Environmental sustainability has become common in the production of many consumer goods over the past two decades and it is no different in the wine industry.
Organic and biodynamic farming in winemaking practices, once rather rare, are now being adopted by wineries across the globe.
Given Oregon’s long history toward environmentalism, it should come as no surprise that winemakers in the state are some of the most environmentally conscious in America.
There are different types of certification to indicate sustainable practices in winemaking and in Oregon, it starts with being LIVE-certified. LIVE was formed by winegrowers in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in 1995 as a way of certifying that grapes are grown – and wines are made – using sustainable methods. LIVE was eventually expanded to include wineries throughout the Pacific Northwest, including all wine regions of Oregon, Washington and Idaho.
At its core, LIVE promotes grape growers and wineries to “do the right thing” for the environment and society. It takes the “whole farm” and “whole winery” approach to sustainability that includes landscaping and growing non-grape crops in vineyards; irrigation and plant-nutrition practices; labor practices; energy use at the winery; packaging practices, and more.
“It’s really about leaving your property in a better condition than when you got it,” said Paul Mentzer, a guest services representative at Erath Winery. A wine can have a “LIVE Certified Sustainable Grapes” label only if at least 97 percent of its fruit comes from LIVE-certified vineyards.
Because Erath, a large winery for Oregon, works with about 25 different grape growers and some of the vineyards aren’t LIVE-certified, Erath itself is not LIVE-certified. But that does not mean it doesn’t try to use sustainable practices, particularly with its estate grapes.
“We use low impact vitacultural practices, and most vineyards are LIVE-certified,” Mentzer said.
Oregon wines and wineries can be “green” in several other ways besides being LIVE-certified. A winery or vineyard could just use sustainable practices that are ecological, economically viable and socially fair to everyone involved in their production, but fall short of the LIVE requirements. A winery can also produce organic wines, which in the U.S. means from 100 percent organically grown grapes. That means no pesticides, herbicides, fungicides or chemical fertilizers used in the farming process. It also means that the wine can contain no added sulfites, which are often added to preserve wine.
Biodynamic wines incorporate organic growing practices and then take them even further, adopting the theories of biodynamic agriculture developed by Austrian Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Steiner, who was a philosopher, social reformist and cultural theorist rather than a farmer, devised a holistic method of agriculture that is based on the theory of everything being linked in the natural world. It has elements that are almost religious, or at least similar to “The Force” in the “Star Wars” film franchise.
Biodynamic farming includes practices that involve recognizing moon phases when planting and harvesting, using only natural products for fertilization and pest control, and implementing nine different preparations in the vineyard. Those preparations include one that mandates that cow horns are filled with manure and buried in the vineyard after harvest and then dug up in the spring to have their contents mixed with water and sprayed on the soil.
It takes a lot of commitment for a winery to become certified biodynamic, but several wineries in Oregon are doing just that.
“We just got our biodynamic certification,” said Mesmery Blake of Soter Vineyards, adding that it was exciting for everyone at the winery to be a part of the certification, and that she even helped in the process of some of the rituals in the vineyard.
“It’s more about future generations and what we’re doing to preserve the land for them,” she said.
But biodynamic farming is about more than process; it’s also about quality. Rajet Parr, owner and co-winemaker at Evening Land Vineyards, said it was key in the winery’s 2012 Seven Springs Vineyard “La Source” earning a 98-point rating – the highest ever for an Oregon wine – and being named the #3 wine on Wine Spectator’s annual top 100 wine list in 2015.
Parr believes that biodynamic farming has made a huge impact on the quality of his wine.
“The place dictates what the wine is,” he said, adding that the fact that the Seven Springs vineyard is recognized as one of the best vineyards in Oregon is at least partially due to it being biodynamically farmed.
Many Oregon wineries are environmentally friendly in ways that go beyond certifications, whether they be LIVE, organic or biodynamic. Oregon still has a bit of 1960s hippie spirit and winery owners are always looking at ways to make their products more environmentally friendly.
For example, one of the threats to grape crops is from birds migrating south from Canada in the fall, especially if weather conditions cause a later-than-normal harvest. Since 2010, when a late harvest caused many vineyards to lose as much as 60 percent of their crop to birds eating the grapes on their migration south, wineries have employed various methods of scaring away birds, particularly starlings, the main crop-damaging culprits.
Propane air canons, which produce a loud sound on selected intervals, are used by many wineries, but this method also scares away other desirable animals, like coyotes that help control moles and other rodents that can also negatively affect crops.
More environmentally friendly methods include loudly playing recordings at various intervals of birds in distress through speakers placed in the vineyard, as Evening Land does at its Seven Springs Vineyard.
Soter Vineyards employs a falconer to help keep the potentially threatening birds away. The falconer, who has a stable of raptor birds – hawks and falcons – releases one bird at a time at intervals to fly above the vineyard to deter smaller birds from invading the vineyard to eat the grapes.
In addition, Oregon vineyards also often use grape-growing practices that are salmon friendly, meaning that they will not negatively impact rivers where salmon spawn because salmon is another important product coming from the state.