Sustainable Viticulture Practices

Sustainable Winegrowing Practices

Sustainable winegrowing is paying careful attention to the many details of farming on a daily basis, ensuring each practice optimizes vineyard inputs, such as water, energy, and nutrients, as well as vineyard output which is yield of quality winegrapes.  Being able to measure and quantify as many of these as possible is very important, too.  The expression “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it” is very true for sustainable winegrowing.  The Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook addresses 160 different issues important to growing winegrapes sustainably in Lodi and there is one or more practices associated with each one.  Only some of the more important ones will be discussed here as examples and they will be listed by topic.

Ecosystem Management

  1. Developing a sustainable vision for the farm.  Yogi Berra once said “If you don’t know where you are going, you may end up some place else”.  Developing a sustainable vision for one’s farm is basically creating a road map of where one wants to end up.  It is the foundation upon which a sustainable farm is built.  Ideally one creates a sustainable vision together with family and employees so that it is a shared vision that is achieved collectively.  Even though a sustainable vision is a ‘big picture’ statement, every practice implemented on the farm can be examined and determined as to whether it takes you toward your vision or away from it.  It is inevitable some practices will have to be implemented that take you away from your vision.  Farming involves compromises.  However, the important thing is being aware of this so that you are not operating out of ignorance.
  2. Understanding important ecosystem processes like the water cycle, mineral or nutrient cycle, energy flow and biological community dynamics.  By understanding the processes that work within an ecosystem one makes better farm management decisions.
  3. Sustainable habitat management.  There are several different habitats that can exist on Lodi farms, such as riparian habitat, vernal pools, oak woodlands, and hedgerows.  It is important that farming practices are compatible with keeping these habitats healthy.  Also habitat enhancements can be made such as putting up nest boxes for owls, hawks, and bats, which prey on vineyard pests.
  4. Encouraging endangered species.  Valley Elderberry Longhorned Beetle is an endangered species that may be encountered by Lodi winegrowers who farm adjacent to riparian habitat.  In cooperation with US Fish and Wildlife Service and Lodi growers, LWC helped create a Safe Harbor Agreement that a grower can sign on to that allows them to farm in the presence of the beetle and enhance beetle habitat by planting elderberry bushes without risk of violating the Endangered Species Act.

 Viticulture

  1. Achieving vineyard uniformity.  Uniformity of the grape crop and wine quality are strongly linked.  If the berries vary significantly stage of ripeness, color, flavor, etc. wine quality is greatly reduced.  There are several practices that can help achieve uniformity such as sampling the soil for uniformity and ameliorating it if necessary, laying out of the irrigation system to match the site characteristics, maintaining the uniformity of the irrigation systems output, shoot thinning and positioning, and leaf removal around the bunches.
  2. Achieving vine balance.  Having the correct ratio of leaves to grapes is essential for producing the highest quality wine possible from a given vineyard.  There are many practices one can implement to achieve this such as choosing the right trellis design, root stock and scion before vineyard establishment, as well as pruning, shoot and/or cluster thinning, and shoot positioning once the vineyard is established.

Soil Management

  1. Identifying the vineyard’s soil type, analyzing it for physical and chemical properties and farming it according to the results of the analyses.  The more one knows about the vineyard soil the better the decisions will be in terms of how much irrigation to apply and nutrients to add.  Soils can vary greatly in water holding capacity and in the availability of nutrients to the vine.  Knowing this and using the results to make decisions about irrigation and fertilization will minimize inputs of both.
  2. Create and implement a nutrient management plan for the vineyard.  A nutrient management plan is based on knowledge of nutrient inputs and outputs, the desired size of the crop and the desired vigor of the vines.  Nutrient outputs result from harvesting the crop and exporting it from the vineyard.  Nutrient inputs come from many sources, such as from the existing nutrient pool in the soil, breakdown of cover crops and any added compost or fertilizers.  By quantifying all of these things one can then add only enough of the correct kind and amounts of nutrients needed to achieve the desired crop yield and quality.
  3. Create and implement a soil erosion management plan.  Soil erosion is bad for at least two reasons.  One is that it depletes the soil resource in the vineyard and the second is it is reduces air and water quality.  Creating and implementing a soil erosion management plan will minimize off site movement of soil.  There are many practices that minimize soil erosion, such as growing cover crops, reducing or eliminating soil tillage, planting wind breaks, and making sure irrigation and storm water runoff does not cause erosion.

Water Management

  1. Installing drip irrigation.  Drip irrigation allows a grower complete control over how water is added to the vineyard, giving them the tool to maximize water use efficiency.
  2. Maintaining optimum performance of the irrigation system.  System leaks, line and drip emitter clogging, aging of system components all contribute to reduced irrigation system performance.  These all must be eliminated to ensure irrigation water is being used the most efficiently.
  3. Develop and implement irrigation management plan.  Many practices are used to optimize water efficiency in the vineyard and it is important to use as many as possible.  For example, monitoring the amount of water in the soil and in the vine so that irrigation is only applied when it is needed.  Monitoring the weather to determine how much water the vine is using so that only the correct amount of water is applied in irrigation.  Minimizing or eliminating water leaving the vineyard during irrigation or during storm events.

Pest Management

  1. Monitoring pest numbers and using an economic threshold to determine if a treatment is necessary.  It is important to regularly monitor pest numbers in the vineyard so that action is taken to control them only when the numbers get too high.  It is also very important to only take action when the numbers are high enough to cause economic damage.
  2. Use cultural and biological controls where possible to manage pests.  Some pests are controlled by natural enemies and when this is the case it is important to use practices that encourage them, such as establishing flowering plants that provide nectar and pollen for parasitic wasps.  Owls, bats and hawks prey on vineyard pests and establishing nest boxes for them build their numbers around the vineyard.
  3. Creating and implementing management plans for specific important vineyard pests.  Some vineyard pests such as Powdery Mildew and Vine Mealybug are potentially very damaging and can be managed successfully using a combination of practices.  A written management plan ensures that these practices will be considered and used in a timely manner minimizing costs, and maximizing the management benefits of the plan.
  4. Minimizing environmental impact of pesticides.  All winegrowers use pesticides in managing their vineyards.  Organic growers use naturally derived pesticides and other growers use either these or synthetically produced pesticides.  In either case it is important to minimize the environmental impact of these materials when they are used.  Lodi growers use a pesticide impact model that determines the environmental impact of any pesticide registered for use so they can determine which ones have the least impact and make their choices accordingly.

Human Resources

  1. Staffing and recruiting.  It is important for a business to have a staffing and recruiting strategy to maintain consistency in hiring employees over time and ensuring the best candidates are hired.  It is also critical that new employees are taken through an orientation process which includes sharing with them the company’s sustainable vision, so they feel they are a part of the organization and understand their role in producing high quality winegrapes in a sustainable way.
  2. Training and organizational development.  It is essential for employee well being that the company trains employees in safe work practices and provides the opportunity for professional development so employees can learn and grow in the job.  For long term sustainability it is key for a farm to have a plan of succession from one generation to the next.
  3. Employee relations.  A successful business provides their employees with a company handbook, regular meetings to provide opportunities for internal communications, a process that encompasses performance evaluation, discipline and provides the opportunity for the employees to discuss job satisfaction.  It is also important a system is in place to recognize work well done and one that allows for team building and positive feedback.

Shop and Yard Management

  1. Alternative sources of power.  California has an abundance of sunshine that can provide electricity for office, shop and vineyard.  Many vineyard and winery operations are installing solar arrays to capture the power of the sun.
  2. Fuel use and alternative fuel sources.  Careful tracking of fuel use will help optimize fuel consumption.  Biodiesel, made from used cooking oil, is readily available and can be burned in any diesel engine.  Burning biodiesel produces less particulate matter and CO2, a greenhouse gas.
  3. Proper handling of hazardous materials.  Farming and office work involves the use of some hazardous materials.  It is important that they are used and disposed of safely and properly.
  4. Recycling.  Many materials used in the vineyard office and shop can be recycled.  Having an established recycling program for them is essential for a sustainable farm.

Wine Quality and Customer Satisfaction

  1. Wine appreciation and knowledge of the winegrape buyer.  The wine market is very competitive so it is important for the winegrape grower to be aware of industry trends in order to position themselves to be competitive.  Part of this is ensuring that their winegrape buyer is satisfied with what they are getting.
  2. Winegrape maturity and deciding when to pick.  If the winegrapes are not picked at the optimum time, based on what the winemaker desires, wine quality will suffer.  It is critical for the winegrape grower to be up to date on now to determine the proper harvest time.
  3. Tasting the wine with the winemaker.  Great wine is the result of a partnership between the grower and the winemaker.  Good communications are essential in making this partnership work.  Tasting the final product with the winemaker provides the best opportunity for the grower to evaluate first hand the product of their labors and discuss with the winemaker how it can be improved next year.

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