Lake County Wineries at Forefront of Sustainable Agriculture Movement

December 18, 2015

California wine country takes pride in its world-class vintages, but is also a global leader of the sustainable agriculture movement. A new breed of vintners and winegrape growers in Lake County, a geologically remarkable inland area in the northern part of wine country, are practicing innovative and responsible techniques that minimize water use, maximize green energy and eliminate the use of harmful pesticides.
Acting as true stewards of the land and soil used to grow winegrapes, many Lake County farmers have developed innovative techniques—like solar and wind energy and the use of sheep—that cater to environmental concerns and are ingeniously economical.
There’s not one single way to practice environmentally sustainable farming; there are several. We spoke to a few standout Lake County wine producers about the new standards for sustainability and proactively taking on the challenges of tomorrow.

Water conservation

The ongoing California drought has forced the state’s agriculture industry to take a good, hard look at its water use. Rosa d’Oro Vineyards in Kelseyville adheres to a series of successful “dry farming” techniques that minimize water consumption in both the grape-growing and wine-barreling processes.
“Here at Rosa d’Oro Vineyards we have a very limited supply of water both for the vineyard and the winery,” said owner and founder Nick Buttitta. “When I started planting, only about one acre was planted each year, knowing that the first year would be the most critical for water demand.”
Rosa d’Oro selectively breeds vine rootstocks that are especially drought-tolerant, and waters them using a simple but effective drip irrigation technique that precisely controls the amount of water supplied to each row of vines. But the rigorous water conservation goes beyond just the vineyard.
“At the winery we are also very water conscious,” Buttitta said, describing barrel- and tank-washing procedures that use higher water pressure but less water overall. “Hand scrubbing inside tanks, I believe, gives us cleaner tanks with substantially less water. Years ago I installed a catch drain and basin to capture any water from the work area and that water is pumped to a tank and subsequently used in the field.”
The techniques succeed in using substantially less water and producing a substantially more flavorful wine.
Sample these exceptional “dry farmed” wines Wednesday through Sunday at the Rosa d’Oro tasting room in historic downtown Kelseyville.

Reducing use of fossil fuels and chemicals

Here’s an interesting way to take gasoline, carbon and harmful chemicals out of the grape-growing process: use live sheep to do their work instead.

Shannon_Ridge_sheep_and_dog
The sheep of Shannon Ridge, along with their watchful eye.

Shannon Ridge Vineyard & Winery in Lower Lake has trademarked a revolutionary technique called the Ovis Cycle that employs sheep to eat weeds that are normally removed using mowers, weed eaters and herbicides. Overlooking the Anderson Marsh State Historic Park nature reserve, Shannon Ridge puts a priority on maintaining the area’s clean air and rich ecosystem.
“We run roughly about 1.000 ewes in our vineyards,” said Joy Merrilees, the vineyard’s director of winemaking and production. “They clean out all of the fruiting zone, eating the weeds and things like that from around the bottoms of the vines.”
“They fertilize for us,” she said. “And the other thing that’s really important to us is that they keep us from doing two to three tractor passes a year. So it’s that much diesel that we’re not using, and having the sheep do the job for us.”
The Ovis Cycle is also used at Vigilance Winery & Vineyards, a part of the Shannon Ridge brand. Both vineyards in Lower Lake have tasting rooms on site, and both boast magnificent views of the natural California landscape they so carefully preserve.
“All of our vineyards are certified sustainable through the California Certified Sustainable program,” Merrilles noted.

Solar and wind energy

A model for going 100 percent solar and wind energy, Smiling Dogs Ranch in Kelseyville produces outstanding zinfandels, sauvignon blancs and cabernets. The vineyard is known for its resident pet dogs, but the commitment to sustainable energy is Smiling Dogs’ real distinction.
“The whole equation is powered by renewables,” owner Scott Simkover said of Smiling Dogs’ wind turbine and ground-based solar arrays. “I operate a vineyard, a winery, my house and I have two electric cars.”
The Smiling Dogs Ranch commitment to renewable energy isn’t just a responsible move of environmental stewardship; it’s a sound economic move, too. Totaling his power bills from the entire vineyard and winery, Simkover said he pays just $40 per year in energy costs.
It’s no coincidence that Lake County has the cleanest air in America. It’s a tribute to the everyday commitment and relentless innovation of Lake County’s new generation of forward-thinking vintners. See for yourself how these vintners are saving the earth one bottle at a time.
Lake County’s grape growers care deeply for the land and go great lengths to protect the environment. The wines are beyond comparison and the fruits of these labors will be harvested for generations to come.