We are very interested in managing our vineyards in a way which leaves the land permenently productive and environmentally undamaged and which provides habitat for many plant and animal species. Practically, this means that we do many things that conventional (industrial) farming does not while avoiding many practices common in conventional farming. These practices fall into several broad catagories.
Erosion Control In an environment that receives 50+ inches of rain a year, water run-off is a big issue. We have developed a system that uses drain rock to channel run-off water from the hillsides. This slows the rate of water flow and limits erosion. In addition, we utilize terracing to promote water retention in the soil, a turf culture between rows of grapes to hold the soil (we never plow or till the vineyards), and a system of drains that take the water to a pond for settling of any sediment. Thus the very substantial run-off water from the vineyards is clear and clean when it enters a nearby small creek, and we have not observed any erosion in the vineyards. After two onsite inspections and continuous monitoring, the vineyards have been certified "Salmon Safe" (www.salmonsafe.org) to recognize this fact.
Pesticides/Herbicides Sustainable farming requires minimal use of chemical agents and that these agents should not harm animals and plants other than the target pest. We follow strict guidelines promulgated by the state-wide organization "Low Input Viticulture and Enology" (www.LIVEInc.org). These allow the use of only certain restricted pesticides and herbicides that the organization deems ecologically safe for use with minimal rates of application. The results are easily observed in the vineyard. Myriad species of insects are numerous and we particularly delight when we find praying mantis on the vines. Every year we discover several nests in the vines where small birds have raised a family. Wild turkeys reside in the vineyards year round, and especially in winter. The pond adjoining Black Oak Vineyard is a favorite hang-out in the fall for rare wood ducks which take advantage of the acorns in and around the pond. Pileated woodpeckers, present all year in the forest surrounding the vineyards, spend much of the fall gobbling up grapes (fortunately mostly after the leaves have fallen, when missed grapes are easily seen). As witness to the diversity of plants found in our vineyards, please view the vineyard wildflower photos below!
Fertility Part of the formula that leads to superior quality grapes (which make superior wine) is to hold down the vigor of the vines. Thus we never fertilize with nitrogen-containing fertilizers which would increase vigor. Nitrogen fertilizers are extremely energy intensive materials, and these products are notoriously prone to leaching into nearby streams. We periodically measure soil and vine mineral content, to proactively detect deficiencies. Western Oregon is regarded as having "boron deficient" soils, and our measurements frequently confirm this in our vineyards. Thus we routinely spray a foliar nutrient mix twice yearly, which provides traces of boron, zinc and potassium to the vines. These very conservative practices assure that there is virtually no run-off of nutrients into the adjoining stream. All organic matter produced by the vines and not consumed in winemaking, is ultimately returned to the vineyard. The vineyard has a "turf culture" of native grasses and plants, which considerably increases the organic matter produced and retained by the vineyard. We mow three times annually and leave the clippings on the vineyard floor. Canes pruned from the vines are "flailed" or chopped up and added to the mulch beneath the vines. The leaves which fall from the vines in the fall are also incorporated. Thus we are adding considerably to the carbon balance of the soil, and very slowly increasing the humus content. Stems/skins/seeds from winemaking are composted and ultimately returned to the vineyards.
Energy Use Much of the work performed in the vineyards, such as pruning, suckering, thinning, and picking uses that most fundamental source of energy, human labor. Since we do not till the soil and we do not apply nitrogen fertilizers, about the only energy use of consequence in the vineyards are 1) tractor fuel to apply sprays/ mow/ load grape totes at harvest time, and 2) truck fuel to haul the grapes to the winery 3 miles away. There is inevitably some additional tractor use for miscellaneous purposes, such as trellis or fence work. We use about 150 gallons of diesel fuel a year for the tractor, and we have been using 20% biodiesel mixture. The truck uses about 35 gallons of gasoline a year. For that modest consumption, consider the yield: in a typical year the vineyards produce about 30 tons of grapes, containing over 20% sugar by weight or 6 tons of sugar.
Unlike vineyards, there currently are no certifying agencies that specialize in assuring wineries in sustainable practices. Thus we have used our own judgment to guide our goal of achieving the best practices consistent with sustainability. In general, we seek 1) to reduce our energy consumption, and particularly our fossil fuel consumption to a minimum, 2) to recycle as much as practicable, 3) to use natural rather than synthetic or mineral products and recycled products as much as possible, 4) to dispose of waste by recycling or using systems which are most favorable to the environment. This process is very much incomplete, and we are learning constantly about new ways to improve our sustainability. Below are some descriptions of our efforts thus far.
Energy Consumption Because electrical energy is relatively cheap in our area, and is almost entirely derived from hydroelectric dams (a quasi-renewable source), our winery is nearly entirely electric. Heating and cooling are provided by a heat pump. To obtain maximum efficiency, we installed a "three-phase" compressor in the unit, which uses about 60% of the energy of a comparable single-phase unit which would be found in most homes and small businesses. We recently upgraded our insulation in the building to R-38 throughout and we expect that this will reduce our energy consumption by about a third. We also installed a fan system, which activates when summertime evening temperatures drop below 60 degrees, cooling the building overnight and eliminating the need for air-conditioning. This should reduce our electrical use by about a sixth. Most of our equipment is electrical, including one of the forklifts. The only fossil fuels we use are diesel fuel in our hot water pressure washer (about 30 gal per year) and propane in the auxiliary forklift (about 30 gal per year). Lastly, we recently installed 36 photovoltaic panels on the roof of the winery and calculate that this array will generate about half our former electrical use. The conservation measures and solar energy generation should combine over the course of a year so that the winery has no net electrical use. We are working on alternatives for the fossil fuels we use, including the use of biodiesel.
Recycling Wineries generate a lot of potential recyclables. Empty bottles, empty case boxes, corks, tin capsules, shipping containers and used barrels are the major items. We rigorously recycle bottles and cardboard at the local disposal service. Corks are offered free to customers in the tasting room for hobbies and crafts. Tin capsules are stripped from empty bottles and accumulated for sale to scrap metal recyclers. Our shipping containers are mostly made from 100% recycled paper and are biodegradable. Older barrels no longer needed are sold for modest amounts to the public for use in a variety of inventive uses around the community, including planters in Downtown Elkton and trash recepticles in nearby Winchester Bay.
Natural/Recycled Product Use Our wine is bottled with natural corks, and this will always by the case. Cork comes from the cork oak tree, which grows mostly in native forests in the Western Mediterranean area of Europe and Africa. The bark is harvested every 8-10 years in a sustainable fashion, and the forests are important ecosystems for wildlife. We believe that cork is a superior closure for wine bottles, and recent improvements in cork processing have virtually eliminated "cork taint" as a problem. We would like to use recycled (rewashed) bottles, but currently there is no source at hand. Use of rewashed bottles would have considerable impact, as glass manufacture is an energy intensive process.
Waste Disposal Wineries generate a lot of waste. Grape skins/seeds/stems after pressing or fermentation amount to many tons every fall. We truck these solids back to the vineyard, where we have set aside a special area devoted to composting. Water is used in large volumes to clean equipment. All of our water waste is directed to the city sewer system, which assures that none will end up running untreated into the nearby Umpqua River. Because we are nearly all-electric, and that generated by solar power, we do not produce smokestack gases.