The United States ranks as the 4th largest wine producer in the world. While California is the nation's leader, every other state supports a wine industry. In the Pacific Northwest state of Washington is a fertile pocket of vineyards where the combination of climate, soil and sustainable farming practices are helping to produce some of the country's best wines.
Every morning at dawn, Jean-Francois Pellet walks into his fields at Pepper Bridge Winery in the Walla Walla Valley of Washington State to check on his grapes. It is the end of the growing season this year, and the vines are heavy with bunches of small dark red grapes ready for harvest.
"The main thing is flavors. I usually I take two berries - one for my bag and one for my mouth," Mr. Pellet says before putting a grape in his mouth. "You can taste it. And, I look at the seed, too, to make sure it is very ripe." He notes that he is pleased with the flavor of this year's harvest.
Mr. Pellet is a third-generation winemaker from Switzerland whose talents as a vintner brought him to Walla Walla, whose high dry plateau provides an excellent climate and good soil for wine grapes. Mr. Pellet says he welcomed the opportunity to develop Pepper Bridge as a model for sustainable viticulture, which he says, is a question of balance.
The winemaker says sustainable viticulture is more than a set of farming practices. He says it is a common-sense approach to agriculture that follows a strict set of environmental standards that also makes economic sense. "Stewardship of the land is really our biggest mission," he says. "I have two young children and I think my goal in life is to return the land the way I got it or maybe in better shape. Our goal is also to make quality grapes, to make really fine wine."
In pursuit of that goal, says Mr. Pellet, many of the region's wine makers have adopted basic sustainable farming techniques. "We encourage all the growers not to spray if they see one bug or little fungi in the vineyard," he says. "But you evaluate. If you say, 'Okay, I have 5% or 10% or 15% disease maybe at that time you can spray. But it's really trying to understand your soil and your plants and do things very conscientiously and not spray or do things that you don't have to."
The Pepper Bridge Winery also employs drip irrigation to conserve water. Shrubs and trees planted throughout the vineyard encourage biodiversity and composting helps to enrich the soil. Jean Francois Pellet gets his compost at a facility located on a former wheat field not far from the vineyard.
The old farm is lined with dark, earthy-looking and clean-smelling windrows - each as long as a football field. The mounds consist of discarded logs, yard waste, cow manure and vineyard debris. They cook naturally into a nutrient-rich, disease-free fertilizer in about ten weeks. Travis Trumbull runs the business.
Jean-Francois Pellet comes for a look around. "The compost is basically what will keep food and microbiology in our soils," the winemaker says. "Some of those soils have been farmed for 80 years and they have been totally depleted. So, we have to re-enter this to replace the humus."
Travis Trumbull nods his head. "It is helping out Mother Nature," he says. "We've taken all we can from the earth and it's time to give back. And, I think that everybody that is involved in it and using it on their produce or on their wine grapes or on their apples -- or whatever the crop is -- will reap the benefits."
Jean-Francois says this compost is a food bank for his soil. It may take a decade or more to enrich the land, but he says it is worth the wait, because it will ensure that his vineyard will produce better grapes and better wine for generations to come.