Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Benefits of Dry Farming a Vineyard Organically

I recently watched Portrait of a Winemaker featuring John Williams of Frog's Leap Winery in Napa Valley. This is part of Sonatas of the Soil Volume One which is directed by Deborah Koons Garcia. Deborah directed the widely acclaimed The Future of Food which focuses on genetically modified foods. Her latest documentary, Symphony of the Soil, premiered last weekend.  I'll have a much shorter post about it in a couple of days since it isn't directly related to beer, wine, and/or spirits.

Having talked to many winemakers and vineyard managers while working in the industry, having family in the industry, being a wine writer, and going wine tasting, I can safely tell you that every winemaker/grape grower can talk about their product well and why their method is better than the rest. With that being said I think John Williams is a straight shooter and they have put forth a solid segment with strong historical, viticultural, and visual reasoning.

Portrait of a Winemaker is a 15 minute segment with John Williams talking about why organic dry farming is the most sustainable way to grow grapes and why wine made from grapes grown in this manner can be superior.

The key to any sort of farming is to develop your soil. An interesting stat, 1 lb of healthy soil will hold 9 lbs of water. Frog's Leap does this by using cover crops and compost made from their pomace (grape skins, stems, and seeds that are left over after pressing the juice/wine from the grapes).

Dry farming with means they do not irrigate their crops. John says, irrigation is a problem because grape vines need stress to produce quality fruit. Giving the vines water so close to the surface does not stress the vines enough. When you do not irrigate and you have deep rooted root stocks, as opposed to many of the shallow root stocks that are in wide use these days, then you force the vine to search for more water deeper down. Having to spend energy growing the roots slows down the vigor of the vines. This results in less foliage and since sugar is created in the chloroplasts in the leaves the sugar levels of the grapes are lower while the flavors keep developing. This lowers the alcohol levels of the wine.

If the vineyard crew is not building the soil through compost application and/or tilling in cover crops then the vineyard must use fertilizer which lessens not only the struggle of the vine to find nutrients, but it also lessons the effect of terroir. (In my honest opinion, terroir is an over used word in the industry denoting a sense of place from the wine. I do think it can be a real thing, but I also think that marketing and advertising people use it willy-nilly.) Irrigation and fertilization also set up the secondary problem of weeds. There are many responses to weeds including herbicides, goats, fire, etc.

John makes an interesting analogy for the difference of organic, dry farmed grapes to being similar to the difference between store bought hydroponically grown tomatoes and home grown tomatoes. They are both tomatoes, but the home grown ones are almost always superior in flavor and nutrition. Nutrition levels of the grapes are more for feeding the yeasts that ferment than for feeding us.

The most surprising thing I heard in the video is John said that the average grapevine lifespan in Napa Valley has dropped to 12-15 years when it should be 70-80 years. This is a scary stat because replanting is expensive and that makes the wine more expensive.

I highly recommend checking out this video. Especially if you are a winegrower or you care greatly about the quality of your wine as well as the sustainability of the vineyards it came from.

What wine related documentary have you found the most enjoyable?

What is your favorite sustainable winery?

Happy Sustainable Drinking,



  1. I also appreciate Northern California wines and believe that dry-farming and bio-dynamic farming are the wave of the future. The wineries / growers that I follow and appreciate for their gentle handling of the terroir including Emeritus, Small Vines, Littorai, Dutton Estates, and Dutton-Goldfield. Their wines truly reflect the place they were grown and have a lovely balance as do their farming methods.

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