Message in a Bottle
On this late spring morning Amigo Bob drives slowly along the meandering Napa River in his silver Subaru Forester, license plate WNA BFRE. Beads dangle from the rearview mirror, and Jerry Garcia peers out from a faded decal on the windshield. This is the heart of the nation’s wine industry. Vineyards are everywhere. Along with stunning sun-drenched scenery, Napa and neighboring valleys an hour’s drive north of San Francisco are blessed with fertile alluvial soils washed down from the surrounding mountains. Commercial wine production began here in the 1850s and flourished until 1920, when Prohibition forced most grape farmers to cultivate other crops until 1933, at which point the ban was repealed.
In the domestic production frenzy following World War II, growers everywhere turned to chemicals. Commercial fertilizers and a nothing-but-grapes monoculture in California’s wine region began their reign, stripping the soils of natural fertility and killing off the beneficial insects that helped keep diseases at bay. In the 1970s a dramatic increase in California wine-grape production began a wholesale conversion of coastal areas and native oak woodlands—home to 300 different wildlife species, including the endangered red-legged frog and coho salmon—to vineyards. It was a lethal combination that evoked predictable public outcry. Chemical pollution and the loss of wildlife habitat triggered a government crackdown on pesticides and prompted regulations to protect air and water quality.
The backlash came as a shock to the wine-grape community. These farmers had always prided themselves on a particular connection to the land that infused their wines with their unique taste. But by the 1980s some had realized that their beloved terroir had a toxic taint. They also recognized the dangers the chemicals were posing for their own families and workers. Faced with the new constraints, their response was swift: Wine-grape growers began exploring new ways to produce fruit for fine wines.
John Williams, owner of Frog’s Leap vineyards and winery since 1981, was fresh out of a viticulture master’s program at the University of California-Davis when he began producing grapes and making wine in Napa Valley. A genial man with a scruffy beard and engaging blue eyes, Williams initially bought every chemical recommended: nitrogen fertilizers to beef up the soil and powerful pesticides to kill the bugs. But his vines looked listless and his wine tasted flat, he says. “I was killing that vineyard.”
Humbled by his failures, Williams sought help at Fetzer Vineyards in Hopland, just north of Napa Valley, in Mendocino Valley. The Fetzer family had started a five-acre garden in 1984 to integrate food with the wine they were showcasing at their Valley Oaks visitors’ center. The center’s organic garden produced such delicious vegetables that it inspired the Fetzers to try organics in their vineyards, too. Their test block produced fruit so much brighter and more flavorful that they began converting all of their vineyards to organic, says Ann Thrupp, Fetzer’s sustainability and organic development manager. Amigo Bob helped design the transition from conventional farming, a series of trials and errors that eventually made Fetzer the largest certified-organic grape grower in the Northwest and one of the largest in the world.
Intrigued by Fetzer’s success, Williams tracked Amigo Bob down and asked him for help. On his first visit to Frog’s Leap, Amigo Bob delivered a low-keyed lecture. “He talked about the soul of soil—how it’s alive with fungus and bacteria; how it will live and be healthy if we feed it properly,” Williams says. He became Amigo Bob’s first client in Napa Valley and the valley’s first wine-grape farmer committed to organic methods. “People thought I was crazy,” Williams says. “I was widely ridiculed—almost threatened.”
Williams heads to his vineyards through a border of fragrant mint and yellow yarrow. Beyond it is a garden filled with peppers and eggplants. Along with attracting ladybird beetles and other beneficial insects to discourage pests, the garden has drawn a cloud of insect-eating barn swallows and a mouse-hunting American kestrel.
Williams surveys row upon row of shoulder-high vines. Fifteen years ago this 40-acre plot was an agricultural toxic dump. Decades of chemical farming had left lackluster soil. To restore the missing fertility, Williams planted vetches and other cover crops in winter between the rows of grapes. Tilling them into the vineyard each spring added nitrogen and increased the fertility, gradually coaxing the soil back into natural chemical balance. This process also increased the ground’s water-holding capacity and created a complex soil structure that encouraged deeply rooted vines. Today, despite summer temperatures in the 90s and average annual rainfall of just 32 inches, Williams does not irrigate this vineyard or any of his 200 organic acres.
Something is clearly working. The vines that surround him are lush with clusters of grapes still marble hard but with the pink promise of purple fruits. Williams scoops up a handful of soil, holds it to his nose, closes his eyes, and takes a deep breath. “It’s alive,” he says. “It smells like my grandma’s potting shed.” He is midway into a description of the merlot he will produce from this rich clay loam when he pauses, head cocked. “The vines hear us talking about them. They know things—the angle of the sun, the phases of the moon. They know we’re here.”