Wednesday, May 6, 2015

CCOF Workshop: Going Organic in Rutherford

One Napa property owner with 1.5 acres in vine in Stags Leap had been growing organically for decades, but was never quite sure how to connect with a certifier. A Redwood Valley grower from Mendocino County with a 20 acre vineyard knew he was ready to finally get certified. A Gilroy grower and vintner wanted to find out about certification. And Michael Haddox, of Fetzer's grower relations group, was looking for new sources of certified organic grapes for Fetzer's organic wine brand Bonterra.

(L to R) John Williams and Frank Leeds of Frog's Leap. Clinton Nelson of
Jack Neal & Son, Andrea Davis-Cetina of Quarter Acre Farm and Debby
Zygielbaum of Robert Sinskey Vineyards
These growers, buyers and others, including representatives from the Napa County Agriculture Dept., Napa's Resource Conservation District (RCD), the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation District, and Napa Valley Community College, gathered yesterday at the Rutherford Grange to hear from CCOF representatives and Napa County wine experts with certified vineyards in a CCOF-sponsored event "Going Organic," one of a series of events held across the state in agricultural areas.

The experts came from Jack Neal & Son, the largest organic vineyard management firm in Napa county, and from Frog's Leap and Robert Sinskey Vineyards, prominent vintners who are among the top five organic vineyard owners in Napa County. (Grgich Hills is the largest organic vineyard owner, but it's certified through Stellar Certification Services, the organic certification brand of Demeter USA.)

After an organic box lunch at the Grange, the group then went to see two nearby organic vineyards - one farmed by Jack Neal & Son for Neal Family Vineyards and the other at Frog's Leap.

John Williams, proprietor of Frog's Leap, started growing wine grapes organically in 1988. "Why certify?" he asked. "Because you get back what you put in. CCOF gives you networking, connects you to a community - this community right here. This is an organization that has resources and materials."

He later added, "It's better to get farmers together, here at the Grange, to talk about things, versus going to Wilbur Ellis to get more chemicals."

Williams noted that paperwork is often cited as a reason not to certify, but said he doesn't find the required record keeping overwhelming.

"The process of doing the paperwork is simply good farming practice," he said, adding that "a more regulatory environment is probably coming soon for all farmers," not just organic ones.

Williams said his 25 years of experience show him that organic has a lower cost of growing grapes, and that it results in better quality grapes.

"Is there any winery that doesn't want better quality at lower cost?" he asked. 

Increased farmworker safety is another major benefit. "We're protecting our most important asset - our field workers - by increasing their safety and health," he said.

Williams also pointed to the short life of conventionally farmed vineyards in Napa as a pitfall of using harmful chemicals.

"In Napa, we're down to average vineyard lifespans in the teens," he said. "We know that older vines give us the best grapes. To be a Grand Cru in Burgundy, the vines have to be a minimum of 25 years old. We're not achieving that in Napa any more." He said organic vines often last 50, 60 or 70 years. "Therefore, it's worth the extra effort and extra care," he added.

Williams cautioned that growers shouldn't get hung up on blue bird boxes and sheep grazing and OMRI approved materials lists.

"This is it," he said, holding up a copy of Albert Howard's An Agricultural Testament, the classic organic agriculture text published in 1940.

"This shows you Howard's thought processes and brilliant observations. He understood that the heart of organics is nature-based soil and fertility." 

"We're talking about the soil - bringing this beautiful organism alive," Williams said. "Don't go for what I call 'cheater organics' - people who just do the minimum to meet the requirements. I feel sorry for them. They're missing out."

"The fundamental tenet of organics is the organism of the soil - to create living, healthy soil. Healthy soils make healthy plants. Bring that soil to life. Put life into the system. Which is the opposite of taking every ounce of life out of the system - which is what chemical farming does."

Frank Leeds, vineyard manager at Frog's Leap, talked about his family's farming roots in Napa, dating back to the 1920s. "I came here in the 1980's. My Uncle Roy taught me how to farm grapes here. He was a very traditional Napa Valley farmer. He dry farmed (which is how all grapes were grown until the late 1970's). No herbicide for Uncle Roy."

"When it came time to go organic, there was very little change from those traditional farming practices," he added.

Speaking of his dry farming tilling practices,  Leeds said, "I tell John, 'it's good, cold, hard American steel that makes dry farming and organic practices go together well.'"

Clinton Nelson represented Jack Neal & Son, a vineyard management company currently headed by Mark Neal, supporting organic vineyards since 1984. Today the firm manages 45 sites throughout the valley and is the county's largest organic vineyard management firm with close to 1,000 acres under management. Ninety percent of the vineyards it manages are certified organic.

Heitz Cellars, one of its largest and long term clients, has 275 acres of certified organic vines. 

"Organic practices are less toxic to the environment and to farm hands," Nelson said.

Andrea Davis-Cetina, of Quarter Acre Farm of Sonoma, a vegetable and seedling starts farmer, attended as a member of the CCOF board of directors. She's actively leading a reinvigoration of the CCOF's North Coast chapter, which has begun to have quarterly meetings in Marin, Napa and Sonoma counties. "There are 300 members. Debby Zygielbaum of Robert Sinskey Vineyards is the president of the local chapter," Davis-Cetina said.

"Basically what I see is that all of the farmers of my generation are becoming certified organic," Davis-Cetina observed, noting that the government, under the latest farm bill, reimburses farmers for approximately 75% of organic certification costs.

Zygielbaum, whose official title at Robert Sinskey Vineyards is Dirt Farmer and Sheep Wrangler, talked about the changes in the soils at RSV's 170+ acres of vines in the Carneros region. "We have heavy clay soils there, and when I started in 2003, a walk through the vines was like walking in moon boots - heavy clay clung to your soles. Now, 12 years later - there are no moon boots. The soils are much healthier from our organic farming practices."

Zygielbaum invited everyone to attend upcoming CCOF North Coast chapter meetings in Marin in July and at Jack Neal & Son in Napa Valley in November.

The discussion then turned to a broader array of topics, drilling down into winery's organic programs and day to day challenges.

"We have 200 acres of certified vines," said Williams, "mostly in Rutherford. We worked with our growers to get them certified, offering them financial incentives to become certified. 

"We also have 30 other crops on our winery site - peaches, pears, nectarines, apples, figs, vegetables and more."

Frog's Leap does not look at organic as a promotional or marketing device (it doesn't label its wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes," for instance), Williams said, but commented that nonetheless, he had received negative comments over the years from other Napa vintners, who were "snickering at me. I'd get angry emails along the lines of 'You're trying to make us look bad by comparison, for using these chemicals.'"

Asked what the biggest hurdle to getting started was, Williams said initially that education was the biggest challenge.  "We were fortunate enough to have good advisors out there - Amigo Bob Cantisano and others. That was our biggest hurdle - learning - and perception."

Williams recalled one grower in Pope Valley raising Sauvignon Blanc for him. "There were concerns that the organic block would 'contaminate' the other grapes." He said that after phylloxera infested that grower's property, the only block that survived was the organic block.

Another concern nonorganic vintners raised was what would happen if a new disease arose that organic materials would not be able to address. Williams said, "Amigo told me, 'tell them we'll blast it out with every toxic chemical on the face of the earth known to man.' I said, 'Will we do that?' He said, 'Don't worry. That will never happen.'"

Clinton Nelson said the number one challenge for organic growers is weed control.

Like many organic vine tenders, the firm uses the Sunflower, made by Pellenc of France, to mechanically remove weeds from under vines. (See it in action [elsewhere] on YouTube here or here.)

While this technique works on the flats, other approaches are used on sloping vineyards. "On hillsides terraces on our Howell Mountain property, we use propane weed control," Nelson said.

Pest management and disease prevention focused on common vineyard problems - Blue-green sharpshooters (which spread Pierce's Disease) and powdery mildew. Participants said they use Dipel or Entrust to combat the European grapevine moth, beneficial wasps against vine mealybug, lacewings for leaf roll and wasps to control mites. PyGanic, an organic approved material, was also used.

The subject of GMOs in yeasts was also a concern as many yeasts are raised on GMO sugar beets.

CCOF's new label features the additional words "Non GMO and more" to make it clear to consumers that organic prohibits GMOs. (New "Non GMO" certification programs, that are not organic, have entered the marketplace, making it possible for consumers to identify non GMO, nonorganic products.)

Elizabeth Whitlow of CCOF gives participants an overview of
certification requirements and answered questions on the finer points

Certified wines ("Made with Organic Grapes" or "Organic Wine") use only organic yeast, so no GMOs would be in those products. However, wines labeled "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" are not restricted to organic yeasts and so therefore may contain GMO yeasts.

Panelists and audience members also briefly touched on labeling issues with "Organic Wine," expressing the view that the use of these words should not be restricted to no added sulfite wines.

(There are three different types of labeling for organically grown wines, but the words "Organic Wine" are the one used most often by most people to describe all wines made from organic grapes).

Another question arose over whether or not treated lumber fenceposts would meet organic certification standards.  CCOF Representative Elizabeth Whitlow, formerly the CCOF inspector for Napa County, clarified that one: pre-existing treated lumber could be okayed, but once a site was certified, no new treated lumber would be allowed. 

On the subject of whether or not compost had to be certified organic, Whitlow said the rules stipulate that compost must be approved for organic use by OMRI, Washington State Dept. of Agriculture (WSDA) or by the certifier.

The Neal Family's Rutherford Dust zinfandel vineyard
The group then went on a site visit to Neal Family Vineyards on Mee Lane.

There Clinton Nelson talked about vineyard practices, demonstrating the use of yellow sticky traps to monitor blue-green sharpshooter movements. "In the past, these insects used to come mainly from riparian areas which, being slightly warmer, were attractive as overwintering areas," Nelson said. "But now with warmer winters, we're seeing that these insects are overwintering everywhere. We've also seen them coming more from ornamental plants around houses." 

Participants noted that some varietals suffer more than others from Pierce's Disease (sometimes called PD). Growers commented that Riesling and Petite Sirah were rarely PD victims while Chardonnay was often very susceptible.

Clinton Nelson from Jack Neal & Son showed participants
vineyard monitoring practices used to track insect pests.
Monitoring, used by organic and nonorganic growers alike,
enables growers to better understand volume and direction
of pests.
Nelson discussed some of Neal's preferred vineyard practices, which included the use of 039.16 rootstock on the valley floor, which Nelson said was chosen for its resistance to fan leaf.

"We use stylet oil as a fungicide and miticide," he said. "It suffocates mites. We use it only during the dormant period. Then we switch to a weekly spraying program of Bt bacteria against botryitis and powdery mildew."

Nelson said chemical farmers spray only every other week because the materials they use are more toxic.  "With organic, we have to be preventive and be ahead of any disease or infection."

Another ingredient in the organic vineyardists' arsenal is pyrethrin, a plant extract from the Chrystanthemum family, which has been shown to be effective against blue-green sharpshooters, he said.

Other ingredients in the organic growers' toolkit include pheromone dispensers (although not the traps, which are not approved for organic farming),  PyGanic or lime sulfur (against vine mealybug) and Seduce, an organic-approved ant bait.

Asked why Neal's clients decide to go with organic practices, Nelson said that the factors that were top of mind for clients were berry quality, vine quality and improved safety for farm workers.

Over at Frog's Leap, John Williams led the group through the flower garden, vegetable garden and fruit trees, warning the group that going organic can lead to ever widening circles of environmentally friendly changes.

"This is the first LEED certified winery building in the state of California," he said. "We were among the first to go solar, we dry farm, we have geothermal heating and cooling...this is what happens when you have a heightened awareness of agricultural systems. So be forewarned about going down this path," he joked. 

John Williams talks about dry farming and organic practices at Frog's Leap
in Rutherford
Williams stressed the importance of biodiversity for both the farm and the farmworkers.

"By having other crops - like olive trees - we can provide our 20 fieldworkers with year round employment, health benefits and 6 weeks of vacation," he said. "That's a pretty persuasive package."

The winery also sells marmalade, apple butter and olive oil in shipments to wine club members, along with the wines. "It helps them open the box. We find that these food products are a real asset, because if they don't open the box, they don't drink the wines. When they drink the wine, they keep buying more."

Williams also joked that the hardest list in Napa to get on was the local restaurants' wine lists, due to the amount of local competition, and that the produce sold to local chefs gave him an in in getting his wines on the restaurants'  wine lists, too. 

Williams, who has the talent and timing of a comedian, delivered his views on what a grapevine wants and how much modern viticulture has completely failed the vine.

"What does a grape vine think about?" he asked. "How do I make berries that birds will be attracted to and shit out [so they'll reproduce] and then how do I get ready for winter? A vine needs to product fruit that has the color, acidity and flavor that appeal to a bird." 

Flavor comes from intelligent vines, Williams said.

"Vines don't develop flavor without healthy soils and deep roots. High brix can't substitute for flavor," he said, criticizing the effects of irrigation, fertigation, and Parker's palate on Napa's wines. "So now, in order to make up for all the intelligence we took away from the vine, by feeding it crack, basically, we've got spinning cones, megapurple, and other fake techniques to cover up the lack of natural ripeness and flavor."

These techniques start in the vineyard, he said.

"We've created dumb grapevines making bad decisions, by giving vines surface water and [surface] nutrients. We know that the dominant hormones that make the decisions are in the root tips.

"I've heard experts say the modern vine are now 25% the size of previous vines," he said. It's obvious that Williams doesn't consider this progress. 

Charles Schembrerfrom Napa's RCD  talked about RCD's free 
mobile irrigation lab and encouraged vineyard owners to 
sign up for free irrigation system evaluations

In addition to the field tours, a representative from Napa's RCD program was on hand to tell vineyard managers about RCD's new mobile irrigation lab. The free service is available by appointment and provides an in-depth consultation to review water use and top priorities for improvements. (The RCD web page about the lab says that there's a $200 fee for the lab, but the service is currently free. The earliest bookings available now are in July.)

The event concluded with a wine tasting.

From Neal Family Vineyards, winemaker Gove Celio served forth the 2014 Sauvignon Blanc and the Rutherford Dust Zinfandel - the latter from the Mee Lane site the group visited.

Frog's Leap served its most popular wine - Sauvignon Blanc - along with its Merlot and Cabernet.

Note: All the wines from certified organic vines in Napa can be found using the Organically Napa apps

For Certification Geeks:
"Organic Wine" - no added sulfite wines
No vintners in Napa make a no-added-sulfite organically grown wine.

"Made with Organic Grapes" - 100 ppm max sulfites, made in certified winery
Grgich Hills Estate, Neal Family Vineyards and 2 more

"Ingredients: Organic Grapes"
Robert Sinskey Vineyards and 8 more

Many vintners in Napa with certified vineyards who would be eligible to label their wines "Ingredients: Organic Grapes" don't bottle label. (These estate grown wines from certified vines can be found in the Organically Napa: Wine Finder app).


  1. Thanks for this very informative article. Wish I could have been there. Very best regards, Monty Waldin (specialist organic wine writer/author etc).

  2. Great recap of the Going Organic workshop. Thanks so much for writing up this detailed blog post!