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Nurturing Terroir Yields Great Wines, Now and For Generations to Come

STORY BY ANNE SAMPSON

Walla Walla winemakers treasure their land and their environment as much as their wine. They have created Vinea to help sustain their terroir for future generations.

Wine people love to speak of terroir – the influences of soil, climate, and terrain that distinguish grapes from a certain region. It’s what makes a Bordeaux a Bordeaux.

So it makes sense that wine growers would search out ways to protect those influences. Some go organic. Bio-dynamics can play a role. Others simply call it sustainability. In fact, there are a fistful of certifications available to farmers of all sorts, each with its own standards, including organic certification (born in California in 1972), Demeter Biodynamic (dating to 1928 in Europe and addressing holistic farming), and GlobalG.A.P. (focusing on fresh rather than processed foods, and establishing a single global standard for Good Agricultural Practice).

But several programs aimed specifically at viticulture have deep roots in Oregon, and their influence is spreading.

At Bethel Heights Vineyard, co-owner and vineyard manager Ted Casteel has worked his land since 1977. Casteel is a founder of LIVE, the appealing acronym for Low Input Viticulture and Enology. “In the early decades of our industry, everybody was concerned about sustainability, but there were a lot of people new to farming without a good background,” he recalls. “There were people who would just go out and spray the ‘death cocktail’ early in the season.”

So in the mid ‘90s, a group of Willamette Valley wine growers began meeting with researchers at Oregon State University to develop a set of standards that vintners would be willing to support. Many of those early meetings took place at Bethel Heights. “My office today is in the same room where we used to meet,” Casteel says.

The group developed some important tools – a good and tested structure with well-established sustainability standards, and a third-party certification process. And they earned some international clout – the LIVE standards presented in 1997 to Willamette Valley growers borrowed heavily from the model established by a European team, the International Organisation for Biological Control of Noxious Animals and Plants (IOBC). So when the IOBC certified LIVE in 2004, it gave LIVE growers recognition in markets around the world, as well.

Today, Bethel Heights wines carry multiple sustainability logos: LIVE, of course, and Salmon-Safe, as well as Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine. Salmon-Safe was originally a program of the Pacific Rivers Council, appearing as LIVE was gaining traction. Today, it’s an independent non-profit organization, focused on maintaining clean watersheds so that spawning salmon can find safe passage through streams free of pesticides and herbicides that could interfere with their survival. Salmon-Safe standards now are integrated with LIVE, so farmers displaying this credit are also dual-certified. A third credential, Oregon Certified Sustainable Wine, is granted to all Oregon wines with LIVE, organic, or biodynamic certification.

LIVE standards address almost every aspect of vineyard management, from plant nutrition and fertilizer use to irrigation to worker health and safety. Growers complete an annual report and must comply to a base list of LIVE standards, with opportunities to earn extra points in each category.

Wineries can also earn LIVE certification. As with vineyards, the reporting requirements touch on every aspect of winemaking, including greenhouse gas emissions, grape sourcing and enology, water management, and community impact.

LIVE standards are constantly evolving. Like all living things, the elements that make up a certain terroir change and flow in response to things like weather and evolving pests. “There seem to be new challenges every year,” says Chris Serra, LIVE executive director. “There are new pests — mites, stink bugs, viruses — and new challenges to old pests, for instance, resistant powdery mildew. LIVE works with university researchers to address these issues as they come up, through the latest scientific research on integrated pest management. We collaborate with our technical committees and our international accreditors who act as a resource for addressing these challenges via the scientific method. New standards are developed if necessary in committee, then brought to the accreditors for ratification once a year.”

Today, LIVE certifies vineyards and wineries in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho. Casteel says it is unlikely to expand to areas like California – LIVE was born in the Willamette Valley, and as in all things related to terroir, sustainability is uniquely local. But LIVE’s influence is spreading.

In the Walla Walla Valley AVA, which stretches into the northeastern corner of Oregon, growers have formed the Vinea Sustainable Trust. The group is developing its own set of standards, called Walla Walla Valley Certified Sustainable, that encourage vineyard and winery practices that are synonymous with the Walla Walla Valley. But LIVE has been its guide.

Both wineries and vineyards can seek certification, but Vinea’s biggest emphasis is for growers. The standards are based on well-established farming practices used throughout the agricultural world – for example, using compost to maintain healthy soils, limiting the need for pesticides and fungicides by managing the vine canopy, and controlling harmful insects by encouraging beneficial insects or other predators. But Vinea refines the standards to address specific conditions in the drier, harsher climate of the Walla Walla Valley.

“We’re trying to put together a program that will work for everybody,” explains Tom Waliser, who has managed Pepper Bridge Winery since 1991. Often in the Walla Walla Valley, wine grapes are only one of several crops on a farm. Waliser, for example, has also grown apples there since the 1980s. Because orchards call for different treatments than vineyards to control pests, “LIVE isn’t a good fit if you’re also growing blueberries,” Waliser explains. Vinea recommends acceptable practices and allows growers to explain why and how they utilize them.

One of the leaders of Vinea, Rick Small’s commitment to sustainability comprises what he calls “a three-legged stool” – it includes protecting the land, his employees, and the profitability of Walla Walla wineries.

Vinea has developed an incentive-based approach. Chemical applications and water management practices are divided into three groups: green (always allowed), yellow (accepted if circumstances require it), and red (never acceptable). An insecticide in the yellow category might be approved if the farmer can show that it eliminates a certain pest with only one spray instead of three. Rather than requiring certain practices, Vinea looks at the entirety of good practices used.

This approach also recognizes the conditions on the eastern side of the Cascades. Because LIVE was developed in the damp of the Willamette Valley, it limits irrigation methods, for example, requiring tightly controlled drip irrigation. Vinea, instead, recognizes the necessity of bringing water to the vineyard and allows more flexibility. The climate differences also affect allowable chemical sprays. Western Oregon’s moist conditions cause problems with diseases and fungus, Waliser says, “but in Walla Walla, we’re worried about pests that they don’t have.” For these reasons, Vinea certification requires explanations of the sustainable practices a grower chooses.

Establishing Vinea’s standards has been a long process, but organizers are pleased with their progress. They are optimistic that farmers across the valley will join the movement, even though earning the certification can be an arduous process. For the most part, they point out, certification doesn’t require much change in farming practices — most growers already use sustainable practices, and Vinea certification allows them to document it in a way that consumers can appreciate.

But the benefits of LIVE and Vinea certification go beyond selling more wine.

“Sustainability is a journey,” says Jean-Francois Pellet, winemaker at Pepper Bridge Winery and a Vinea founder. A native of Switzerland, his familiarity with the IOBC, as well as a more ubiquitous culture of conservation in Europe, was a driver in Vinea’s early discussions. As Americans more closely adopt “green” practices in everyday life, like recycling and limiting energy consumption, he says, they are also becoming more aware of sustainability in their food supply.

Still, he emphasizes that marketing is only a part of Vinea. “Does it make a better wine?” He shrugs. “It’s very hard to quantify quality. It’s more about the quality of life. It’s about what you want to be doing in 20 years with your land.”

Anne Sampson writes about wine, and the people who create it, from her home in Richland. She also writes about food, travel, and culture around the Northwest.

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