hope Well. Photo courtesy of Mimi Casteel.

Five miles away, Mimi Casteel, the winemaker at Hope Well, also in Eola-Amity Hills, is downright evangelical about practicing no-till farming in the vineyard. “If I’m not building topsoil, I’m not doing my job,” she says. “Building that topsoil protects the watershed and builds resilience into the ecosystem. It also maintains the fertility of what are otherwise considered to be the weakest soils.” (Casteel’s property is located on rocky soil roughly 10 miles northwest of her parents’ winery, Bethel Heights. Most of the south-facing hillsides used to be walnut orchards, which do well on nutrient-poor soils with low pH.)

Casteel never weeds. Instead, once or twice a year, using a “no-till drill” that seeds directly on top of the previous cover crop, she actively adds 25 or more species to the vineyard floor, including flowering forbs; cereal grains with long perennial roots, like oats, barley, quinoa, and amaranth; and even vegetables like kale, spinach, and collards. Not only do these plants crowd out the worst weeds (such as thistles, blackberries, and other “weedy” species) but they facilitate microbial diversity, which in turn helps improve soil-water relations and nutrient cycling. She also adds compost to the soil, which is crucial for maintaining grapevine vigor. “And we haven’t even started talking about building carbon,” she says. “Those perennial grasses can store a shit-ton of carbon. It’s really exciting to me!”

Another benefit of using the no-till approach and then planting cover crops is that the soil becomes better able to retain moisture. Cover crops, with their deep roots, aerate the soil, allowing water to be held and stored in the deeper soil layers for later in the season, giving the vines access to water longer. Casteel, though not a member of the Deep Roots Coalition, never has to irrigate her vineyards. “Our moisture probes,” she says, “measure higher moisture [than neighboring cultivated vineyards] at the end of August when everything is bone-dry.” 

Hope Well. Photo courtesy of Mimi Casteel.

Nate Ready’s Hiyu Wine Farm, high above the Hood River in the Columbia Gorge, looks as though it’s gone back to nature. A messy mix of clover, lupin, yarrow, and what most would call weeds line the vineyard rows. Just don’t call them weeds. “We don’t believe in weeds,” says the grower-winemaker. “Most are medicinal and have beneficial effects for the soil. When you’re talking about Queen Anne’s lace, burdock, even vetch, which is nitrogen fixing [That is, vetch adds nitrogen to the soil, improving its fertility.]—whatever. Who cares?”

Ready and his partner, China Tresemer, were influenced by the works of permaculture farmer-philosophers like Masanobu Fukuoka and Sepp Holzer, so they let the “weeds” grow wild and throw seed bombs—a mix of seeds, clay, compost, and water formed into a ball—and spent garden seeds every so often to see what grows. When they began farming the Hiyu property, Ready had a brief impulse to hoe around the vines. “I think it was because of the glamorous images of Jean-Michel Deiss in the field with his hoe,” says Ready, who quickly thought better of the idea. “It felt absurd to use a hoe. It’s super aggressive, if you think of it—getting to the soil and ripping into it.” Nonetheless, Ready admires the Alsatian winemaker, who, he says, practices a form of almost heroic viticulture—and he doesn’t judge Deiss for tilling his vineyard rows. “Every piece of land is different,” he says. “What is right in one place may not be appropriate in another.”

Some would say that all three of these practices—aiming for Certified Living Building status, dry farming, and no-till agriculture—are too radical and therefore out of reach for most grower-winemakers. But dry farming and no-till, at least, are less radical than they seem. These two agroecological practices have been used for thousands, if not tens of thousands, of years. Remember that irrigation of vineyards is banned in much of the European Union (other than for young vines) and wasn’t even practiced in California until the 1970s, when drip irrigation was introduced to the state. (Indeed, the wines that established Napa Valley as a world-class wine region—Stags’ Leap and Chateau Montelena—were made from dry-farmed grapes.) No-till agriculture was the norm before primitive plows came into use during Europe’s agricultural revolution in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Over time, these newfangled technologies changed the way all farmers farm—but climate change is forcing a return to the older, simpler methods. So maybe calling these practices innovations is inapt. We should call them new-old practices—a nod to the wisdom of our great-grandparents.


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Hannah Wallace writes about food, wine, sustainable agriculture, health, and travel for, Inc., Food & Wine, Vogue, Portland Monthly, and the New York Times.

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