How Local Wineries Are Shifting Toward Sustainability

Cliff Lede Vineyards (Photo by Bob McClenahan)

Remember that moment when we realized that the Slow Food movement of the late 1980s wasn’t so much a move forward as a delicious stepping back? Its focus was on good, clean, whole foods, locally grown, prepared like our ancestors had done it, and appreciated when eaten. And somehow that age-old concept seemed revolutionary at a time when we had strayed so far from our roots.

Enter a new green wave of the past informing the future in Wine Country. Sustainable, organic, biodynamic and dry farming — these are not new practices. “Sustainability is not a dirty word anymore, it’s just how we are doing things,” says Allison Wilson, director of vineyard operations at Cliff Lede Vineyards. But the terms themselves can still feel confusing. Let’s take a quick look at the differences and where the practices overlap.

Sustainable winegrowing focuses on the care of people and place while conserving resources, as well as maintaining and regenerating soil. It also protects air and water quality, preserves local ecosystems and wildlife habitats, and enhances relationships with employees and communities for a healthy situation overall. Right now 99 percent of Sonoma County wine growing is certified sustainable and Napa is on a similar path.

“We are a proud part of a community,” says Baldacci Family Vineyards estate winemaker Michael Baldacci. “It’s more difficult to find someone not farming sustainably. Because what you do doesn’t just affect you, it affects your neighbors, too.”

The organic label means a wine is made from organically grown grapes (sometimes third-party certified), without any added sulfites, synthetic chemicals or pesticides. Wilson says, “I’m a mid-millennial. Cliff Lede utilizes technology, but there is a real sense of getting back to basics. Like realizing over the last 50 years maybe we didn’t need all that fertilizer.”

Biodynamic is touted as the highest level of organic farming. The elimination of synthetic chemicals is just the starting point. The vineyard is viewed as an entire ecosystem. Lisa Amaroli, director of winemaking at Benziger Family Winery, who was at the forefront of biodynamics, recalls those early days when naysayers called their methods “voodoo,” fixating on images of dung-filled cow horns buried in the earth. “One thousand years ago people were much more connected to nature,” she points out. This type of farming is based on biodiversity of animals, plants, insects and even bacteria that work together. “It’s about balance, not eradication,” says Amaroli. Using homeopathic teas, composting, cover crops and animals that live on the estate “is not mysterious, it’s natural,” she says.

A lesser-known practice, dry farming, is becoming more and more common among winegrowers. Dry farming is the use of moisture stored in soil brought to the surface through tilling and is, by necessity, the future. But this centuries-old technique is also the past. Erik Miller of Breaking Bread Winery in Sonoma looks to dry-farmed vines that have some age for the trending lower-alcohol style of natural wine he is making.

“Older vines allow for physiological ripeness to come at lower sugar levels. And you can’t dry-farm a five-year-old vine. The roots aren’t deep enough.” But just next door, fourth-generation dry farmer John Teldeschi has vines that are 115 years old with roots that go down 20 feet.

Baldacci says, “It’s just a reality that I will spend my career in drought. We’ll be dry-farming and picking earlier. Pinot and cab are now picked at the same time.” Larkmead’s Avery Heelan, one of the youngest winemakers at one of the oldest estate wineries in Napa, is dry-farming a small three-acre experimental plot with an eye to the most resilient varieties and clones that may suit Napa in the uncertain future. “It’s trying to control the things we can’t control,” she says. One thing seems certain, though: the future begins with going back to our roots.

harvested wine grapes at Benziger Family Winery
Harvest time at Benziger Family Winery (Photo courtesy of Benziger Family Winery)

Interested in trying a few of the wines made with these practices? Here’s a running start.

Baldacci Family Vineyards

(in transition to CCOF certified, California Certified Organic Farmers, 2023)
6236 Silverado Trail, Napa


Benziger Family Winery

(triple certified, biodynamic since 2000)
1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen


Breaking Bread Winery

(lower-alcohol, dry-farmed, low-intervention natural wines, in transition to CCOF certified, 2023)
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg


Cliff Lede Vineyards

(Certified Napa Green sustainable in both land and winery since 2015)
1473 Yountville Cross Road, Yountville


Larkmead Vineyards
(research block planted in 2020, in transition to CCOF certified, 2023)
1100 Larkmead Lane, Calistoga


Ram’s Gate Winery
(California Certified Sustainable and Fish Friendly Farming certified, in transition to CCOF certified for 2023)
28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma


Round Pond Estate Winery
(Certified Napa Green sustainable and Fish Friendly Farming certified)
875 Rutherford Road, Rutherford