Gather a few winegrowers together and ask them about their craft, and you’re likely to hear some thought-provoking answers. Such was the case earlier this month when I moderated a panel discussion on “green” winemaking at the National Museum of Natural History, part of the Smithsonian’s annual “Demystifying Seafood: The Ocean and Its Bounty” event.
Since any good food event requires wine, the museum partnered with the Rhone Rangers, an association of 150 U.S. wineries that grow grapes traditional to the Rhone Valley in France - grenache, syrah, mourvedre and other reds, plus viognier, roussanne, marsanne and grenache blanc among the whites. I moderated a panel discussion and tasting of “green rangers” - Phillip Hart of AmByth Estate in Paso Robles; Pam Harter of Rocca Family Vineyards in Napa; Steve Beckman of Beckman Vineyards, Peter Stolpman of Stolpman Vineyards, and Ken Volk of Kenneth Volk Vineyards in Santa Barbara County.
The discussion focused on sustainable, organic and biodynamic viticulture, three schools of “green” winemaking with sometimes dramatic differences. There were hints of contention: Stolpman and Beckman, who are neighbors in Santa Barbara County’s Ballard Canyon, joked of shared water tables and drifting sprays. But the winegrowers shared an obvious and heart-felt dedication to producing world-class wines in a manner that preserves their small parcel of the Earth.
Here’s some of what they had to say:
“We’re all family owned vineyards, were not corporate,” Stolpman said. “We don’t have to answer to quarterly profits or losses. For me to be a boutique winery operation, there’s no reason not to farm organically. Yes, this year I could have saved money buying Roundup to kill all the weeds, I could go out and poison all the varmints in the vineyard and have an easier time. But the thing about fine wine is there is no cutting corners. I think the use of chemicals is a modern, convenient way to make life easier and more profitable, not to make better wine.”
And about those chemicals, Hart, who farms biodynamically and makes “natural” wines (in his case, foot-trodden, fermented with indigenous yeasts, and bottled without added sulfites), had this to say: “If you are a chemical farmer, then you are putting chemicals on your crops, and then we are ingesting them. In our current society we’re starting to realize that may be having some influence on our bodies. If you’re a good farmer or a biodynamic farmer, then those chemicals aren’t going on your crops and they aren’t going inside you. I think that’s pretty vital.”
“Grapes have an ability to absorb what’s around them,” agreed Beckman, who also farms his vineyards according to biodynamic philosophies. “Smoke taint, for instance, which has been a problem in California and Australia. If you look at the list of vegetables and fruits that you should wash thoroughly, grapes are on that list.”
“And with Australian wines, that eucalyptus flavor we like comes from eucalyptus trees that grow around the vineyard,” Hart said. “That’s not direct absorption. It makes you think.”
Rocca Family Vineyards has about 30 acres under vine in Napa County, and pays a minimum of $50,000 a year to maintain organic certification, Pam Harter said. “We do it because we think it’s the right thing for our families, our vines and our wines - it’s not making us money. But when I go out to the a vineyard that’s farmed organically or biodynamically, it feels alive. It’s a totally different feeling in those vineyards.”
Ken Volk is a major proponent of sustainable farming, which incorporates some of the principles of organics and biodynamics without the strictures involved in certification. There are several sustainability programs for wineries, including one developed by The Wine Institute, the California industry association.
“Sustainability is about how to farm your vineyard in a way that future generations can benefit,” Volk said. “It comes down to the ‘three E’s’ - environmentally sound, economically feasible, and socially equitable.”
“Economically feasible” means flexibility to do what’s necessary when trouble hits.
“The reality is there are times when you may be reliant on synthetic chemicals, pesticides, to control things,” he said. “Last year because of the weather we had, there was more acreage coming out of organic certification than any year in the past decade. People were responding to the climate they were faced with.”
(This article was published June 22 in The Washington Post. Also, the subsequent food and wine tasting event included three Virginia wineries that are members of Rhone Rangers: Tarara Vineyards, Veritas Vineyards, and Delaplane Cellars.)
The panel, from left to right: Phil Hart (obscured), Steve Beckman, Peter Stolpman, Pam Harter, Ken Volk and well, some other guy. Photos: Kevin Allen, for the Smithsonian.