Wine grape farming and winemaking in California is a significant and growing part of that state's multi-billion dollar a year agricultural economy. And the vintners in northern California's Napa Valley have been among the first of the region's farmers to "go green" – leading the way in environmentally-sustainable grape growing and winemaking methods. VOA's Adam Phillips visited one vineyard using those methods.
Steve Honig of the Honig Vineyard and Winery enjoys an afternoon breeze on the family porch and surveys the rows of lush green grapes that fill his 40-hectare vineyard. This picturesque piece of California farmland has been in his family since his grandfather bought it back in 1964. Then, the Napa Valley was famous for plums and prunes, not world-class wine.
"We call this a 'generational business,' says Honig. "We want to pass this on to my children and my brother Michael's children and our cousins' children and their children after that. It's a very peaceful place to be."
Thirty meters from Honig's back gate is the vineyard proper. This year's grapes are expected to produce 70,000 cases of Cabernet and Sauvignon Blanc. That makes the Honig Winery small compared to most of Napa Valley's roughly 375 vineyards. But "small is beautiful" according to Honig, who says that every drop of his vineyard's precious wine will be made in a sustainable, eco-friendly way.
Honig points to a row of mustard plants. Mustard is one of several "cover crops" growing between his rows of grapevines.
"Mustard helps to control something called 'nematodes,' which are small worms in the soil that will try to eat the plants," he explains.
Other cover crops include peas, vetch, and rye, which grow during the wintertime and are tilled into the soil to add nutrients like nitrogen that promote the growth of the grapes. Healthy grapes are essential to making quality wine.
"If you make better tasting grapes, then your final product – wine – tastes better, and then your business is more viable because you have better tasting wine," Honig says.
Many traditional commercial farmers use toxic chemical pesticides to control the insects that feed on their crops. But Honig tries to distract, rather than poison, the pests by planting thick hedgerows of tasty native plants just beyond the perimeter of his vineyard.
"We call it the 'all- you-can-eat buffet for insects,'" says Honig with a grin, "because insects would prefer to go and eat at this area than to try to bore into our vines, which are very hard-cased."
Like many sustainable vineyards, the Honigs also create habitats for insect-loving birds such as bluebirds. They also use bats and owls.
Because owls eat up to 1000 rodents a year, owl boxes, not poison, help control the larger rodents that hide among the vines. "And we have hawks during the day," adds Honig. "So we have a 'day and night shift.'"
The Honig Vineyard has invested heavily in solar technology. Solar panels convert sunlight into enough electricity to meet all the farm's electricity needs, from the wine cooling systems and air conditioners to the vineyard's lighting, irrigation pumps, and computer equipment.
Honig acknowledges that the initial cost of the solar panels was high. On the other hand, he says, his company has no electric utility bills to pay this year. In fact, the winery is sending electricity back to the state power grid.
"We're kind of turning the meter backwards!" he says with evident satisfaction.
Along with sustainable energy, water conservation is an increasingly critical concern throughout the American West. Sustainable vineyards have now mostly replaced the flood irrigation systems of the past with drip irrigation methods, where tubes with small holes drip water directly onto the plant's roots in a controlled way, as needed.
And because drip irrigation grape growers must walk their fields to determine the moisture requirements of particular vines, it often turns out that less, or even no water is needed, says Christopher Barefoot, estate manager of Robert Mondavi Winery, a large-scale sustainable vineyard.
"Some vines that are 60 years old, they no longer require
irrigation, because of their age," he says. "They've got deep roots that go down. So they
Grape growers must also guard against too much water, which can cause soil erosion. Growers sometimes plant extra vines at the base of their fields. The roots intertwine, and form a weave that binds the soil together. And while more water always makes for bigger grapes, too much water also dilutes the flavor of the grape, which makes for a less flavorful wine.
The success and growing sophistication of the sustainable wine industry has Steven Honig optimistic.
"When you can grow a good product using sustainability and it increases the quality of the product, that is a good showpiece for the rest of the world," he says.
Honig believes that everyone is concerned about the global environment.
"How can you not be concerned," he forcefully asks. "People have to start paying attention to better ways of doing things. It's human nature to improve."