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Good stewards of the land 

Although my column covers the Central Coast wine scene, I receive wine samples from wineries in regions throughout California that sell their wines in local wine shops. A recent sample from Napa Valley’s popular Sterling Winery had me particularly interested. Winemaker Malcolm Seibly now produces a Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc from certified organic vineyards in Mendocino, but the shipment contained an extra treat: The Green Book, subtitled, The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time.

I believe most of us try to be responsible environmentally we recycle wine and water bottles, soup cans, boxes and  newspapers. Yet, despite the information available in newspapers, magazines, and online about being good stewards of the earth, I’m shocked at the number of people who throw garbage into blue recycle containers and waste water. I assume they don’t know the results, because I don’t want to think they just don’t care.

It has become trendy to be “green,” but who cares what motivates people as long as we become more concerned about reducing our carbon footprint. I can happily report that our local wineries go far beyond just talking about being green. They’ve been acting on it long before it became trendy. You’ll find every level of interest and participation, of course, but many of our viticulturists from Paso Robles, Edna Valley, and Arroyo Grande Valley are setting new standards for the agriculture industry.

The Green Book reports you can reduce fossil-fuel consumption by buying locally, and it yields the additional benefit of supporting your community. “There are an estimated 176 million adult beer and wine drinkers in the United States, who collectively consume about 6.5 billion gallons of beer and 690 million gallons of wine per year.” Still, no wine connoisseur would limit themselves to wines only from their neighborhood. The book’s reference section lists the Wine Institute of San Francisco, the University of California, Davis, and governmental agencies for their numbers. But I found one wine suggestion that seemed a tad dramatic: “A bottle of conventionally produced wine may contain up to 250 different types of chemicals. If you’re a wine connoisseur, a year’s worth of organic wine purchases would keep roughly two pounds of fertilizers and 50 grams of pesticides out of the environment (and out of your wineglass).”

I’ve compiled some facts to help you find local vintners who are making a difference. Tablas Creek in Paso Robles was the first SLO County vineyard to become Certified Organic in January 2003. Although the wines aren’t made organically, Tablas follows the example of Chateau de Beaucastel in France’s Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It’s owned by the Perrin family, which co-owns Tablas with Robert Haas. According to their winemaker Neil Collins, who has managed the vineyards and winemaking since 1998, they’ve been farming organically since the vines were planted.

click to enlarge NATURAL MAN :  Jean-Pierre Wolff is a friend to the land and creatures of his vineyards. - PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
  • NATURAL MAN : Jean-Pierre Wolff is a friend to the land and creatures of his vineyards.

The wines can’t be labeled organic because they use sulfites in production, even though it’s minimal amounts. Wine can be labeled organic in Europe if sulfite usage is kept under a certain level. Achieving certification, however, requires documenting every single step, which is the reason so many wine growers don’t bother. They farm using sustainable and organic methods, but don’t want to spend the extra hours writing about it.

“It’s a pain to do the paperwork, but I wouldn’t risk losing my certification because I wanted to spray to get rid of pests,” Collins said candidly, adding the documentation does prove your commitment to organic farming. “The whole thing is moving in a good direction with wine grape growers and organizations like the Central Coast Vineyard Team pushing for organic and sustainable farming.”

The Central Coast Vineyard Team (CCVT), which supports wine growers from Monterey to Santa Ynez Valley, originally began helping them with a self-assessment program. It guided hundreds of growers to adopt practices that protect human and natural resources. With its success they developed a program in 2002 to provide certification by a third-party auditor. Kris O’Connor, executive director of CCVT, noted they have vineyard owners with only four acres to more than 1,000 acres participating.

CCVT invited vintners from Monterey to Santa Ynez, including Castoro, D’Anbino, Halter Ranch, Laetitia, Pacific Vineyard Co., Robert Hall, Saucelito Canyon, Kenneth Volk, and Wolff Vineyards to join a pilot certification program all should be certified by November. O’Connor admitted they were chosen for their commitment to sustainable farming. When Jean-Pierre Wolff bought the historic McGregor Vineyard in 1999, now Wolff Vineyards, he invited CCVT to conduct biological research on his estate. “I prefer being a steward of the land and creating a balance by giving something back to the land,” Wolff explained. “I’ve always been inclined to be that way and I came at it open-minded.”

He leaves the sustainable vineyard management to the experts at Pacific Vineyard Co., run by veteran George Donati and his managers Scott Williams and Erin Amaral. They manage most of the vineyards in Edna Valley. Wolff actively participates but dedicates himself to his pet projects. He re-established a refuge for the California Pacific pond turtles and steelhead trout, protected under the threatened species act. That took five years of work on one-and-a-half miles of creek running through his estate, which included stabilizing the embankment, rebuilding the canopy that protects the smelt from predators, and building a resting pond for the trout.

The last two years were difficult, he pointed out, due to drought conditions. But a nearby well, naturally pumped by an old windmill he rebuilt, replenishes the pond. He also built the pipeline high above the pond to help oxygenate it. He explained that care of the pond requires a delicate balance but there are benefits: “If I can reduce embankment erosion I don’t lose eight-feet of my land in a storm.”

O’Connor finished: “We’ve been training the farmers and now we’ve realized the need to train the people on the side of the business who interact with the consumers.” Sterling, notably, joined A% for the Planet” to which they provide one percent of annual net revenues for environmental organizations worldwide. And they didn’t limit it to sales of their “Made with Organic Grapes” wines.

We can all boast we’re green simply by remembering a few tips from The Green Book, such as drinking coffee from a ceramic mug instead of Styrofoam cups, which “remain on the planet nine generations.” Read The Green Book and you’ll discover some amazingly simple suggestions that make a big difference for planet Earth.

You can reach New Times’ Cuisine columnist at [email protected].


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