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Dirt Farmers

At Chateau Montelena, great wine starts with great soil


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Dave Vella's job sounds simple enough. He's the vineyard manager at Calistoga's 133-year-old Chateau Montelena Winery. The winery stunned the winemaking world at the famous "Judgment of Paris" in 1976 when it and a handful of upstart California wineries bested their French counterparts in a blind tasting. Vella's job is to make sure the vineyards keep producing the great grapes that make such great wines.

Of course maintaining that quality is not so simple.

Farming grapes or any other crop is an act of creation—and destruction. Seeds are sown to create new life, but before any crops bear fruit, the land must be bent to the farmer's will. Forests, grasslands, wetlands and other wild areas are leveled, drained and denuded. Fully functioning ecosystems above and below the ground are uprooted, displaced and destroyed in the wake of the plow and tiller.

Once crops are in the ground, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are pumped into the land in an effort to counter the extraction of soil nutrients and imbalances that come from replacing a wild polyculture with a manmade monoculture. Organic and biodynamic forms of agriculture are more benign than chemical-based farming, but they are still unnatural imitations of a closed-loop, wild ecosystem. Too often, the soil suffers.

For such a vital resource, soil often gets treated like dirt. But soil is right up there with oxygen. Without it, we die. Soil feeds us, but the soil needs to eat too. What do we feed it? Typically, it's a diet of chemical fertilizers, which yield ever-diminishing returns. Soil isn't just dirt. It's alive with nematodes, bacteria, protozoa and fungi that contribute to soil health, which in turn contributes to plant health and human health.

"You have to look at soil like a big checking account," says Vella. "You make a deposit and you get a return, but you can't keep withdrawing from the soil."

But Vella has found a way to maintain a healthy account balance.

'Compost has been my deposit for the past 15 years," he says.

Working with San Francisco's Recology and soil scientist Bob Shaffer, Vella has maintained healthy vines resulting from regular application of compost and the planting of diverse cover crops. Compost and cover crops are nothing new. But the use of them in tandem is novel, and advocates say the technique points the way forward in a world plagued by declining soil fertility, drought and soil loss.

Today, Chateau Montelena's estate vineyard, located in a small, keyhole-shaped valley of stunning beauty, is on the cutting edge of a type of soil management which has applications far beyond the exclusive world of premium-wine production.

"This is a global story," says Shaffer. "This is a partial solution to a lot problems. We just wish everyone on the planet knew about it."

Earlier this month, Vella, Shaffer and Robert Reed, public relations manager for Recology, held a tour to show off what they had accomplished in hopes of getting other growers to follow their example.

Reed is passionate about compost, but he sees a roadblock: there isn't enough of it to meet demand. Recology collects food waste in San Francisco and more than a hundred cities on the West Coast and Nevada. Thanks to San Francisco's mandatory recycling program, the company collects an average of 700 tons of food scraps and garden debris every day. The material is composted at the company's state-of-the-art Vacaville facility.

According to a 2011 report from the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization, "roughly one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption gets lost or wasted globally, which is about 1.3 billion tons per year." That's a lot of waste, but also a lot of potential compost. Reed says the problem is that the landfill industry has a lucrative grip on the waste stream and doesn't want to give it up. Nationally, there are 3,000 landfills and only 300 compost facilities.

"There are all these food scraps in the world, and there's a fight over who is going to get them," he says.


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