Modern winemaking has brought many apparent improvements to wine. In the past, while developing a reputation, California tried to emulate French winemaking, which was based largely on time-honored winemaking traditions. But California became a frontier for modern winemaking techniques, and at some point ventured out on its own. Now many wineries worldwide, French wineries included, are adopting modern methods to produce wines different from those of the past, with a taste that many consumers have now come to view as superior. Wine preferences are influenced by many things, and many still debate whether modern wines are superior or whether the popularity of the modern taste is just another wine trend. But one thing is certain—modern winemaking techniques as well as grape growing practices have increased the ecological footprint of a glass of wine.
Four years ago, I planted an experimental vineyard at Dancing Rabbit with the idea of having a small winery that would make sustainably grown organic wine. I knew it would be a long road to the time when I was able to produce wine for sale. I still have a long way to go, but I’ve learned a lot since then about what I’m up against in trying to grow grapes organically at DR, and in trying to make wine given the limitations placed on our ways of doing things in an ecovillage. It’s good to live in a place with these limitations though, because I would like to make every stage of grape growing and winemaking have as little impact as possible on the environment. Wine was made and enjoyed for thousands of years without the use of fossil fuel. Granted, not all the chemistry of winemaking or of agriculture was understood for the majority of that history, but modern techniques were developed with the crutch of the abundant energy of fossil fuel, and this abundance is not going to be available much longer. By using our understanding of science and technology both past and present, we can develop ways of making wine that are both superior and have less impact on the planet.
The first challenge in turning soil and sunlight into wine is in growing grapes organically. This is not an easy thing to do, especially in our climate. Our covenants require that all agriculture be done organically, and I personally would not want to do it any other way. Wines made from organic grapes are becoming more common on the west coast as even many huge winemakers like Fetzer are pioneering commercial organic viticulture (or rather a return to it). But since you may know nothing about growing wine grapes, I will begin by telling you that the kind of grapes most respected for wine in the world are of the vinifera species, and they thrive in a Mediterranean climate. That means dry and moderate, whereas in Missouri humid summers make it very difficult to grow vinifera grapes without a lot of pesticides to control disease. Vinifera varieties also can’t make it through the cold winters in our part of Missouri. To deal with these difficulties, most wine vineyards in Missouri grow hybrids that are crosses of vinifera and cold hardy American species, and they use synthetic pesticides to control pests and disease. If you are going to grow grapes organically, the best place to start is by planting the varieties that are most disease resistant. I have chosen to grow hybrids as well as American varieties that are both hardy for our area and known to be resistant to the diseases most prevalent here.
There are many organic vineyard practices I’m learning about and experimenting with. My main focus is on making the soil healthy, so that the plants will be better able to fight off pests and disease. To do this, I’ve amended the soil with organic cow manure, lime, and wood ash, and I plan to add mycorrhizal fungi to the soil, which can improve uptake of nutrients. I’m also running chickens through the vineyard in a mobile coop, or tractor. As they scratch in the vegetation, they deposit fertilizer, and they have the added benefit of providing eggs, the excess of which can be sold here in the village to pay for their food. In this way, I can have fertilizer that helps pay for itself. All of these soil improvement practices will help build the natural microbial life in the soil that would be killed off by the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers. This life is essential to the healthy organic growth of plants.
I would like the vineyard to be a more natural setting so that it doesn’t have to be a wildlife dead zone like many agricultural fields. To do this I’m experimenting with maintaining native prairie plants between the rows of grapes. One of the added benefits of this practice is in maintaining a diversity of insect predators, so that pest insect populations can be controlled naturally. This is an experiment for the sake of the wildlife, but it may present a challenge because having more plants around the grapes can sap water from the vines, and if the plants are too tall they restrict air flow and contribute to disease.
Another area where steps can be taken to reduce the impact of a vineyard is in maintenance practices. Currently, I mow around the rows of vines with a scythe, an ancient tool used for mowing grass. It doesn’t require any fuel and though slower than a mower, is efficient in the hands of a strong and skilled user. The scythe allows me to get closer to the vines without worry of damaging them, and can reach the spots under the vines and trellising that the tractor mower cannot reach. Most vineyards use herbicide to control weed competition in the rows of vines, but I simply pile the trimmings from scything around the base of the vine to hold moisture and control weeds. I currently mow with the tractor or scythe about two times a year between the rows to keep the vegetation from getting too high and restricting air flow between rows. The chicken tractor helps keep the vegetation low too because the chickens scratch and stamp the grass down, but it doesn’t make its way through the vineyard quickly enough to do a thorough job, which is why I mow with the tractor.
In the future I would like to graze sheep in the vineyard. Many organic grape growers are using sheep to make the job of mowing easier, because the sheep will do the job without petroleum or human labor. They, like the chickens, also turn vegetation into fertilizer and can provide products like wool, milk, or meat, as an added benefit. Grazing sheep might interfere with the natural balance of the prairie plants between the rows, but they will save labor and petroleum and make a product from the unused space between the vines. The drawback is that organic standards don’t allow livestock to be grazed less than 90 days before harvest, making this a far less viable option for mowing. I may have to forego becoming certified organic to make my vineyard more sustainable.
Water is another resource that is essential to the healthy growth and production of a vineyard. Many vineyards these days use drip irrigation to conserve water and deliver it directly to their vines. I’m in the process of setting up drip irrigation in my vineyard, as well. I hope to eventually catch rainwater off the hoop house located just uphill from the vineyard, but right now I’m using a solar-powered pump to pump water uphill to the hoop house from our swimming pond.
Organic standards also don’t allow the use of treated posts for trellising. The chemicals in treated posts leach into the ground and are nothing I would want around my grapes, so I don’t mind having to pay more for the alternative. For my vineyard, I’m using black locust posts custom cut for me by the folks at Sandhill Farm, an intentional community about three miles away. Black locust is a rot resistant wood that should last about 25 years. We also have osage orange, or hedge post, growing on our land, which lasts as much as 80 years in the ground, but it doesn’t grow nearly as straight as the locust.
Although organic standards are an improvement in farming, I along with many other farmers, feel they don’t go far enough in looking at the system as a whole. I think land should be farmed in a way that is most suitable to its quality and climate, so that it will continue to be productive over the long term. All of Dancing Rabbit’s land is classified by the USDA as highly erodible, and much of its soil eroded away in the past because of unsustainable agricultural practices. The thin soil we have here is the result of row crops being grown on hills that were too steep for bare soil. This adds to the challenge of growing grapes here because they would do much better with a nice, deep topsoil. The great thing about using our land for a vineyard is that grapes are perennial, so the field doesn’t need to be tilled every season and permanent perennial strips can be maintained between the row of vines. For this reason, erosion is far less likely to be a problem and our topsoil can begin to be restored. It seems to me a very suitable and sustainable use of our agricultural land.
In the next article, I’ll talk about my plans to make the winemaking process more sustainable.