Winemaker Heather Munden wishes she could just snap her fingers and turn her vineyards organic. The reality is a little harder. “Our first goal is to take 10 acres next to the winery and start with that,” she says. To do the whole thing at once is a little scary for people with no background in organics. If all goes well, we could have the entire homesite certified within five years.”
Like many of their California counterparts, St. Francis Winery & Vineyards has incorporated green practices into their business: a solar electrical system, energy-efficient lighting, electric carts and recycling. They’ve also brought more thoughtful methods to their growing process, using waste water for irrigation, starting a composting program and improving vineyard health with leaf removal and cover crops. So with all this dedication, why isn’t the next step of going organic a sure thing?
It’s a situation being playing out in wineries around the world. A younger generation of winemakers, raised on the idea that organic foods are better, are coming into established wineries and questioning whether organic grapes would make better wine as well. According to Munden, there are the usual economic concerns and internal politics, but it’s also a matter of education. “There is always fear of the unknown. What is organic? What is required of me? It’s not just the vineyard manager and tasting staff. The CFO has to understand and agree to it. What are the costs? We’re a business and we need to make money.”
Coming from a culinary background, where organic ingredients were the norm, Munden made some immediate changes when she became the newest winemaker at St. Francis three years ago. “We used some harsher chemicals in the past, and have backed off a lot of those. We’ve gotten rid of the majority of our sprays, and we’re spraying less with what we do use. We spent a lot more time in the vineyard. Canopy management. Leaf removal. More dry farming. Those changes have been huge.”
Munden then proposed farming ten acres of their home vineyards organically. “I just called it a ‘project’ so people wouldn’t get too worried.” She is working this year to improve soil health, add compost, plant cover crops and release beneficial insects into the soil. “It’s more physical. If I stop using Roundup I need more manual labor to remove weeds. Pulling weeds is difficult just in my own garden.”
Should the first 10 acres prove a success, they will extend these practices onto their entire homesite vineyard, which is 120 acres. “You need to learn to swim before you jump in the deep end. It’s all right if I lose some grapes here and there, but if I wipe out an entire vineyard because I went organic, I’m out of a job.” Munden also plans to apply for certification. “The piece of paper itself isn’t important, but it makes us more conscientious of what we’re doing and shows we’re committed.”
Munden’s colleagues have been supportive of her organic leanings, especially when they see the research she has put into it. Assistant Winemaker, Katie Madigan, was immediately on board, while Tom Mackey, Director of Winemaking, needed a little more convincing. “When Tom and I first talked he said ‘you don’t know enough.’ So I did my homework and wrote up a proposal and then he was like ‘yeah, let’s do this.'”
St. Francis has a supportive community awaiting them for organic advice and problem solving. Domaine Carneros, their sister winery, received their certification in 2008, and many of Munden’s friends already consult on organic vineyard management. It may be years down the road, but Munden thinks there may be an organic future for St. Francis’s other vineyards as well.
“It would be great if I could get my other growers to go organic. I’m going to start bringing one of my consultants when I do my grower tastings, talk to all of them and walk them through the process. The next step is to introduce sustainability, then after that talk organics to them. When you have 4th and 5th generation growers on their land, introducing something new takes encouragement. But some people surprise you and want to jump on board immediately.”
Visit St. Francis Winery & Vineyards online.