Wine grape growers work with nature

Sustainable Farming In A Vineyard

Peterangelo Vallis explains practices during a meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association near Waterford, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (John Holland/
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Peterangelo Vallis explains practices during a meeting of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association near Waterford, Calif., on Wednesday, April 27, 2016. (John Holland/

Peterangelo Vallis walked into a vineyard near Waterford to show how worms and microbes are doing their part for the 2016 vintage.

The creatures enrich the soil with their waste products and decay, reducing money spent on fertilizer. And this farm has grassy strips between the vines to guard against erosion.

Vallis is executive director of the San Joaquin Valley Winegrowers Association, which promotes quality wines from a region with a reputation for lower-end products. Part of the message is sustainability – making sure the vineyards produce for a long time to come.

“Here at the winegrowers association, we are convinced that as good farmers, we are good stewards of the ground,” Vallis said. “And we want to make sure that story is told around the world as people continue to enjoy California wine.”

The Fresno-based group held a meeting last week at Jackson-Rodden Ranch, which produces grapes, nuts and other crops as well as cattle between Waterford and Oakdale.

The ranch grows cabernet sauvignon, zinfandel, petite sirah, petit verdot and viognier grapes. They go to E.&J. Gallo Winery in Modesto, McManis Family Vineyards near Ripon, and Delicato Family Vineyards near Manteca.

Ranch manager Herb Gibson said the strips of native grass help hold soil that otherwise might erode on the sloping ground. The ranch keeps track of pest numbers, spraying only when chemicals are truly needed.

2,091Vineyards and wineries that have assessed their operations under the standards of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance

483Vineyards that were certified under the standards as of 2015

91Wineries that were certified

Irrigation, from wells and canals, is done precisely through drip lines. Gibson said he waters only when indicated by a soil-moisture probe that goes as deep as 6 feet. He can read the data on a smartphone.

Water has become a top concern for California farmers. The drought has them paying more and getting less, and they face pressure to boost river flows for fish.

“You can’t think of it as infinite anymore,” said Lindsay Jordan, a viticulture adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. “It is a costly input to your system.”

Well-timed cutoffs of irrigation actually can boost the color and other qualities in grapes, said Jordan, who works in Merced, Madera and Mariposa counties.

The group heard also about the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. It promotes water and energy conservation in vineyards and wineries, as well as friendly relations with workers and neighbors.

Program director Lisa Francioni-Hai said the alliance is looking into how vineyard wood and soil might store carbon that is contributing to climate change.

Vallis said growers can enhance the water-holding capacity of soil by keeping tilling to a minimum. The vineyard also gains nutrients from decaying grape leaves, grasses and other vegetation.

The result, Vallis said, is “all sorts of microorganisms and worms and insects going through the ground, keeping it aerated, allowing it to soak in moisture when we do get that precious rain.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

Earth-friendly examples

▪  Soil health gains when tilling is minimal and grassy strips grow between vine rows.

▪  The strips can harbor good bugs that eat bad bugs, meaning less spraying.

▪  Sheep can graze on the vegetation between rows, providing natural fertilizer while reducing tractor use.

▪  Growers can provide boxes for owls that prey on gophers that munch on vines.

▪  Harvesting at night reduces the energy needed to chill the grapes at the winery.

Source: California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance