The Kenwood Press
: 03/01/2015

Becoming Sustainable

George MacLeod

Last month we wrote that the Sonoma County Grape Growers had committed to a program that, within a year, would have all our members working on a program of sustainability. What does that mean? It is a program where each grower commits to farm their vineyards in a way that will preserve and improve our soils and natural resources for the future. At MacLeod Family Vineyard, we have experience with sustainable farming practices, thanks to years of supplying grapes to Benziger Winery. The Benzigers were early adopters of sustainable vineyard practices and put strict requirements on their growers. We were given a thick black book with hundreds of details of what we should be doing in the vineyard. At first it was scary, but we gradually felt our way into this really important program. By 2016, we will be able to pass inspection and be certified. Here are some of the specific changes we have made in our vineyard practices:

One big change was evident the other morning when I saw son John and daughter-in-law Marjorie with a huge machine they had rented, grinding up brush and pruning debris. The huge piles of shredded and chipped wood will be spread as mulch among our vines. Just a few years ago, I would have taken a large container of diesel oil and set fire to this material, sending a column of black smoke high into our Sonoma Valley skies that would simmer and smolder for days.

Fighting bugs has undergone a major change, too. Years ago, whenever I saw a single bad, leaf-eating insect, I would be back within a half hour with my tractor and spray rig and douse every vine and grape in sight with some concoction of insecticide. Today, I go into the vineyard, turn leaves upside down and count the number of insects or insect eggs. I repeat the procedure for several days to see if the insect population is expanding. What we’ve found is that, with a little patience, within a few days insect enemies will show up and duke it out with the bad bugs … problem solved. This has dramatically reduced the purchase and use of insecticides!

Spotting a single weed among my vines used to drive me crazy. I wanted my vineyard to look perfectly manicured. I would disc up and down every row, and sprayed weed killers everywhere, including pre-emergents. One day an older grower told me, “George a few weeds here and there won’t do as much damage as all your discing and spraying.” So we changed. Now we disc every other row and mow the weeds in the other rows. My vineyard may not look as perfectly tidy, but the new practice protects my soil from winter rainfall erosion.

Finally a word about water and irrigation. I am embarrassed to write this, but we used to water day and night, whether or not the vines really needed it. Now we listen to the vines. With careful observation we can provide just the amount of water they need. We’ve learned that our vineyard has many different soil types; each type demands a slightly different watering regime. We are probably now using half the water of past years.

But don’t blame all these previous bad practices on George. Despite the macho culture among growers, we are sensitive to what other growers think about our cultural practices. When we were first laying out our vineyard, we made a math mistake and one row was not perfectly lined up. It would not have made any difference to the vines, but we pulled up all the marker stakes and re-surveyed. Why? Because other growers driving down the road would see that crooked row and think we did not know how to lay out a vineyard!

One more part of macho vineyard culture. When we first began driving our ancient D-2 Caterpillar tractor, something broke. So we called the local machine shop. A day or so later I found a new part sitting on the ground next to the tractor. I expected that the part would have been installed so I called the shop. Their response, “Oh, Mr. MacLeod, just disconnect the gabbro from the rotator and reconnect the portable and your tractor will be fine again.” I learned right there that no macho vine grower would let anyone touch his tractor.

But times do change. Now perhaps the new grower macho will be to see who implements sustainable vineyard practices the fastest.

I am no longer afraid or resentful of the Benzigers’ thick black Sustainability Manual. It got us pointed in the right direction early. And all of our family feels that we have improved our grape quality, reduced our costs, and made our ranch better for our children and grandchildren.