More Than One Way to Grow a Grape

Clos LaChance vineyard manager Ben Scorsur, left, and winemaker Stephen Tebb check on a weather station that monitors solar radiation, humidity, rainfall and wind speed and direction.
Clos LaChance vineyard manager Ben Scorsur, left, and winemaker Stephen Tebb check on a weather station that monitors solar radiation, humidity, rainfall and wind speed and direction. "We can measure and manage as many growth and production variables as possible," Clos LaChance owner Bill Murphy says. (By Fred Lyon)
By Thomas Ulrich
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, August 29, 2007

One California winemaker nurtures the soil from the seat of a bio-diesel tractor, harvests grapes according to the phases of the moon and views his job as letting nature take its course. Two others have wired their fields to let them instantly monitor moisture and solar radiation and, with the click of a mouse, can adjust the temperature of fermenting grapes. The way they see it, nature could use a little coaxing from modern technology.

Each of these three vintners, in his own way, is pursuing cutting-edge ways to cultivate his small winery's character.

For Paul Dolan, co-owner of Mendocino Wine Co. and Dark Horse Ranch, it was a matter of first forsaking his birthright -- abundant yields that require synthetic fertilizers and harsh chemicals -- in exchange for sustainable harvests at his Northern California vineyard.

But it's also a return to his roots. In the 1930s and '40s, his grandfather, Edmund Rossi, farmed organically at his Italian Swiss Colony winery. "It wasn't until after World War II that my father started using chemical compounds that led us away from farming the natural way," Dolan says.

Dolan set the changes in motion as head winemaker at Fetzer Vineyards two decades ago. On a September morning in 1987, he tasted sauvignon blanc grapes from adjacent vineyard blocks. One group was crisp and perfect, the other flat and insipid. The first block of wines was part of an organic-farming experiment the vineyard began the previous year. The second block was cultivated conventionally, using pesticides. Three years after converting to organic grapes, the vineyard produced the winery's most expensive bottles of sauvignon blanc.

Encouraged by the outcome of several such experiments, Dolan searched for a way to farm even closer to the land. In 1997, he and two sons purchased Dark Horse Ranch in Ukiah. They replanted the 70-acre vineyard with drought-resistant rootstock and cuttings from varietals perfectly suited to its temperate climate, iron-rich soil and rugged terrain.

They are cultivating the vineyard biodynamically, a technique that combines organic standards with a kinship to the Earth that, according to Dolan, produces wine that better expresses the personality of the vineyard.

Dolan co-owns Parducci Wine Cellars, which he farms sustainably, and Paul Dolan Vineyards, which produces wines from organically grown grapes. While sustainable farmers recycle, use renewable energy and conserve water wherever possible, they spray their crops with chemical fertilizers and pesticides if required.

At Dark Horse, which supplies grapes to Paul Dolan Vineyards, "we farm this piece of land as a self-contained, sustainable ecosystem," Dolan says. The three-man vineyard crew relies on available water, blends its own compost and plants flowers and shrubs to attract the insects that prey on aphids and other vineyard pests. Bluebirds feed on leafhoppers, owls prey on gophers and bats eat mosquitoes. Habitat breaks of lavender, poppy and sage reduce soil erosion, nematodes and soil pathogens. Sheep and chicken roam the vineyard feeding on weeds and cutworms without compacting the soil and graze hillsides where tractors cannot tread.

Walking the perimeter of a block of zinfandel on a recent day, son Jason Dolan does not stop to examine a cluster of grapes; he reaches for compost that will line the vineyard soon after harvest. "It's like gold," he says, sifting through a fragrant blend. It includes horse manure, soil "amendments" made from flowers fermented in a stag's bladder and oak bark fermented in an animal skull, and pomace, a combination of last year's grape skins, pulp and seeds. "We feed the soil, not the plant," he adds.

Biodynamic farming has been practiced for 80 years by thousands of producers in 40 countries, but only in the last decade has the practice drawn interest among wine grape growers in the United States. Dark Horse Ranch is one of 30 wineries or vineyards certified biodynamic by Demeter USA.

Among other techniques, Dolan and crew bury a cow horn filled with manure on the fall equinox, let the manure ferment until spring, then mix it with water and spray it on the soil. As unconventional as they might sound, such methods, based on the teachings of Austrian philosopher and spiritualist Rudolf Steiner, are delivering noteworthy scientific results.

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