Message in a Bottle
Red, white—and green—the wine industry is widely embracing chemical-free viticulture that protects both the landscape and farmers while capturing terroir, the true taste of a place.
Bob Cantisano stands, arms akimbo, watching a red-tailed hawk rise out of a vineyard on the banks of California’s Napa River. It climbs steeply, silhouetted in the morning light against terraced slopes that stretch across rolling hills in variegated green blocks. He tracks the raptor until it soars out of sight in the cloudless sky. A wood duck quacking on the river brings him back to the vintner standing quietly beside him.
“That wildlife’s got to improve your wine,” says Cantisano, known by everyone in Napa Valley as “Amigo Bob.” A slow smile spreads across his rugged face as he turns to Andrew Hoxsey, whose family owns 635 acres of organic vineyards and the Napa Wine Company. “All it took was you weaning me off chemicals,” Hoxsey replies. “Life came back. The wine’s better, too.”
Across California and beyond, wine-grape growers are embracing chemical-free farming practices. For many, the goal is to produce soils that imbue their wines with terroir, the distinctive place-based flavor every vintner treasures. From boutique brands to large corporations including Mondavi and Gallo, a passion for better wine is sweeping through vineyards and wineries as part of a green revolution that is transforming the industry from the ground up.
In California, where 90 percent of America’s wine grapes are produced, owners holding more than two-thirds of the vineyard acreage are involved in a process aimed at organic standards, expanding the certified land from roughly 6,700 acres in 2005 to 10,300 acres today. Others are adopting biodynamic agriculture, a more mysterious practice that combines organic techniques with a philosophy that considers the farm as a cohesive, interconnected living system.
A few among this new green breed are even defying a decades-old perception: that wholly organic wines (those made with organic grapes and without sulfites added to help preserve and stabilize the wine) don’t sell. These proponents are marketing their wines as organic. They comprise a mere handful—fewer than 30 vintners of the 3,000 in California—but they are daring to go where few have gone before.
Whether driven by idealism or pragmatism, these wine entrepreneurs share a belief that a healthier environment makes better wine. Their pursuit of the perfect chardonnay or sauvignon encompasses everything from the soil to the buildings where the grapes are pressed, the electricity that powers the production, the workers, the community, and the wildlife in surrounding woods and streams. Change is literally in the air as wine producers also work to reduce their carbon emissions.
The industry has reached a tipping point, notes Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation. Although certified organic represents less than two percent of the state’s 526,000 vineyard acres, the green movement is wielding a profound and irreversible influence. “Those who haven’t considered organics are busy playing catch-up,” says Scowcroft. “Everyone is thinking about it, and more and more are acting on it.”
For Amigo Bob, 59, it’s a movement whose time has finally come. He has been a consultant for more than 30 years to farmers cultivating everything from olives to oregano, dispensing a mix of science, experience, and simple common sense. A powerfully built man, he has a typical farmer’s physique, but nothing else about him is conventional. His black hair, now streaked with gray, hangs halfway down his back in dreadlocks pulled together in a jumbled ponytail. Instead of farmer johns he wears shorts and sandals. This ninth-generation Californian exudes a warmth and amiability that make him as disarmingly familiar as a favorite uncle.
Amigo Bob started his first farm in the early 1970s with little more than an aversion to chemicals and the memory of his grandmother, an organic gardener who made her own compost. He grew peaches, plums, cherries, and walnuts along with vegetables in the northern Sacramento Valley. When he couldn’t find the seeds and tools he needed to run an organic farm, he turned his barn into an organic supply store. Soon Amigo Bob was offering advice to the back-to-the-landers who had fled to the neighboring hills. “I’d tell them what was working for me and what other farmers were doing,” he says. “It wasn’t much more than paying close attention to how things grow and sharing what I learned.”
Because it came at a time when few others were doing that, Amigo Bob—a man who never joined a 4-H club and holds no academic degrees beyond high school—became an organic agricultural consultant. A founding member of California Certified Organic Farmers, he set up trials on clients’ land that experimented with new ways to increase soil fertility. Instead of bringing commercial products onto a farm, he works to create plant and animal diversity so a piece of ground can naturally produce healthy crops.