Redefining “organic” wine with Bill Wolf
Organic what? Sustainable viticulturists are redefining what it means to be “organic,” and the transformation is officially in effect. As the world shifted its tone from the highly popularized organic to sustainable, viticulturists have joined the conversation—reinventing eco-friendly approaches to wine production.
Now more than ever, talented wine growers have carved a niche for themselves in the “sustainable” wine market, vastly improving the quality of regeneratively or organically grown wine and climate-resilient vineyards. To understand the juxtaposition between organic and sustainable viticulture, it’s important to dive deeper into what it actually means to be organic and who designed its modern-day meaning.
The term “organic” was first introduced by Walter Ernest Christopher James, also known as Lord Northbourne, in his 1940s publication “Look to the Land'' which examines the cross between sickness and chemical farming.
“The farm itself must have a biological completeness; it must be a living entity, it must be a unit which has within itself a balanced organic life.”
Lord Northbourne advocated for a holistic “organic” approach to agricultural farming, which was later sensationalized in the United States through the research of J. I. Rodale.1 The organic movement continued to snowball until its apex in 1962 through Rachel Carson's notable publication Silent Spring—documenting the effects of pesticides, particularly DDT, on human and environmental health.
Silent Spring was instrumental in the campaign to ban the use of DDT in the United States, thus creating public advocacy for agricultural health and, ultimately, the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Fast forward to Washington, D.C., in 1990—the Organic Food Production Act (OFPA) was passed, regulating organic food production in the US for the first time in history.
“The USDA-certified organic foods2 are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing, among many factors, soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible.”
What is organic? Organic viticulture describes more of the systematic process of certification, which emphasizes the quality of the grape rather than quantity as compared to conventionally produced wine.
This includes maintaining the land for future generations, primarily without the use of synthetic chemicals or GMOs. Organic viticulturists use a more natural method of farming to achieve high-quality grapes through the use of renewable resources, conservation of energy and water systems, compost as fertilizer, and weeds as soil nutrients.
Organic viticulturists support the maintenance of an ecologically diverse environment—from microorganisms to grapevines. Biological management is done without the use of pesticides through careful preventative planning, such as allowing the natural flora and fauna of land to serve as nutrients for the soil and natural pest deterrents.
But “organic” isn’t always what it seems. Producers must navigate complex processes in order to achieve USDA Certified Organic status, which first comprises the creation and documentation of an “organic system plan” followed by implementing the plan with review by a certifying agent.
The final phases of certification involve a yearly onsite inspection, a thorough review of the inspection by a third-party certifying agent, a decision through a certifier, and lastly—a lot of money paid.
The stringent nature of being “Certified Organic” is simply too costly, undesirable, or unattainable for most small-scale wine producers. Many have forgone the certification altogether and refocused their resources on less rigorous yet more environmentally focused methods of production ingrained in sustainability, regenerative, and biodynamic farming.
The U.S. The Department of Agriculture (USDA) differentiates between the labeling of “Made With Organic Grapes” and “USDA Certified Organic Wine.” Wine labeled as “Made With Organic Grapes” must use 100% certified organic grapes, while the rest of the agricultural ingredients used aren’t required to be organic—leaving room for questionable unknowns.
The production of wine may not use chemical pesticides or herbicides but allow for additives (such as tannins, acacia gum, and oak chips) and up to 100 parts per million (ppm) of sulfites to be used under National Organic Program (NOP) standards.
In contrast, USDA-certified organic wine must use methods of protecting the environment, promoting biodiversity, and preserving soil in every stage of production—from sowing seeds to bottling.
This certification process follows strict criteria, which include the disuse of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, and additives (such as sulfates and sugars) not occurring naturally throughout the fermentation process. Before producers can slap a “USDA Certified Organic” label on their bottles, every ingredient used in growing the grapes to their conversion into wine must be certified organic. Additionally, non-agricultural ingredients must not exceed 5% of the total product.
Much like certified organic wine, biodynamic vineyards both meet and exceed many of the same practices by utilizing farming techniques that don't allow for synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers, or GMOs. However, the use of chemical additives and sulfites, albeit limited, is permitted, thus granting biodynamic wine a Demeter Biodynamic® label.
The interesting thing about biodynamic farming, however, is that agricultural production and nature aren’t removed from one another. They are considered a unified organism in rhythm. Organic, biodynamic, and sustainable viticulture are intersectional, overlapping at the core of their philosophical framework.
All three practices observe the natural environment in relation to the crop. Biodynamic principles are considered an introduction to sustainable wine production, taking a step further than the legal certification of organic labeling while integrating a profound connection to the soil, biodiversity, land, and people.
Investigation into the world of sustainable viticulture led The Momentum team to Napa Valley, and what better way to learn than through an expert viticulturist who not only talks the talk but walks the walk—Bill Wolf.
Tangible and intangible—the forces of nature are what govern life over at Eagle Eye Winery. Nestled in the quiet hills of Gordon Valley, Bill, and Roxanne Wolf have created a sustainable paradise for their vines and rootstock to thrive. Bill’s wisdom allowed us to become passive observers as he enriched the atmosphere with a hearty sense of passion for viticulture and mother nature.
Eager to tell the classic tale of two lives, Bill expanded our understanding of what sustainable and regenerative farming truly means and how it can be successfully achieved by anyone with their hands in the dirt.
Bill and Roxanne’s story of transformation began how most begin—to the monotonous pulse of corporate America.
"I worked for corporate America for 27 years. At 47 years old, I walked away. I didn’t want to do it anymore,” said Bill.
Roxanne, a real estate broker at the time, also felt it was the beginning of a new chapter. “We sat down one night and said, you know—enough is enough. It’s not worth it anymore. So I quit… she [Roxanne] quit.”
“What was our passion? What did we like? What did we love?”
They knew they loved food—Bill was a professional chef. They’d also earned their “wine groupie” status, Bill liked to call it.
“We went to all the wine auctions, we went to all the wineries, and we started studying wine. We sat down and decided that we were going to go into the wine business.”
Bill and Roxanne spent the next eight months looking for properties full-time in five different counties while studying viticulture at UC Davis. One thing was for certain—if they were going to get into the business, Bill wanted to start from scratch and do it his way. “I looked at it like this—I could buy somebody else’s mistakes or make my own stupid mistakes, and I chose the latter.” Ultimately, they found a vacant property in Napa County, which remained untouched for 15 years.
“There was an investor out of San Francisco who owned the property… he wanted to do what we were doing so he'd come up here on the weekends… He had a tractor with a blanket on it and would drive it underneath the walnuts, acting like a farmer. But he didn't put any input. The land was clean, 15 years of no chemical input because he didn’t farm it, he just drove the tractor around!” said Bill.
Interestingly enough, through soil testing, Bill discovered that this unique piece of obsidian-rich land was a 4000-year-old trade route. Ancient Native Americans crossed over the Vaca Mountains and set up a ranchería at the creek behind the property, leaving behind many remnants of the past, including tools, shaped obsidian, and soil blackened from cooking oils and foods pressed into the land over time.
Now here we were—4,000 years later sitting on a slice of history, some of the richest soil in Napa, learning about what makes Eagle Eye Vineyard sustainable—and Bill was our teacher.
“I brought a soil scientist out...we have five different soil types on this property. All the soils were very conducive to growing grapes and olives.”
Napa Valley claims to have 90% of all the soil types in the world due to many factors, including plate shifting, alluvial fans, volcanoes, earthquakes, etc. To add to the unique characteristics of this vineyard, the pristine Lake Curry feeds the creek that waters the vineyards of Eagle Eye Winery.
“It’s [Lake Curry] the cleanest lake in the state of California. It was used as drinking water between 1926-1992 by the city of Vallejo. They closed the lake down and have kept it closed since so there are sea otters in there; there's a pair of bald eagles–it's pristine. Why is this important?... I'm watering my grapes with some of the cleanest water in California because it feeds into my well,” explained Bill.
“We looked at the climate, we looked at the dirt… we looked at where the water comes from, and we took samples of the water to see how clean the water was. We looked at as much as we knew at the time.”
This terrior—a French term used to describe a crop’s phenotype is based on environmental factors such as climate, soil type, terrain, and other organisms growing in, on, or around the vines. In this particular landscape, Bill discovered that Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc were the most advantageous for this climate—they can sustain the heat!
“For me to plant Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Noir doesn’t make any sense because that's not what this climate supports, and it doesn't make the best Pinot Noir and Sauv Blancs… Mother Nature does strange things, it makes no sense, but that's what she does. We chose those grapes because of what the soil and the climate told us to.”
“I wanted compost… but it was a mix of wood and plastic and stuff that I didn’t want in there… I started doing research on this Alaska Humus to figure out what it was all about. This trucker was hired to pull this product out because it was spongy and they couldn't build on it, so now it was a waste product.”
The foreign material was sent to Dr. Elaine Ingham at Soil Food Web for testing and the discovery was extraordinary. She had never seen such active living fungi and bacteria in the soil anywhere in the world. It was an inoculate—only a small amount was needed for plants to thrive.
“I'm the only vineyard in the world that I’m aware of right now that has Alaskan humus. Then I brought in worm caskets, then I brought micro resin fungi, all positive entities, into the dirt.”
In sustainable viticulture, the use of compost and cultivation of plants attract insects that are beneficial to the health of plants and vines. It also creates a beautiful interconnected ecosystem of bacteria and fungi necessary to maintain soil health.
“I put Malbec in for the first six years, and the turkey flew in and ate my entire crop. So what I did was budded it. You can cut the plant off as long as the rootstock is healthy and make it cabernet franc instead of Malbec, which means my grapes ripen later. Other people’s grapes ripen first, which means turkeys go to them and stay away from me. I haven't had a problem since. This is utilizing mother nature to deal with your issues and problems.”
Bill also has bat boxes, hummingbird boxes, and owl boxes to take care of bugs and rodents that end up hitchhiking through the vineyard.
“Hummingbirds not only suck on sugar but also pollinate and eat bugs. Barn Owls eat rodents… you put the box in the middle of the vineyard, so they have to fly over your vineyard… and hopefully, they are eating rodents from your vineyard.”
The vines were once under attack by a german rust mite. Not wanting to use chemicals (since they kill all the good bugs and the mites), Bill got in touch with a woman in Southern California who created a bug that eats this specific type of mite.
Once this crafted bug devoured the mites, they either die or move on to the next place—leaving no negative implications on the environment. After 30 days of using these mite-eating bugs on his trellis system, the mites never came back.
“There are natural ways, [sometimes] that's not enough. You still have to use certain products… [And] There are not enough organic products available, so you have to put chemicals. If I have to save my vineyard, I will use chemicals—that's called sustainability. I'm not trying to be 100% organic, I'm trying to 100% take care of mother nature and the Earth.”
"In ‘organics’, you talk about opening up the soil… What you're doing is disrupting the fungi, bacteria, and the soil food web. Once you cut open that root system, you’re releasing carbon into the air. As soon as the water gets in, you release more carbon. If you use ammonia-based fertilizers [which you shouldn't, but many people do], then you're releasing nitrous oxide; it’s 300 times more potent and destructive for our environment than carbon is. Once you remove the topsoil and take off all the fungi and bacteria, you have to put more man-made additives in it. It just never stops.”
The question now begs if sustainable viticulture and regenerative farming are arguably more powerful than organic farming.
“In my opinion, yes… There is a difference between organic farming and making organic wine. In organic farming, you can use no chemical inputs, yet you’re allowed to open up the dirt and let carbon out. Is that good for the environment? You’re allowed to use copper-based products [to control mildew]. Copper builds up in the soil and goes into the water, and that goes into the steelhead trout in my creek that I’m trying to protect.”
There is no way to truly be organic. Unless an organic farm is surrounded by only organic farms, there will almost certainly be cross-contamination of an organic farm from its conventional farm neighbors. As Bill puts it—the wind will blow, the bugs will move, the chemicals will carry… but there is still a way to treat the Earth.
“If you stop fossil fuels today, but you don't change what we are doing from a farming standpoint, you’re not going to solve the problem. The major problem is farming.”
For anyone looking to succeed in regenerative farming and viticulture, Bill offered one last piece of advice—never stop learning.
“You learn every day… It has to be a passion. It has to be a love.If you’re going to put that much time and money into something, why not do it in connection with the earth? In connection with mother nature? She’s the one giving you what she's got. Treat her badly and she's not going to give you the good stuff.”
Preparing land for future generations doesn’t have to come at a cost that’s unattainable or meticulously regulated. Methodologies governing sustainable viticulture vs. organic viticulture can apply to regenerative farming—even if it’s in your own front yard. The impact of using Earth’s organisms in symphony with one another is proven to be both economically viable and socially responsible—that is sustainability, that is the future.
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