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Stewardship comes in shades of green

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Gather a few winegrowers to ask them about their craft, and you’re likely to hear thought-provoking answers. Such was the case this month when I moderated a panel discussion on “green” winemaking at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian’s annual “Demystifying Seafood: The Ocean and Its Bounty” event.

Because any good food happening is improved by wine, the museum partnered with the Rhone Rangers, an association of 150 U.S. wineries that grow grapes traditional to the Rhone Valley in France: grenache, syrah, mourvedre and other reds; viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc among the whites. On hand for the panel and tasting were Phillip Hart of AmByth Estate in Paso Robles; Pam Harter of Rocca Family Vineyards in Napa; and Steve Beckmen of Beckmen Vineyards, Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards and Ken Volk of Kenneth Volk Vineyards, all in Santa Barbara County.

The discussion focused on three schools of “green” winemaking — sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticulture — that can be dramatically disparate. There were hints of contention: Stolpman and Beckmen, who are neighbors, joked of shared water tables and drifting chemical sprays. But all of the winegrowers shared an obvious and heartfelt dedication to producing world-class wines in a manner that preserves their small parcel of the Earth.

Here’s some of what they had to say:

“We’re all family-owned vineyards; we’re not corporate,” Stolpman said. “We don’t have to answer to quarterly profits or losses. For me to be a boutique winery operation, there’s no reason not to farm organically. Yes, this year I could have saved money buying Roundup to kill all the weeds. I could go out and poison all the varmints in the vineyard and have an easier time. But the thing about fine wine is, there is no cutting corners. I think the use of chemicals is a modern, convenient way to make life easier and more profitable, not to make better wine.”

And about those chemicals, Hart, who farms biodynamically and makes “natural” wines (in his case, foot-trodden, fermented with indigenous yeasts and bottled without added sulfites), said: “If you are a chemical farmer, then you are putting chemicals on your crops, and then we are ingesting them. In our current society, we’re starting to realize that may be having some influence on our bodies. If you’re a good farmer or a biodynamic farmer, then those chemicals aren’t going on your crops and they aren’t going inside you. I think that’s pretty vital.”

“Grapes have an ability to absorb what’s around them,” agreed Beckmen, who also farms his vineyards according to biodynamic philosophies. “Smoke taint, for instance” — from wildfires — “which has been a problem in California and Australia. If you look at the list of vegetables and fruits that you should wash thoroughly, grapes are on that list.”

“And with Australian wines, that eucalyptus flavor we like comes from eucalyptus trees that grow around the vineyard,” Hart said. “That’s not direct absorption. It makes you think.”

Rocca Family Vineyards has about 30 acres under vine in Napa County and pays a minimum of $50,000 a year to maintain organic certification, Harter said. “We do it because we think it’s the right thing for our families, our vines and our wines. It’s not making us money. But when I go out to a vineyard that’s farmed organically or biodynamically, it feels alive. It’s a totally different feeling in those vineyards.”

Volk is a major proponent of sustainable farming, which incorporates some of the principles of organics and biodynamics without the strictures involved in certification. There are several sustainability programs for wineries, including one developed by the Wine Institute, the California industry association.

“Sustainability is about how to farm your vineyard in a way that future generations can benefit,” Volk said.

“It comes down to the ‘three E’s’: environmentally sound, economically feasible and socially equitable.”

“Economically feasible” means flexibility to do what’s necessary when trouble hits.

“The reality is, there are times when you may be reliant on synthetic chemicals, pesticides, to control things,” he said. “Last year, because of the weather we had, there was more acreage coming out of organic certification than any year in the past decade. People were responding to the climate they were faced with.”

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