The Sonoma County Grape Growers Association sponsored an organic farming short course at the Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate in Dry Creek recently.
With more than 50 grape growers from Carneros to Cloverdale attending, winemaker and vineyard manager Mike Brunson took the group on a field study of the 100-acre, organically-certified, hillside vineyard and winery.
“We not only grow 14 different wine varietals here and on Bradford Mountain, we have an organic garden, sheep and chickens, some bees, and a whole bunch of things going on to maintain the vitality of the place,” Brunson told Wine Business.com. He noted that the winery stopped using pesticides in the mid 1990s, and is still getting between 3 and 3.5 tons of grapes to the acre. “We’re getting great flavor from smaller berries, and fewer seeds.”
Balance is the key to organic farming, while making it a sustainable operation is the bottom line, according to Brunson – and letting nature work for you is what makes the concept work in the grower’s favor.
“Under-vine care is a big deal in organics,” he said. “Because so much more hand work is involved, we bring in sheep to remove the suckers for us, and they keep down the weeds, too. The sheep do an awesome job. They leave a little wool here and there, but all in all, they do a really good job in the initial growth stage.” Once the vines have extensive leaf and fruit growth, Brunson said they resort to an under-vine mower and weed eaters.
He admitted that buying a goat flock would involve up-front costs, so the winery “borrows” the animals from a local goat farm for three to four months during the year. “Besides weeding for us, they provide some great fertilizer, and you can’t make a machine like that. Plus, they’re fun.”