Vintner Michael Honig of Honig Vineyard and Winery in the Napa Valley likes to start winery tours at his dumpster, showing off how little the operation actually throws away by finding ways to repurpose or recycle what his grandfather might once upon a time have thought of as trash.
At Navarro Vineyards & Winery in Mendocino's Anderson Valley, managers got rid of Styrofoam wine shippers and use flocks of Babydoll sheep in the vineyards to simultaneously fertilize and keep the weeds down.
Bonterra Organic Vineyards in Ukiah is a Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing operation, having harvested and vinified its first certified organic grapes in 1990; it remains the best-selling wine made from organic grapes in the country.
And at J Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, owner Judy Jordan works with Director of Vineyard Operations Scott Zapotocky to monitor mildew pressure in the vineyards without the aggressive use of fungicides.
"Our focus on sustainable practices ranges from minimal chemical use in our nine estate vineyards to forward-thinking water conservation programs to our executive chef sourcing only local ingredients for our culinary programs," said Jordan. "We continue to improve ourselves, sometimes in small ways and sometimes in big projects."
Trinchero Family Estates in St. Helena, the company behind the big wine brand Sutter Home, went so far as to develop a thinner wine bottle, saving millions of pounds of glass every year. Delicato Family Vineyards, with land in the Napa Valley, Monterey and Manteca, are masters of drip irrigation, composting and the use of patrolling hawks to keep grape-eating birds away.
These are just some of the 15 vintners and growers profiled in "Down to Earth," a new book produced by the Wine Institute, a public-policy advocacy organization that represents California wineries in the U.S. and around the world, to highlight programs of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
"Consumers like to know how their wines are grown and made," commented Allison Jordan, the Wine Institute's vice president of environmental affairs. "Managing for the long term makes sense for the family-owned vineyards and wineries that want to pass on a thriving business to the next generation."
Sustainable winegrowing consists of such things as opting for beneficial insects, birds and other animals to deal with weeds and pests; drip irrigation and process ponds to save water; the use of solar power and alternative fuels; good cover crops to ward off soil erosion and promote healthy soils in between vine rows; composting, recycling and re-using; and preserving wildlife habitats.
"One of the most surprising things we have learned is that sustainable practices are often times the less expensive options," noted Stephanie Honig, co-owner of Honig Winery. "One example is using lightweight bottles, they are less expensive to purchase, they cause less environmental harm during the manufacture process and they are less expensive to ship."
The book is written by James Beard Award-winning writer Janet Fletcher, with spectacular photography by Sonoma County photojournalist and wine industry veteran George Rose.
Together they detail how family-owned wineries in regions across California do their best to adopt sustainable practices in their vineyards and cellars and how they weather the cycle of grape growing and winemaking each season.
That notion of seasonality is also touched on in a section containing recipes, such as California mussels in basil-saffron white-wine broth and roasted garlic with sage and rosemary, complete with wine pairing ideas.
There is also some discussion of organic winegrowing, and the guidelines set forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, as well as mention of Biodynamics, a way of treating a vineyard as a closed system that employs many sustainable and organic practices in addition to its own natural preparations, planting and pruning schedules.
But the core of the book is the stories of how wineries are trying to be sustainable in big ways and small, from fixing leaky hoses to converting tractors to biodiesel. At Etude Wines in Carneros, the former cattle grazing land was in such poor shape that the winery had to hire a biologist to identify where wetlands had once thrived and re-establish creek banks with indigenous plants.
Winemaker Jon Priest is quoted saying he's witnessed a paradigm shift in viticulture from a generation ago, when he first started out.
In those days, he said, "you called the chemical company and they told you what nutrients your soil needed and sent them to you."
Now growers can keep vines healthy with fewer inputs through the use of cover crops and good compost, out of which he and his crew make a tea that can be slowly dispensed through drip irrigation.
"People do not always realize that sustainability is not a political statement," added Honig. "Sustainable practices lead to a healthier environment and therefore higher quality and better tasting wine."
Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in SonomaCounty. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @vboone.