Sep 2009 issue
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Organic Grape Growing in Napa Valley Randy Caparoso
“When I told my dad we were going to take the company organic,” says Mark Neal, “he drove over to Sonoma, came back with a tray of rotten apples and peaches, and said, ‘This is how our grapes will look when you grow organic.’”
Not to be dissuaded, Neal initiated the transition of vineyards owned or managed by Jack Neal & Son—established in 1968 and, at nearly 1,900 acres, the largest vineyard-management company in Napa Valley—from conventional to organic grape growing in 1984. Jack Neal had no choice but to go along; he had brought up his son to take charge, first putting him on a tractor at the early-ripened age of 8.
“We grew up in Rutherford, the heart of Napa Valley,” Mark reminisces. “The good thing about growing up this way is that we were constantly being pulled out of school to work the family orchards and vineyards. It was every hand on deck, but no one had to force me.” So naturally, Mark’s own son, Zachary, now 12, also began driving tractors at the family-approved age of 8. “He’s up every frost night in the spring, and he’s tilling, stripping, and picking all year round,” says Neal. Since the company has grown to employ more than 300 hands, “we don’t have to pull Zachary out of school, but as soon as he’s out of class he’s there, whether we ask him or not, up on a forklift or cutting cover crops. As long as he’s making his grades, which he is, we’re not going to discourage him.”
Jack Neal died in 1994, but not before seeing most of the family vineyards accredited under the California Certified Organic Farmers program by 1991. CCOF, the largest certifying body in the state, sets its guidelines according to the USDA’s National Organic Program. Today, more than 1,800 acres of vineyards farmed by the Neal family are fully certified, running the gamut from prime valley-floor properties between Yountville and St. Helena to pockets in Pope Valley and American Canyon to the hillsides of Howell Mountain, Mount Veeder, and Atlas Peak. About 1% of these grapes, primarily from the Neals’ estate vineyards in Rutherford and on Howell Mountain, go into the 5,000-6,000 cases produced and bottled under their own label, Neal Family Vineyards, at a winery established on Howell Mountain in 2001. Otherwise, Jack Neal & Son works vineyards for no less than 60 growers, supplying grapes to some 72 wineries.
FEAR OF COMMITMENT
According to the most recent figures from the now-defunct AppellationAmerica.com, the total acreage of grapes planted in the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is around 43,000, with a little more than 7% having some sort of organic or Biodynamic certification (see box). The Neals farm about 200 of their own 1,800 certified-organic acres biodynamically for clients in Rutherford and American Canyon, along with another 100 acres farmed conventionally, or non-organically, according to client requests.
Like other growers, Neal was motivated early on simply because “I found the idea of synthetic, possibly harmful residue on grapes and vines unsavory; it’s always been a health concern for my family and for our employees,” he says. “But really, organic is also simply better for the environment, and I don’t think that on the whole there is any argument over the fact that organic practices tend to enhance the inherent and distinctive aspect of vineyards—what you sommeliers and wine writers call terroir, or what we growers simply call ‘highest-quality fruit.’ Like organic foods, organic wines simply taste better, which is why French organic wines, for example, show up consistently among the top 10 best wines in any region, cited as the most innovative, interesting, and personalized products around.”
Robert Sinskey tells the story of a similar wake-up call in his Napa Valley vineyard: “Back in 1990, Jeff Virnig, our then-very-young winemaker, and I walked out to a block of vines that were in distress. We tried to turn the dirt with first a shovel and then a pick before we realized that our use of herbicides and tillage had compacted and sterilized the soil. We could not find earthworms or anything resembling a healthy population of microorganisms. I looked up to see my dog running between the vines and observed the houses in close proximity to the vineyards, and I turned to Jeff and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we were organic?’ He said, ‘Only if we can learn how to use organic techniques to make better wine.’ It all just suddenly made sense. We discovered that taking a socially responsible stance and making pure, luxuriously elegant wines were no longer mutually exclusive goals.”
“I honestly don’t know why more vineyards in Napa Valley aren’t organic,” Neal adds, “because there is plenty of quality motivation.” For winemakers favoring natural-yeast fermentation, for instance, “grapes delivered to the crush pad without synthetic residue on the skins have healthier, more flavorful fermentations. Most certainly, this is what we have found in our own Neal Family wines, which are 100% fermented with indigenous or ‘wild’ yeasts.”
Then why the fear of commitment? “We work under the same conditions and are challenged by the same issues, like insect and nutrient pressures, as conventional growers,” says Neal. Organic grape growing, however, is a situation in which a grower needs to be fully invested in alternative methods to pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides. “Think of it as poker,” Neal adds; “you have to be ‘all in.’ Organic-certification processes, normally taking three years and requiring hard documents to prove organic practices are being followed exclusively, are designed to ensure complete, long-term commitment.”
From his perspective as a businessman, Neal acknowledges that most growers and vintners think of organic farming as being more expensive than conventional or sustainable agriculture. “This would make sense,” he admits, “as typical organic farming requires more tractor passes in the vineyard, more vigilance against pests and diseases, as well as more highly skilled vineyard professionals.”
But is it more expensive? Neal cites the economic data from eight vineyards in St. Helena, Calistoga, Yountville, and Pope Valley that he transitioned from conventional to organic between 2005 and 2008. “In seven of the eight ranches,” he reports, “we found that the costs of organic farming were lower than conventional farming by an average of $6,000. The ‘high cost’ of organic farming is a myth.”
How does Neal explain this contradiction of conventional wisdom? “The first factor would appear to be elimination of non-organic materials like Chateau, Goal, Round-Up, Pristine, Elite, and Flint, as well as synthetic fertilizers. These materials are very effective, but rather expensive, while their organic counterparts are often less expensive.” Second is the concept of more vigilant, proactive farming: that the “desired results of any application may be more efficiently obtained through organic methods, therefore not requiring a follow-up or second application in either the same season or subsequent seasons.” Other cost-effective aspects of organic farming include the release of insect predators and one-time installations of owl boxes.
An even larger percentage of growers in Napa Valley are now following sustainable guidelines, particularly under the auspices of the Napa Sustainable Winegrowing Group (NSWG), which was established in 1995 to promote integrated pest management and other low-impact measures. To Neal, however, sustainability is not much more than an “honor system.” Guidelines are voluntary and do not rule out the use of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, or herbicides. At its worst, according to Neal, “sustainability means ‘I’ve got birdhouses.’” To him, “the tools for organic farming at our disposal are diverse—far more than what we started with in the 1980s.” He is convinced that “there is more than enough vineyard expertise and knowledge in Napa Valley” to make organic farming more of a norm than an anomaly.
OPPORTUNITY AND REWARD
Rather than regarding them as risks, growers like Neal see organic practices as opportunities to reduce the chemical dependence of plants and promote their natural development of resistance to pests. Cover crops, for instance, inhibit soil erosion while encouraging more efficient use of available nutrients, compared to conventional fertilizers such as 12-26-26, which are highly mobile and generally released into the soil at rates far greater than what a plant can utilize. The organic approach would be to plant plow-down, legume-based cover crops and supplement that with a low-concentration organic fertilizer such as 4-3-4, which releases nutrients more slowly and effectively to root zones.
The benefits of organic viticulture were driven home as we walked through two of Neal’s adjacent Rutherford vineyards, farmed organically since the mid-1980s, and only recently replanted (in 2000 and 2008) despite having originally been grafted to AxR#1 rootstock. While rapid phylloxera infestation forced most Napa Valley growers to completely replant in the 1980s and early 1990s, Neal’s AxR#1 plantings continued to perform optimally. “No question,” explains Neal, “organic vines live longer. Being more dependent upon themselves, rather than being spoon-fed by fertilizers, the root systems of organic vines are more effective at gathering nutrients and water and produce healthier, better fruit on top. Our plantings on AxR#1 could have remained fully functional even if we had let them go. We finally replaced them, primarily to get them on more ideal spacing and trellising.”
The beautiful Zinfandel vines in Julie Johnson’s 37-year-old Tres Sabores plot, nearby on the west side of Rutherford, are another example of a completely healthy, certified-organic planting, still thriving on AxR#1. According to Johnson, “There are two things that have contributed to the longevity and overall health of our vineyard: one is the organic farming, and the other is dry farming. Dry farming results in roots penetrating deeper into the alluvial fan base of the Rutherford Bench, which is why phylloxera has not been a factor at Tres Sabores. The best thing about our vineyard is that our plants are in balance with the soil. The entire organic paradigm is that it gives the vine the strength to gather resources for itself, rather than depend upon artificial application for sustenance.”
John Williams, Frog’s Leap founder and owner, echoes Johnson’s sentiments: “Based upon over 20 years of experience, we can confidently say that organic farming results in healthier soils, which produce healthier plants; and healthier plants naturally resist diseases such as phylloxera and nematodes. In the case of Frog’s Leap, both organic and dry farming also naturally produce devigorized yet healthy vines, which ultimately lead to higher-quality wines.”
Those are the opportunities and rewards of organic viticulture.