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Sustainable viticulture

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Posted: Sunday, April 8, 2007 10:00 pm

Alan MacIsaac of Acampo likes the idea of buying a bottle of wine that was produced using "sustainable viticulture" practices.

It might even lead him to pick one bottle over another, said MacIsaac, who owns his own solid waste consulting firm.

"When you consume anything from fuel to wine, you should think of the sustainability of that product - about how you can keep that standard of life without destroying that standard of life," he said Friday after sipping a glass of zinfandel at cellardoor, a recently opened wine tasting room in Downtown Lodi.

Local grape growers are keenly aware that promoting "green" or environmentally friendly products is a powerful marketing strategy.

But they say their practice - sustainable viticulture, an increasingly prominent method of growing winegrapes in the region - is not just a pair of buzz words meant to sell more Lodi wine.

Instead, they say, it's a sincere effort to enhance the water, wildlife, air and soil at their farms, all the while keeping their vineyards financially viable for generations to come.

"I was born and raised in the vineyard," said Brad Lange, a local winery owner, noting the family's farm served as his backyard and playground growing up, as it has for his own children.

"What we do to our soil, what we do to our water - we in the end suffer the consequences. We don't intend to suffer. So, we're going to be environmentally sensitive. It all comes kind of full circle."

Valente points out a newly planted Sauvignion Blanc vine that has a root stock that is resistant to damaging insects. Once the plants grow, Valente wont have to use harsh and expensive pesticides. (Brian Feulner/News-Sentinel)

Certified sustainable

Some local growers, including Lange, are so committed to sustainable practices they've joined a first-of-its-kind certification program, known as the Lodi Rules.

Outside agricultural auditors inspect the participating vineyards.

From there, Protected Harvest, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, certifies the vineyards based on measurable evidence that sustainable practices - like avoiding toxic pesticides and creating wildlife habitat - are taking place.

"That is surely the best way to assure the consumer that (vintners) are not just blowing smoke," Lange said of the Lodi Rules.

Only 12 of the Lodi area's hundreds of grape growers have joined Lodi Rules since its inception. The strict standards and high application fee - $2,100 for the first year, plus $1 per certified acre - have kept many growers from joining, said Cliff Ohmart, the architect of the rules and the research director at the Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission.

Even so, Ohmart said he's hopeful more growers will join this year, especially as the emphasis on environmentally sound practices continues to grow.

"The credibility of a program is: Are you doing what you say you're doing?" he said via cell phone while driving from Lodi to his Davis home last week. "In this day and age, growers and wineries are going to want to claim that they're sustainable - and the Lodi Rules is a verification of that fact."

John Kautz Farms uses drip lines for watering the grape vines and to conserve water as well. (Brian Feulner/News-Sentinel)

At Lange's vineyards, which grow across the Lodi Appellation as far as the rolling hills of Clements, efficiency is a key part of sustainable practices.

Building tractors that can trim four rows of vines at once, rather than just two, and also spray for pests at the same time is one example. These "multitasking" trips create less dust and use less fuel, keeping the air a bit cleaner, Lange noted.

"The idea is, before you do an operation, you first ask yourself: Is it necessary?" he said.

To ensure worker safety - another emphasis of sustainable viticulture - the Lange family has outfitted its tractor cabs with carbon filtration systems, providing cleaner air for workers to breathe.

Specially trained employees mix chemical sprays ahead of time, so drivers don't have to worry about that hazardous step.

Green marketing

Promoting sustainable practices no doubt improves wineries' bottom lines, especially when a consumer is faced with hundreds of bottles of similarly priced wines at the average supermarket, said Joel Herche, a marketing professor at the University of Pacific in Stockton.

Just about every industry today touts some form of environmental awareness, Herche said, noting that an entire "green marketing" movement has formed.

Sustainable viticulture is perhaps best defined by its three "Es": economic viability, environmental sensitivity and social equity.
It aims to enhance the environment so that vintners, for generations to come, have high-quality agricultural land to produce their grapes.
The practice, which has gained prominence over the past decade, also emphasizes worker safety and paying fair wages.
It's derived from similar sustainable agriculture methods, which were created in response to concerns about the intensive farming practices developed during the early and mid 20th century.
Those concerns included the heavy use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and resulting soil degradation and loss of wildlife habitat.
Source: Lodi Woodbridge Winegrape Commission

Such promotion is especially critical within the competitive wine industry.

"Any edge is going to be seen on the radar," said Herche, who coincidentally owns a vineyard east of Lodi. "I think, in general, people feel better about buying something that appears to be better for the environment."

Nationwide, green businesses and their products are worth an estimated $228 billion, according to an October article by the Washington Post.

Numbers for total sales of sustainable products are hard to come by.

But market experts agree that the sale of organic products accounts for roughly two or three percent of the United States economy.

The sustainable movement grew largely from organic farming, which avoids using synthetic fertilizers and pesticides.

At least two local wine brands plan to promote their sustainable practices on their bottles this year.

Lange noted he plans to place the Lodi Rules stamp on his next vintage.

And, by mid-June, Ironstone Vineyards will feature a short explanation of the vineyard's sustainable practices on the back of its bottle, said Pam Graviet, the company's marketing director.

Ironstone has not joined the Lodi Rules.

An early example of their label, provided by Graviet, details the vineyard's commitment to reducing water use, building healthy soil and maintaining surrounding wildlife habitat.

Herche, of Pacific, added that he sees customers buying the "green" bottles over similarly priced alternatives, but doesn't see consumers paying more for such wines.

"Very few of us are willing to pay a premium for these products," the professor noted.

Cultivating a new image

While the image of the Lodi wine region has improved in recent years, local vintners know its not on par with Napa or Sonoma.

To create a unique identity for the area, and further enhance Lodi's wine image, many have turned to sustainable viticulture - or at least begun to promote it more aggressively.

"It's basically what we've been doing for 30 years," said Joe Valente, who manages Ironstone's Lodi vineyards.

Whether it's using natural compost to fertilize the vines or installing owl boxes to help control pests, Valente said Ironstone has long been friendly to its surroundings.

Bone fragments can be seen scattered underneath an owl box on John Kautz Farms in Lodi. The owls regurgitate unneeded animal parts after digesting their food. These boxes are an example of sustainable viticulture and using more natural methods for removing pests. (Brian Feulner/News-Sentinel)

"I think that farmers get the bad rap that we're destroying everything," Valente said before driving out to inspect the vineyard's Field 32 off Alpine Road, east of Lodi.

"We get an image that we're against environmentalists," he said. "We're probably the biggest environmentalists because we have to take care of the soil."

Jean-Jacques Lambert, a University of California, Davis soil scientist in the school's viticulture department, says Lodi is on the right track when it comes to sustainability.

He noted that the practice is a way to enhance the region's image.

"When you sell wine, you want to sell a wholesome product - you sell a little bit of ecology," he said, noting Lodi has taken several steps to separate itself from other wine markets. He cited the Lodi Rules as the most prominent example.

Back at Ironstone, Valente noted there are projects that really don't have a direct economic benefit to the vineyards, but are promoted anyway.

In the middle of Field 32, sits a small pond surrounded by oak, pine and willow trees and 13 wood duck boxes, all built by Ironstone about 12 years ago. The small wooden enclosures serve as homes for hundreds of new ducks at the vineyard each year.

Some mornings at the preserve, Valente will see 100 or more wood ducks in the area.

"We're enhancing the wildlife. We don't want it to disappear," said Valente, who's worked for Ironstone for 28 years. "I had never seen a wood duck around here until we started this project. So, I think it's kind of neat."

Contact reporter Chris Nichols at chrisn@lodinews.com.

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