5:51pm | April 3, 2013

What Sustainable Farming Means to Me

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I’ve been in the Napa Valley for over 20 years, so naturally my sense of wines and their place in a meal is of great importance to me. Just over 10 years ago, I got the chance to cultivate my own wines from historic vineyards around my home, but before I could make wine, the land needed repair. It had been farmed conventionally, with the typical style of pesticides and herbicides, and some of it had been left alone to die. As I repaired these vines, some of which were planted before prohibition and over 90 years old, I turned the entire property into a sustainably farmed operation. For my project, I enlisted one of the top “old vine” winemakers in Napa Valley, a master at creating rich, dynamic wines from the ultra-ripe fruit of older vines. The 94-year-old Petite Sirah and Zinfandel vines were revived by me and Thomas Brown (2010 Winemaker of the Year, Food & Wine Magazine) using head pruning and dry farming. These two time-honored methods historically used for both Zin and Petite Sirah in California allow the vines to ripen grapes evenly and flourish in the absence of water. I also turned to the organic farmer’s “man in black” as I like to call him, my friend Amigo Bob Cantisano. Its through his decades of wisdom and tireless work that hundreds of acres of farm land have been “returned” to the wiser, safer and more healthy ways of organics, sustainable, and even biodynamic farming. More on him in my next post.

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To me, sustainable means leaving the landmore fertile than you found it. We have been sustainable from our first farming day back in 1997. In addition to using all natural means for grape growing, I have taken the next steps. We compost our grape skins and stems and fold them back into the soil. We plant a winter cover crop of fava beans, fetch, clover and wild mustard, which gets tilled into the soil each spring to provide vital nutrients, giving the vines a great boost of energy as they come out of dormancy. And as we prune each winter, we use the resulting ash to create a line of beautiful ash-glazed pottery. It doesn’t stop with the grapes, however. We encourage a balanced ecosystem and natural habitat that plays home to so many wonderful creatures. Brush piles and unsprayed ditches provide safe places for the quail and the ducks to lay eggs. Longer spring grasses are left knee high for the geese. Bat boxes, ladybugs, the list goes on. Finally, living sustainably means taking responsibility for our ranch forman, Lorenzo, and his family in Mexico. We provide him with year-round work and a steady income, allowing him to plan for reuniting his family. Our farming activities are a bit slower at times, but we feel much better about it in the end. All told, farming sustainably affects both what you do and how you do it.

–Michael Chiarello

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  • Posted by Eat Cute - August 22, 2013

    I love this article! Great Job Michael!