All vineyards at Cakebread Cellars are farmed sustainably — Photo courtesy of Cakebread Cellars
The terms "sustainability" and "earth-friendly" no longer apply to a small, niche market. They have become drivers for many consumers, and many West Coast vintners have been engaging in sustainable practices in their vineyard and wineries long before it became fashionable.
Their efforts are paving the way for other wineries to make the sometimes costly and time-consuming changes needed to operate in a manner that is kinder to the planet.
From composting waste and recycling water in California to planting cover crops and using organic materials to combat pests in Oregon, many winemakers and winery owners believe the use of natural products and reduction of their carbon footprint is not only better for the environment and the vines, but also results in a higher quality wine.
In turn, they hope their employees and visitors are inspired to make similar efforts in their daily lives and support like-minded business – a cumulative effort that just might make a difference. Here are a few West Coast standouts you should visit.
Tablas Creek Vineyard | Paso Robles, California
Brilliant, ripe counoise grapes ready for harvest at Tablas Creek in Paso Robles — Photo courtesy of Tablas Creek Vineyard
Sustainability is more than a buzzword for some West Coast wineries; it’s a way of life and always has been. But Jason Haas, partner and general manager of Tablas Creek in Paso Robles, says consumers are finally showing greater interest in supporting wineries that are earth-friendly, which in turn inspires more wineries to join the party.
He says, "I feel like this is a part of a larger consumer trend where people want to know that the products they consume are produced in a way that is in keeping with their ethos."
Haas adds, "When we started in 1989, we were the only vineyard in Paso Robles farming organically and sustainability wasn’t even a term anyone was using. Fast forward thirty years, and the majority of Paso Robles vineyards have a sustainability certification."
Villa Creek Cellars | Paso Robles, California
Good, old-fashioned foot stomping is still done on select grapes at Villa Creek in Paso Robles — Photo courtesy of Max Delsid for Villa Creek Cellars
Talk to almost any vintner and they say wine's magic begins in the vineyard. While that might infer great care goes into protecting the environment surrounding a vine’s deep roots and thin-skinned fruit, that’s not always the case.
In Paso Robles, Villa Creek Cellars cofounder JoAnn Cherry cautions,"The wine industry is kind of the last frontier in terms of the ability for winegrowers and winemakers to do virtually whatever they want in the vineyard and cellar. Consumers have no idea what actually ends up in their glass and most assume wine is a natural product."
But the wine industry has seen an uptick in the number of producers like Cherry, who don't view wine as just a commodity. They're passionate about their product and are committed to protecting the environment they depend on as farmers, despite the cost and effort.
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Cakebread Cellars | Rutherford, California
Cakebread was only the second winery ever to receive the Napa Green certification — Photo courtesy of Robert Holmes for Cakebread Cellars
Cakebread Cellars' vineyard director Lise Asimont explains, "Sustainable winegrowing takes into account the three E’s of our farming practice: socially equitable practices, the economics of our system, and the environment and environmental impact of our work. Sustainability is a continuum wherein improvement is ongoing and perfection is never achieved, but we hope that our momentum helps shift the tides."
Cakebread, a leader in sustainability for decades, has a popular tasting room in the heart of Napa Valley, offering numerous tours and tastings and was among the first in the valley to be awarded certifications for their environmental efforts.
Ponzi Vineyards | Sherwood, Oregon
Ponzi Vineyards is not only a leader in sustainability but also helped put Oregon wines on the international map — Photo courtesy of Ponzi Vineyards
A visit to the tasting room of Ponzi, just 40 minutes from Portland, Oregon, provides spectacular views of the Chehalem Mountains and charging stations for eco-friendly automobiles. Sustainable pioneers in their state for 50 years, Ponzi uses cover crops rather than chemicals for soil health. Winemaker Luisa Ponzi says, "It also ensures we do not deplete the land of essential nutrients needed to grow high quality grapes."
The cover mix is tailored to each vineyard site, Ponzi explains, "Predominant use of legumes (fava, sweet pea, vetch) and nitrogen-rich plants like crimson clover feed the soil, while plants like wild radish have deep tap roots which break up and aerate the soil."
Balletto Vineyards | Santa Rosa, California
The Balletto Family – Caterina, Terri, John, Jacqueline – have been farming since the late '70s — Photo courtesy of Balletto Vineyards
At Balletto Vineyards in Sonoma, founder and owner John Balletto says, “We compost all our grape pomace (solids left after destemming and pressing) from our winemaking process for 9 to 10 months before spreading and tilling back into our vineyard soil the next spring.”
Wine tastings here are often held outside under a trellis of vines. Balletto says, "Our vineyards are like an extension of our family, so we treat them accordingly."
Ehlers Estate | St. Helena, California
Besides being 100% organic, Ehlers Estate has a foundation that funds cardiovascular and neuromuscular research — Photo courtesy of Ehlers Estate
Pest control (without the use of harmful chemicals) is another daunting task for sustainable and organic farmers. At Ehlers Estate in northern Napa Valley, head winemaker and general manager Laura Diaz Munoz, uses spore traps to monitor fungus and pests.
She says, "This tool allows us to space out the spraying, doing it less frequently if it’s not really needed and helps us decide what product to use." The products are all organic and include things such as wettable sulfur and PureSpray Green oil.
Visitors to the rustic yet elegant tasting room (circa 1886) at Ehlers receive a side of organic education with their tasting flight.
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Hahn Family Wines | Soledad, California
Paul Clifton, director of winemaking at Hahn Family Wines inspects the vines — Photo courtesy of GIna Birch
In Santa Lucia Highlands, Hahn Family Wines has long set the pace for sustainability in central California, using insects such as beetles, ladybugs and lacewings for natural pest control.
Guests take Jeep tours through the rolling vineyards where they can view Hahn’s complex water conservation system and clever boxes that emit sounds of a deer in distress to keep the hoofed animals from coming into the vineyard to destroy the fruit.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards | Hopland, California
Sheep graze the organic vineyards of Bonterra, offering natural fertilizer — Photo courtesy of Sara Sanger for Bonterra Organic Vineyards
How does such intense effort in the field translate to the glass? Joseph Brinkley, director of vineyards for Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Mendocino County says, "What we have seen over the years is that farming organically leads to healthier vines, more flavorful grapes and better wines."
Located north of Sonoma in Hopland, Bonterra only opens for visits and tours on select dates."It’s an exciting time," says Brinkley, "because organic farming and earth-friendly practices have always been central to our mission, and now consumers are right there with us."