Sustainable winegrowing Fetzer style

Photo: www.fetzer.com

California wines are famous for their high quality and diversity and but increasingly for their purity. Thanks to Fetzer and Bonterra Vineyards, the market for organic and sustainably-grown wine is increasing.

It started with 7-acres
As one of the first vineyards to go organic, Fetzer is considered a pioneer as well as an innovator. Organic first caught the eye of Barney and Kathleen Fetzer in the mid-1980s. The couple had come up with the idea of pairing wine with food and hired an organic gardener to grow fruits, vegetables and herbs that would complement their wines. They were so impressed with the phenomenal produce coming out their five acre garden (which started out with poor soil), they decided to go organic in the vineyards.

Going back to nature
The first step was to stop all chemical fertilizers. After experimenting with cover crops, Fetzer found that a combination of grasses and legumes worked best to nourish the soil and attract the good bugs who kept away unwanted pests. Vineyard managers now select cover crops depending on the particular needs of the soil. Grasses are used to prevent erosion on the hills while plants like clover, beans and peas are used in other vineyards to improve nitrogen content. Compost is also used to increase fertility when needed. Weeds are controlled mechanically, using a tractor with a mechanism that goes underneath the vine, tripping in and out to till the soil mows just the strip along the vine row.

Combining the old with the new
As they slowly established their inroads into organic vineyards Fetzer bought more property, eventually going 100 percent organic on all the land they owned or leased. In 1992, Bonterra was developed at Fetzer as the wine brand made from all certified organic grapes. "Organic growing is really a fascinating mixture of drawing on traditional knowledge," said Ann Thrupp, PH.D. Manager of Sustainability & Organic Development, "But we also take advantage of state-of-the-art science concerning biodiversity, plant and soil health. We do careful monitoring of the weather, we measure the water capacity of the soil. We draw upon new findings that show the importance between soil and productivity and flavour."

The combination has proven to be a success -- Fezter is one of the largest growers of certified organically grown wine grapes in California and in the world. Bonterra Vineyards is the leading brand made from organically grown grapes.

Solar sustainability
The company has also managed to green most of its operations as well. For the last 10 years, the company has been purchasing green electricity through its provider Three Phases. In 1999 it installed its first solar panels, which now supplies approximately 75 percent of the electricity to the administration building. This building is one of the world's largest constructions using PISE (pneumatically impacted stabilized earth) furnished with recycled doors, timbers and paint and with carpets and furniture made with natural materials. A passive cooling system ensures the building stays cool. On exceptionally hot days, cool air is piped up from the winery. Both the winery and bottling facilities went solar in 2006.

Reduce and recycle
Their delivery system developed has all trucks return with dry goods thereby reducing return trips and eliminating 44 tons of carbon dioxide per year. The carbon footprint has also been shrunk by using biodiesel tractors and trucks. The company even provides a commuter service for employees.

Recycling is also keystone to their sustainability. Pomace, the leftover grape skins and seeds are composted back into the soil. The wine bottles are made from 40 percent recycled glass and their boxes use 100 percent recycled material. They've managed to reduce their waste by 95 percent, making them one of the top 10 companies in California for recycling.

Education the key
Fetzer also extends its stewardship to the land, people and natural resources. They have undertaken projects to protect local waterways including creek restoration, water conservation and habitat protection. Giving back to the community also includes a staff housing project, college classes and language seminars.

It continues to supports a wide range of organic and sustainable farming organizations, including the California Sustainable Wine Growing Alliance. The company hosts a lot of tours and shares their techniques with growers and other wineries.

Oh, and did we mention that the wine is fabulous?

Find out more about organic and sustainably-produced wine in our interview with Ann Thrupp, Manager of Sustainability and Organic Development, Fetzer Vineyards. Be sure to visit Fetzer and hear Ann at the Vancouver Green Living Show opening on February 29th.