It’s a wonderful life at Vino Farms
It’s mid-December, and who among us is not thinking about… It’s a Wonderful Life? We sure were, last week when Chris Storm, Viticulturist for Lodi’s Vino Farms, took us through this vineyard management company’s showcase property: grandly named Grand Vin Lands.
Located on the far western edge of Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA off E. Peltier, Grand Vin Lands is a 225 acre vineyard serving as both a source of high quality grapes and a pilot program for sustainable farming, as defined by the most pro-active articles of Lodi’s ground breaking, third party (Protected Harvest) certification program, called Lodi Rules.
Walking us through a beautifully restored riparian (i.e. “riverside”) forest between the vineyard and the Mokelumne, Storm told us, “Looking at this now, you wouldn’t believe how it looked just a few years back. Parts of the flood plain between the river and the vineyard was a wasteland of lifeless dirt, and other parts were clogged almost completely by Chinese tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima), an invasive, non-native species.”
Storm’s bleak picture of “before” was what made us think of mean Mr. Potter’s dark, frightening, slum riddled Pottersville; as opposed to what we were seeing at Grand Vin Lands: a rich, vibrant natural tapestry of native oaks, sage and grasses, cottonwood and dogwood, species of primrose willow and yarrow, mounds of native blackberry, valley elderberry and other flora. An environment akin to the bright, idyllic, bustling Bedford Falls of Jimmy Stewart/George Bailey’s dreams.
The labors of Vino Farms have also establishing a happy home for fauna like songbirds, wild turkeys, several species of hawks and waterfowl, bobcats and deer – “the wildlife you would have found out here 150 years ago, before things were turned into farms, ranches and vineyards,” according to Storm. Pointing to a single lonely tree, he says, “we pulled out all the Chinese tree of heavens and left just that one just to remind us of how ugly things were before. We replanted entirely with native species.”
Exactly what’s in it for a business like Vino Farms, which either owns or manages about 4,400 acres of vineyards in Lodi – each and every one of them certified by Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, yet supplying primarily big wine producers like Constellation (which owns Woodbridge and Robert Mondavi, among several other wineries), E&J Gallo, Beringer, Sutter Home, Rodney Strong, Fetzer and The Wine Group (owning wineries like Glen Ellen, Franzia and Concannon)?
“Sustainability is all about growing healthy grapes to make higher quality wines,” explained Storm, “which sustains the business. But it’s also about creating a healthy environment for employees and the surrounding community. Vino Farms is family business (started by Keith Ledbetter in the sixties, and now run by his sons and their kids), and the family thinks seriously about the needs of future generations of land stewards.” Most definitely, not Mr. Potter’s idea of a good time!
“For example, take the valley elderberry,” Storm tells us, while offering up taste of its sweet/bitter fruit hanging from a tree overlooking the vineyard. “This plant is protected because it hosts the longhorn beetle, a native of the Central Valley’s riparian forests that is on the list of Endangered Species. The valley elderberry beetle does not actually do anything for the vineyard insofar as pest management — unlike our rose bush and native blackberry plantings — but it plays an important part of our goal of emulating the natural landscape as it was before.
“The indigenous blackberry bushes, which are less thorny and invasive than non-native varieties of blackberry, supply parasitic wasps that attack pests in the vineyard. We’ve also planted hedgerows (often called “insectories” in sustainable vineyards) of native plants like quail bush, coyote bush, native sage and yarrow along the outside rows of our vineyard. This has created homes for wildlife like wasps and birds, which prey on the leafhoppers that damage crop. The hedgerows also lessen wind damage to the grapes. All this allows us to do away with chemical sprays associated with more conventional grape farming.
“We’ve turned this process into something we call SLEWS – Student Landowners Educating Watershed Stewardship. A grant from NRCS (National Resources Conservation Service) has largely funded the plantings, costing several hundred thousands. This has enabled us to get kids from local schools out here to participate in the ongoing restoration. We have a group coming out this week (Dec. 1), and a different one next week (Dec. 7), and they’ll be helping us plant more hedgerows.” Now, that’s the ticket: getting them off the streets or their BlackBerries, and into the woods and vineyard!
Walking us through the rest of Grand Vin Lands, Mr. Storm pointed out the cover crops between the vine rows, made up of native wildflowers, legumes and cereal grasses. “The cover crops control erosion and add nutrients to the soil, and are also habitats for beneficial insects and wildlife.”
In the middle of the property we came to the vineyard’s reservoir, teeming with squawking ducks, flocking coots, and waving wetland grasses. Wide swaths of native grass and bushes are planted on three sides of the reservoir; and along its south-facing slope, there is a long stretch of solar panels, gleaming under the muted December sun.
“The panels supply power to our irrigation system, the vineyard manager’s house and storage sheds,” Storm tells us. “They actually generate enough power for 27 homes; and after three years, we’ve already saved over 284,000 pounds in greenhouse gas.” Pointing towards the buildings beyond the trellised vines, Storm says, “behind is a 20,000 gallon biodiesel tank; supplying fuel for our tractors and trucks, and garnering enough tax credits so that it is essentially paying for itself.”
In this sense, Grand Vin Lands as well as Vino Farms’ other vineyards in Lodi represent not just grape production centers contributing to the local economy, but also actual living, virtually self-sustaining organisms – taking nothing out, and putting a lot back in. Usage of preventive material like harmful fungicides and insecticides is eliminated; and even inputs like outside fertilizers, synthetic or natural, become unnecessary.
Through an aggressive program of biodiversity, costing very little even from the perspective of land usage (Storm says less than 1% of their acreage that could have gone into grapes has been utilized), the farm nourishes itself.
Call it sustainability to an nth degree… better-than-organic farming, beyond-organic viticulture, or even a modern, agricultural Bedford Falls: it’s a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Lodi rules!