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Learning to Love a Mess

One winemaker explains his choice to go organic.


The vineyard was deep in the throes of withdrawal. Cut off from its fix of herbicides, pesticides and tillage, its veneer was cracked and peeling. Bursts of foxtail rent the formerly perfect lines of grapevines; broadleaf weeds erupted from the once-weedless soil. In the last few months, the entire gopher population of Napa Valley had swarmed over our land, gleefully screaming, "Lunch!" Now the plot was pockmarked with their holes. As my winemaker, Jeff Virnig, and I watched our vineyard become more haggard, we crossed our fingers that we were doing the right thing.

A few years before, Jeff and I had decided to do something radical to my family's vineyard-go organic. What had led us to take this course-one that was scoffed at by many of my neighbors-were two apparently contradictory ideals. We wanted a better environment in which to work and live. And we wanted to improve the quality and character of the wines.

Even though I had first planted grapes on my land just 10 years before, the soil was already compacted (which meant that it could not hold water very well) and cracking (which meant that it didn't have enough organic matter to hold it together). The ground was so hard that we couldn't get a spade into it; I had to swing a pick or haul out the rototiller. And even when I did turn the soil, the results were disappointing. It was completely devoid of life: no earthworms, no insects, no roots from plants other than grapevines.

According to the then-prevalent school of thought, this lack of life was actually a good thing. It meant that we had taken control of the environment. We had created a blank canvas on which we could apply our chemical slurries. We could isolate every symptom of disease or nutritional shortage, treat them with special-purpose chemicals and fix them in a predictable way.

We had turned nature's messy, chaotic system of biodiversity into rational, methodical engineering. So why didn't we feel good about it?

There were too many questions: If my soil was devoid of life, then how was it going to be charged with nutrients? And if my soil had no nutrients, how was the vine going to get them? I knew the answer to the last question. I was supposed to buy mineral and synthetic nutrients at the store. I couldn't help wondering if there was a better way.

The growth of plants-grapevines, for instance-is based on the fertility of the soil. When I manipulate that fertility by dumping in synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers, my vines grow-immediately, dramatically. This looks good in the short term, but I was now realizing that grapevines need to be healthy for many years. Like athletes who make short-term performance gains from steroids at the cost of their long-term health, my vines were growing faster and greener to begin with but ending up with fruit that had less concentrated flavor and didn't ripen well.

When I tried to pump up the flavor or improve the ripening, other problems emerged. Each miracle solution created the next problem, which required another miracle solution. Jeff and I wanted more consistency and fewer headaches. It seemed to us that if the land had proper minerals and nutrients, the vine would find its own balance by taking up what it needed when it needed it.

The simple observation that the soil was dead led us on a long but surprisingly commonsensical journey. Our first theory was based on the simple notion that insect infestation (in this case, the root louse phylloxera) is a result of weak or malnourished vines. Insects are nature's clean-up team. It is their job to aid and speed up the rotting process. Healthy vines would have fewer insect pests. If I maintained the soil in my land, I would be building up the immune system, so to speak, of my vines. With less phylloxera, I wouldn't have to spend as much time and money ripping out vines and replanting. The vineyard and I would both be better off.

The second theory was based on the elusive concept of balance. The idea is that the vine is looking to find its own state of equilibrium. Its above-ground vegetative growth is based on the fertility of the soil. But for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. Big green growth usually equates to uneven fruit sets, less concentrated flavors and difficulty in ripening.

Then, whatever happens one year, you can almost count on the opposite occurring the next. We wanted more consistency. Once again, we theorized that if the proper nutrients existed, the vine would find its own balance. No more exaggerated growth, just steady as she goes.

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