Visitors to Tyee Cellars winery in Corvallis are treated to a 360-degree view of an agriculture wonderland. This piece of the Willamette Valley is, on a spring afternoon, glowing with green new life and bursting with flowers and young fruit. The vines of pinot noir and chardonnay boast tiny grapes straining for sun. Orderly hazelnut groves stand next to fields filled with patches of camas and lupine. It is a verdant paradise.
Winemaker Merrliee Buchanan Benson is the fifth generation of Buchanans to farm this land and she knows that to keep it producing, they have to run their winery sustainably. The health of our local wine industry, ecologically and economically, is representative of the health of the Willamette Valley. As Oregon’s wine reputation grows, the opportunity to lead the industry in sustainable practices grows with it.
Patty Skinkis is a viticulture extension specialist at Oregon State University who works with the commercial grape industry. She looks at the sustainability of the vine and the environment, as well as sustainability of the winery itself.
“The definition of sustainable is different in different regions because of the pest pressures and the climate. Here in Oregon, it’s rather easy for me to design and implement educational or research programs along sustainability. We’re looking at fewer pests and diseases to worry about and better weather during the growing season, too.”
She adds, “It’s more possible to do organic and more possible to be sustainable here”
Sustainability in the vineyard and sustainability in the winery are really two different things. “From the standpoint of a viticulturist, the question is ‘how can we produce grapes in a way that is environmentally and agriculturally sound?’”
When the public thinks about sustainability, they may immediately think of organics and chemicals. However, an organic winery is not necessarily sustainable, though sustainability can encompass organic methods. Each farm requires certain inputs to produce grapes. Certainly, chemicals are one input. But Skinkis points out that water, labor and nutrients are inputs that have a major impact on the environmental and economic health of the farm, the winery and the region. Understanding and reducing these inputs can lead to the kind of winery that is sustainable in the long-term and produces a high-quality grape.
Skinkis points to programs here in Oregon that are certified sustainable through LIVE, Low Input Viticulture and Enology. Chris Serra is LIVE’s Executive Director and has over five years experience managing and growing LIVE’s programs. He explains how his organization works with growers to recognize and limit inputs.
“When growers participate in LIVE, they use an integrated approach that includes gathering data about their operation and employing preventative measures to protect plants from pests and disease —these steps reduce the needed inputs. When inputs are necessary to protect plant health, growers choose approved substances and follow restrictions on their use.”
LIVE is the largest certifying body in the grape industry in the Pacific Northwest with more than 290 member wineries. Serra sees that as a testament to the dedication of the growers. “Vineyards and wineries in the Northwest can be, on average, smaller operations with a passion for sustainability but limited resources, especially in terms of time and capital. They make time for this despite the constraints, and we’ve seen positive outcomes where members share their knowledge to help each other improve.”
The reasons for certification like LIVE or Salmon-Safe are two-fold. One reason is an Oregonian desire to be a good steward of the land. “Oregon’s industry mindset is ‘we are a green industry; we want to be stewards of the environment.’ Some people will tell me flat out, especially if they own their vineyard or winery and are an estate winery or business, they will say it’s the right thing to do,” said Skinkis.
The other reason is financial. Most wineries want sustainable grapes because consumers want sustainable grapes, so it makes good business sense.
The power of certification can be seen in the marketplace. According to a study conducted by the Wine Institute, 34 percent of wine consumers surveyed considered environmental or sustainable attributes when buying wine. Significantly, 66 percent of these consumers identified sustainable wines by their label at the store, not from research prior to shopping. Seeing that seal of approval on the label makes a big difference.
Knowing more about the certifying body can help consumers decide if the seal of approval actually carries any weight, or if it is just a marketing tool. LIVE was founded by a small group of Willamette Valley winegrowers who partnered with university researchers and extension agents. They wanted to understand the impact of the industry and improve their practices and looked to the centuries-old industry in Europe as well as contemporary research.
For a winery to be considered for certification, it must pay a one-time application fee, annual dues and an inspection fee based on the case production of the winery. After adopting LIVE’s standards, the winery must use them for two years before gaining the certification. Farmers must submit to third-party inspections to guarantee adherence. The standards come from the International Organisation for Biological Control among others.
“IOBC’s guidelines are the backbone our vineyard standards, but we have also drawn from growers’ own best practices, the South African Integrated Production of Wines Cellar Manual, Salmon-Safe’s whole farm guidelines, and other sources. Our standards emphasize the use of technically robust and scientifically supported practices and tools. The IOBC reviews our standards each year and provides us with an accreditation as well as useful feedback for improvements.”
Any certification must be stringent enough to hold wineries to a high standard but popular enough to make it worth the farmers’ time and money.
“The nice thing about the sustainable approach, or organic approach or even biodynamic approach, the one thing about all of those is that there’s some certification behind them that’s calling them to be more astute farmers and as a result also deliver better products,” said Skinkis. So a pinot will taste like a pinot because of genetics and climate but good practices can determine a better product.
Tyee Cellars does not have a LIVE certification but it is certified Salmon Safe, which inspects non-vineyard crop and landscaping. It certifies that the farm does not have run-off, that it provides riparian buffers and that the waterways on the property are healthy. Buchanan Benson said her father certified the farm years ago because of his passion for conservation and the desire to protect the riparian habitat. The farm also has several hundred acres in a conservation easement held by NRCS. Like many farmers, she fell in love with the land and wanted to continue working it and pass it on to the next generation. Tyee’s acreage reflects the family’s love of nature. Trails wind through giant oaks and a beaver pond and two creeks provide high quality riparian habitat.
They grow grapes using organic methods that are perfectly suited for the climate, like pinot noir, chardonnay and Gewurztraminer. This is one part of the farm’s sustainability plan. “Our intention is to have this business last for many more generations. So part of keeping it sustainable for us is keeping it small and manageable, keeping it a place where we still want to live and still want to work,” she said.
She also notes that one of their best assets is the deep Willamette soil. To protect it, they keep a cover crop of flowers and legumes year-round. Tyee is also a solar-powered farm and like most Willamette Valley vineyards, it uses little irrigation. Buchanan Benson said that when a vineyard is managed sustainably, it shows in the wine.
“We can harvest exactly when we want to, bringing it into the winery when it is perfectly ripe,” she said. “It makes it easier to make a higher quality wine. It is more hand-crafted, more hands-on, more traditional, too.”
When the grapes she produces are high quality, she can let their flavor take center stage and not have to add anything to her wine. But she doesn’t think consumer demand is quite there yet for organic or locally produced wine. She wishes that the consumers who prioritize local or organic meat, produce, and dairy would do the same for wine.
“There’s not a huge value, unfortunately, placed on local when it comes to wine.”
Organic wines get shelved separately, so a consumer would have to search out the organic section instead of seeing an organic pinot noir shelved with all the other reds. She argues that locally produced wine’s taste represents our local environment without the additives or mixed batches of imports. If we are good stewards of our local soil and water and air, shouldn’t we taste that when we drink local wine? Buchanan Benson thinks so.
Patty Skinkis pauses when I ask about a difference in taste. “That’s a big jump between managing and tasting the difference. From a standpoint of in theory, if you design a vineyard to be sustainable, be a healthy vineyard, it’s always going to be a better product. From the standpoint of just being a good farmer, being a good steward of agriculture, you’re going to do things that produce a better end-product.”
“Sustainable farming seems to make all the difference in the world, I think, and it’s really very economical. You do have to be a little creative to try and find the right balance,” Buchanan Benson notes. But “It’s very economical to be an ecological farmer.”
Like most industries, the consumer holds more power than they might know. Demanding wines that are certified by LIVE or Salmon-Safe could push more wineries to adopt sustainable practices. Consumers also have the power to contribute to a sustainable local industry by supporting Willamette Valley famers who sell grapes or produce estate wines. Buying direct from a winery that reduces inputs and stewards the land ensures that these practices continue well in to the future. It’s special that we are able to enjoy boutique wines produced in our backyards that are not available outside of Oregon. And Oregon has a reputation for being progressive in its wine making.
As Chris Serra notes, “we like to think of Oregon and the Northwest as being in the vanguard of sustainable viticulture. Other regions and states have been chasing after that title.”
If sustainability becomes the norm in the Willamette Valley, perhaps the need for subsections of wine classed by growing practices will become obsolete. This would mean a better product for the buyer and more incentive for the grower.
“Often times, I think what’s conventional anymore? What’s becoming mainstream is sustainable approaches and partially because it’s logical. It’s logical from the business perspective and also from the environmental perspective,” said Skinkis.
Many local farmers practice sustainability because they have to be in order to conserve resources and keep the land productive. Benson Buchanan clearly loves where she grew up and she wants to make sure others are able to enjoy it, as well.
“Part of sustainable is definitely something you can continue to do year after year. It keeps us as a family on the farm generation after generation, and it allows new possibilities for the future.”