Here we explore the valuable role that compost can have in a vineyard and on a farm to create a natural, healthy, vital energy in the soil.
In nature, the remnants of previous years’ plants slowly decompose into a thin layer of rich topsoil, where their nutrients become available to the current crop of plants. Below the topsoil is nutrient-poor subsoil, and beneath that, moisture-laden bedrock. The grapevine is designed by nature to thrive in these layers. Small feeder roots absorb nutrients from the topsoil and subsoil while longer roots grow deeply into the layers of bedrock to maintain contact with water during dry summer months.
This soil sample was taken from our Rutherford estate vineyard, upon which you are currently standing. It is represented by the Pleasanton loam soil series. The upper portion of the soil is characterized by brown loam composed of large proportions of fine sand and medium-sized gravel. The soil is underlain at 12 to 30 inches by a reddish-brown heavy clay loam, having the adobe structure and carrying only very small amounts of gravel.
The Rutherford AVA is defined by three unique alluvial fans that are primarily gravelly, sandy and loamy. These fans are formed from shattered, well-bedded sandstone, and their deposits are high in gravels. Deep and well-drained, the fans have pockets that allow runoff to easily flow to the streams and Napa River.
Rutherford soils are dominated by the Franciscan marine sedimentary materials with some volcanic deposits (primarily Bale, Pleasanton and Yolo loams). The western benchland of Rutherford is sedimentary, gravelly-sandy and alluvial, with good water retention and moderate fertility. The eastern side has more volcanic soils, is moderately deep and more fertile.
Terroir is the unique taste of a specific place as shown in a wine. It is the magic of the site. Terroir is the Theater of Nature… the symphony of nature, the embodiment of all the different actors coming together to create a harmonious whole, expressed in wine. Raymond’s Chardonnay may carry the flavors of apple and lemon, but its terroir arises from the nature of this place, especially the soil.
Minerality in wine is a flavor that’s been likened to crushed rock, wet stones, and mineral-rich well water. It’s a steely earthiness, the bones of a wine on which hang the fleshy fruit. Some people believe it derives from the soil itself, others say it comes from the action of yeast during fermentation. Scientists haven’t yet pinned down its cause, but you know minerality immediately when you taste it. It lends a pure and stony quality to white wines, especially.
Rock is the book of earth’s existence and soil is the weathered residue of those rocks.
Over geologic time, mountain ranges have risen, only to be leveled by rain and ice, after which they rise again. Tectonic forces break the earth’s crust into huge plates that carry continents and pieces of continents over a sea of molten rock deep within the earth. Soils in vineyards the world over contain bits of rock that formed throughout the eons and have been transported across the earth’s surface by these forces.
The Sonoma Coast was once attached to Asia. It skated across the Pacific and crashed into the Americas and now grinds its way northward as a jumble of many types of rocks and soils that give layers of flavor to grapes grown in them and wines made from them.
All over the world, the soils that produce outstanding wine tend to share a common characteristic: they are calcareous, meaning they were once ocean or sea beds turned to quick draining, calcium-rich limestone or chalk, now elevated as dry land. The region of France known as Burgundy was once a sea bed, and its 400 different soil types share the presence of ancient oyster shells and other calcareous artifacts of its time under the waves.
It is human beings—vineyard farmers and winemakers—who recognize the essence of a site expressed in the grapes that grow there, and guide it into a wine of terroir. Wine truly is the child of the marriage of a human being and a grapevine. And only humans can appreciate how the entire billion-year history of a site becomes focused in the taste of a glass of wine.
Most grapevines are grafted. The lower part, the roots, may be chosen to resist the devastations of the phylloxera louse that’s widespread in North America and Europe and that attacks vitis vinifera—the grapes that produce our finest wines. Other roiotstocks may be chosen to control vigor, or because they are adapted to certain kinds of soil, or simply because they add to the quality of the wine.
The upper part, or fruiting wood, that’s grafted onto the rootstock is called the scion. It’s one of the recognized varieties for fine wine, such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, or many others. As the vines age and the scion wood becomes thicker, it gains greater storage capacity for sap and nutrients. The roots draw water and nutrients from the ground. The scion grows leaves that photosynthesize sugar from sunlight and water—sugar that is used to make tissue and sweeten ripening grapes.
After winter pruning, the buds left on the vine burst open in spring and produce green shoots that grow leaves and flower clusters. The flower clusters have three main stages: set, when the flowers open and pollinate themselves so that grapes begin to form; veraisin, when the developing grapes begin to show color in mid-summer, and harvest, when the grapes have reached maturity and are ready to be made into wine. The green shoots by this time have become woody canes. The canes will be pruned back to a certain number of buds and the process will begin again next year.
The grapevine is exquisitely sensitive to its environment and has definite requirements to thrive. If its roots stand in water for too long, it will die back. High winds can damage green shoots. Cold, wet weather can inhibit or even prevent fruit set. Too much summer water can cause swollen berries and clusters vulnerable to bunch rot.
The vineyard site has a profound effect on the vine. Mountain sites and hillside slopes have the advantage of positive drainage but may need irrigation to keep the vines going during long, dry summers. Valley floor sites usually let the vines stay in contact with deep ground water over summer and have richer soils that allow for larger yields. Vines facing southeast get more morning sun and vines facing southwest get more afternoon sun, affecting their sugar and acid levels and the amount of time they hang on the vine until they reach full maturity.
Trellising is the act of training grapevines to grow upon a support structure – the trellis – in order to provide optimal growing conditions for producing fine wine. Pruning is the process of controlling and guiding the growth of the vine to produce the best outcome for the grapes. The following techniques are illustrated here:
Here we explore how biodiversity, vine row interplantings, and cover crops contribute to a vital healty vineyard eco-system. Cover crops connect and integrate the soil, the air, the roots and connect the elements together, again emphasizing the importance of a harmonious, connected and diverse system.
Weeds create competition in the soil that benefits wine by slowing vine vigor, absorbing excess moisture, and forcing the vine to struggle and therefore produce better quality wine. Weeds therefore are a natural growth management system, and also help improve the “immune system” of a plant. Weeds are an indicator of a site’s health Weed management, in a Biodynamic farmer’s eyes, can be done without herbicides through close monitoring and proper management.
This bat house holds a colony of 100-300 bats. Bats eat crop-destroying beetles, moths, and leafhoppers. Each bat can eat 1,200 mosquitoes an hour, and mosquitoes carry diseases like West Nile virus. The presence of bats is a good indicator of a healthy environment.
Worms turn garbage into gold. All vegetable trimmings from the kitchen are fed to this box full of red wiggler worms. Within a month or so, the worms digest the raw vegetable matter, producing worm compost that is seven times richer in grow power than regular compost. The worms love green veggies. They don’t like anything with oil or butter, meat, citrus rinds, onions and garlic, or hot peppers.
We encourage beneficial insects by planting a garden that we know will attract the right kind of bugs to our site. Beneficial insects eat pest insects, keeping them in check without chemical pesticides. Plants such as dill, fennel, and wild carrot provide nectar for adult beneficials, so we planted a special garden plot devoted to these and other plants.
An example of a beneficial insect is the lacewing larvae, also called trash bugs. They like to eat aphids, destructive little insects that suck plant juices. Aphids also produce sweet, honey-like nectar. Ants like the aphid honey, and stand guard over their aphid colonies to ward off predators like the trash bugs. But the trash bugs have tiny pincers on their backs they use to hold bits of leaf, husks of dried aphids, and other trash. This fools the ants into thinking the trash bugs are aphids, and they let them pass. Each larva can eat 600 aphids an hour. It’s a neat trick.
Other insects in the insect nursery include ladybugs, ichneumon flies, predatory mites, and beneficial nematodes. And of course, beehives so the bees can pollinate our fruits and vegetables.
Biodynamic farmers have long thought of a bee colony not as a collection of individual workers, drones, nursemaids, larvae, and a queen, but as a single organism with many discrete parts. This organism settles over the flowers on a farm, pollinating them and causing them to set seed, grow fruit, and produce vegetables. In fact, 30 percent of our food supply depends on bees for pollination.* Crops that depend on bees include apples, pears, stone fruits, oranges, lemons, limes, broccoli, onions, blueberries, cranberries, cucumbers, melons, squashes, carrots, avocados, almonds, and many others.
Bees are vulnerable to a wide range of pesticides and harmful agricultural chemicals. On an organic or Biodynamic farm or vineyard, bees find a safe home free from poisons. They not only pollinate food crops, but also support reproduction of wild plants on which the diverse biota of insects and other animals depend. A healthy population of bees is an indication of health in the entire ecosystem.
Cattle and/or milk cows are an integral part of a Biodynamic farm. Think of the animals’ horns as antennae for etheric and celestial forces that are then directed inward to the cow’s complex, four-chambered digestive system. Biodynamic Preparation 500 is made by filling a cow’s horn with cow manure and burying it overwinter so the manure turns to beneficial humus. The humus is then made into a tea to be sprayed on the vines or field crops. In addition, the bovine race occupies an irreplaceable niche in the whole organism that is the Biodynamic farm. And the cheese from milk cows and meat from cattle makes perfect partners with wines from the vineyards.
Poultry plays an enormously important part in Nature’s Theater. Ducks gobble up crop-destroying slugs and snails, and give us meat and eggs in return. Chickens scratch for insect eggs and bugs, and a natural diet of living insects yields healthy eggs of wonderful flavor and rich, dark orange yolks. We provide a henhouse, but also give them a moveable cage so hens have access to a fresh plot of grass each day.
Chickens make compost, too. Leaves and vegetable waste from the garden are thrown into the hens’ yard. They scratch and tear it apart, and add their manure to the shredded material. This enriched mulch is used around fruit trees and ornamental plants.
Our Alpine goats and Southdown sheep are rotated around the vineyard working as lawnmowers and weedwackers clearing the brush and weeds. In return we collect their stale sweeping to enrich the compost piles, which will boost the health of our garden plants. But first, the chickens peck through the stable sweepings, looking for fly eggs and adding valuable chicken manure to the mix.
Animals take part in the winemaking process, too. Ladybugs devour pests on the vines, egg whites are used to clear any cloudiness from the wine, and cattle not only contribute fertilizer to the compost pile that feeds the vines, but provide the beef that’s the perfect accompaniment to our Cabernet Sauvignon.
The hundreds of kinds of plant life and the thousands of kinds of animal life in a healthy garden interact with each other in myriad ways, some obvious and some still hidden from human understanding. Nature’s guiding rule remains: the more kinds of life in the vineyard, the healthier the whole system. It’s the vineyardist’s role to encourage a diversity of life in the garden, using organic and Biodynamic techniques. What a joyful, positive and life-affirming insight! Let’s now explore more about the Vineyard-ists role, the human place between the soil and the cosmos to create a thriving vineyard ecosystem.
Good fences make good neighbors.
Not every creature is allowed in the vineyard, because some are destructive of the vineyard’s purpose. However, the vineyardist has choices. We choose to stimulate health and vitality on our estate and make the least impactful choice. Some of those things that we do include:
Instead of killing garden invaders, the good gardener erects barriers to exclude them. These include fencing against deer, rabbits, raccoons, and possums. Barriers on bird feeders exclude squirrels. Bird netting over fruit trees and berry bushes protects ripening fruit. Floating row covers over squash family crops (summer squash, melons, cucumbers) keep away striped and spotted cucumber beetles.
There is no wine without the inputs of the vineyardist. Many a great winemaker has stated that all great wines begin in the vineyard, and it is the time and care that we give to our vines year-round that finally produces an exceptional wine. The vineyardist has many roles, including planting, trellising, shoot positioning, leaf-pulling, composting, pruning, crop thinning, and finally – harvest.
Planting involves a series of decisions before any vine ever hits the ground, including choosing the right grape varietals, clones, rootstocks, and row orientation to produce exceptional wines.
Trellising, as we have seen, means the process and technique of training the vines upon a support structure for optimal fruit development. Different varieties and different sites require a customized approach to get the best from each vine.
In a process called “Shoot positioning”, the Vineyardist positions grapevine shoots for proper growth upon the trellis.
Leaf pulling improves the grape cluster’s exposure to the sun and increases airflow to prevent disease.
Adding compost to the soil improves soil health and vitality. More on our composting techniques can be seen in Act One.
Pruning back the vines lowers yields while increasing the quality of the grape clusters left on the vine.
Thinning is another means of reducing grapevine vigor to the benefit of quality grapes.
The final act of the vineyardist, harvest is the joyful culmination of each year’s work to produce phenomenal wine in the vineyards.
Wine is the child of the marriage of human and grapevine. The human, whether man or woman, winemaker or vineyard worker, husbands the process, while the grapevine mothers the fruit. If the parenting is done with love, care and skill, the wine may be exemplary, like the Raymond Cabernet Reserve.
Humans are actors of nature. We respond to the rhythm of nature. “We don’t impose our rhythms on nature, we listen and interact within the rhythms of nature and its cycles and the cycles of the cosmos.”
The human being is truly unique in the animal world for his ability to perceive nature’s purposes and connections, not only for his own species, but for many species.
Animal brothers, take a hand from me
For I can reach a world you cannot see
And catch a ray of light for thee.
Our site – the vineyard – will exist long before and long after its human caretakers… It is therefore the human role to listen and observe the site’s deep history and long connection through the millennia, and to steward it through the brief time in which each human can interact with the great site that it may become even greater for future generations… Humans are stewards, shepherds of a place and a moment in time. The wine is the product of a great site well stewarded.
Sustainability means that the land can be farmed in perpetuity without depleting or eroding the soil or damaging the ecology or environment of the farm. Both organic and Biodynamic farming methods are not only sustainable, but they actual improve the quality of the soil, strengthen the ecology, and enhance the health of the environment as they are practiced.
We farm sustainably, organically and according to Biodynamic principles at Raymond. You’ve discovered many of the specific techniques we employ at Raymond throughout the Theater of Nature; here are a few specific examples of sustainable practices that we implement:
Growing vines without the use of synthetic chemicals is just part of the organic method. Soil improvement and crop fertilization is achieved through actively-decaying organic matter. Manures are rendered safe through composting. Insects are controlled by the use of natural enemies, barriers, and crop selection and rotations. Weeds are kept down by mulch and cultivation. The results are better tasting, more nutritious foods.
All Biodynamic culture is organic, but not all organic culture is Biodynamic. The Biodynamic insight, promulgated by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th Century, is that a farm or garden lies between the cosmos above and the earth below, and is heavily influenced by both. Planting is therefore done by calendar and moon phases. The garden or farm is conceived as a whole, single, living organism of plants and animals that can be brought into self-regulating balance with as few outside inputs as possible. He developed techniques for enhancing and using the influences for the better growth of the garden or farm, and named the set of techniques Biodynamics.
Not all natural forces are visible. The Biodynamic farm and vineyard takes all earthbound and celestial forces, visible and invisible, into account because they directly affect the growth and quality of the plants and animals that together make up the living farm.
Cycles: day and night circle inside the larger cycle of the seasons. Planets cycle through the static background of the stars.
Rhythms: Birds respond to the rhythm of their nature, flying south for the winter and north for the summer. Plants flower, set seed, seeds sprout, and new plants flower to repeat the rhythms of life.
Magnetic forces: You can’t see the forces in a magnet or in the earth’s magnetic field. But they are there, as any compass will tell you, and as birds and other creatures know by using the earth’s magnetism for navigation.
Ebb & Flow: The shapes that arise in the sensitive chaos of flowing water are repeated in diverse life forms, which are made primarily of water. As the grapevine grows, you can see swirls in its wood that mimic swirling water, and you can see the way water flows around obstacles in the form of the chambers of the human heart. The vortex that appears as you drain your bathtub is repeated in the swirl of hair near the crown of your head, and throughout creation all the way to the immensity of a spiral galaxy.
Lunar Cycles: When the moon is waning, the Biodynamic farmer plants root crops that produce food for us underground. When the moon is waxing, he plants the green crops whose above ground parts we eat.
Tides and the Moon: You can’t see gravity, but you can see its effects every day, in the falling of a leaf, in centrifugal force, and in the rise and fall of the tides as the moon’s gravity acts upon the oceans. Those same lunar cycles are repeated in the life processes of living beings, as every woman can attest.
The beautiful thing about farming according to Biodynamic principles is that you become part of the grand working of Nature. It’s a good feeling to know that your crops are clean, and your work and life is supported by Nature’s energies. In the Theater of Nature, you can take your bow and the earth will shower you with flowers.