November 2011 Issue of Wines & Vines

Grapegrower Interview: John Williams

Winegrowing from the roots up

by Laurie Daniel
John Williams, owner-winemaker at Frog’s Leap Winery in the Napa Valley, grew up on a dairy farm in New York and planned to be a dairy farmer himself. But during his dairy science studies at Cornell University, he participated in a work-study program at Taylor Wine Co. “I was immediately captivated by it,” he says of the wine.

Williams went on to get a graduate degree at the University of California, Davis, and worked at wineries in California and New York before founding Frog’s Leap with two partners in 1981. He currently farms 250 acres of Napa Valley vineyards, all of which are certified organic.

Wines & Vines: Why did you decide to farm organically?

John Williams: In the spring of 1988, at the recommendation of Fetzer Vineyards, I asked “Amigo” Bob Cantisano to make a presentation on the principles of organic farming to a small group of Frog’s Leap growers. Organic farming, particularly of vineyards, was pretty fringe at the time, and I don’t think any of us knew what to expect—especially when Amigo showed up in full “Amigo” regalia, including Birkenstocks and a tie-dyed shirt.

The late ’80s was a time when a lot of my winemaking colleagues and I were experimenting more aggressively with winemaking techniques outside of our comfort zones: native yeast fermentations, unfiltered wines, extended skin contact, etc.—all things that are commonplace now, but at that time radical. We were looking to take our wines to the next level. By then, I had been a full-charge winemaker for more than 10 years and, for the most part, had acquired the skills to deal with most challenges in the cellar. So, when faced with lack of color or stuck fermentations or persistent sulfide issues, I knew what I had to do. But these “solutions” often had a cost in wine quality, and increasingly I was becoming aware that the problems were often associated with the same vineyard block or the same grower. Winemakers often say that “great wines are made in the vineyards,” but honestly, I didn’t truly believe it. I could fix anything up. I was about to be shown differently.

Prior to 1987, Frog’s Leap purchased all of its grapes from outside growers. Upon the acquisition of our first vineyard on Rutherford’s west side, I was faced with decisions about how to manage those vines that, despite having grown up on a farm and extensive studies at two of our country’s best agricultural universities, I was ill-prepared to answer. I didn’t really know how to prune. My spray program consisted of tying a wet rag around my head and letting the sulfur dust fly. I needed help.

Help came first in the form of Frank Leeds. Frank’s family had already been farming in Rutherford for two generations before he climbed on his first tractor, and he was deeply schooled in the traditional viticultural techniques that are the underpinnings of how we now farm the 250 acres under our care. Frank began to teach me that there is no substitute for sound viticultural practice and that many, if not most, of the problems that I was facing in the cellar had their roots in the vineyard.

And then the Amigo Bob seminar happened in March 1988. I think most of us were expecting a long recital of what we couldn’t do if we wanted to farm organically. We’d have to accept lower yields, higher costs, lots of weeds and greater threat of pests if we wanted to hug trees, right? But what we heard was that the fundamental principles of organic farming rest in the building of soil health through the reasoned use of cover crops and compost. Healthy, living soils produce healthy, living plants that naturally resist disease. Natural-based soil fertility works to regulate the vigor of the grapevine and naturally confers its health and balance to the fruit, and thus the fermenting wine, thereby avoiding many of the problems we would otherwise have to confront in the cellar.

Could organic farming combined with sound viticultural practice be the answer to increasing wine quality and avoiding common winemaking problems? The decision was made to find out.


    Thinking organic reverberates across entire business

    At Frog’s Leap Winery, the green practices don’t end with the vineyard. “It was our experience that once we became more connected to the ecological balance of our viticultural operations, our thoughts soon turned to other aspects of our business,” says owner-winemaker John Williams. “Fine that we had healthy living soils and vineyards, but how much diesel fuel were we using in our tractors, where did our power in the winery come from, what was the state of the watershed, how much waste was involved when we built new buildings, where did our trash go, what about packaging materials—and perhaps most of all, did our farmworkers have a full-time job with a livable wage and health benefits?”

    Frog’s Leap became involved with the Rutherford Dust Restoration Team to restore the Napa River, installed solar panels that provide about 85% of the winery’s electricity needs, built a barrel chai out of recycled materials and built a LEED-certified building housing the hospitality center and offices. The winery has also switched to lighter weight packaging and is aiming for zero waste.

    “I am personally very proud of the diversification we have brought to our farming enterprise (Frog’s Leap farms more than 50 crops), which has been instrumental in our being able to offer full-time employment to our 25 farmworkers,” Williams says. “Over time, it has developed that every decision at Frog’s Leap is weighed at least in some measure by its social and ecological costs and benefits. We believe that these are the kinds of questions all businesses will have to ask and answer if we wish a sustainable future.”
W&V: What practices did you adopt, and how quickly did you see results?

Williams: In North Coast vineyards, the primary tool of the organic grower is the use of cover crops as green manure. Compost, which we now produce ourselves, has an important but secondary role. At first we used a standard mix of legumes and grass (peas, oats, vetch, clovers), but in time, we learned to adjust our cover crops to meet the specific long-term nutritional needs of individual blocks based on soil and petiole analysis. Take our Galleron block 4 Merlot, for instance. Green flavors were responsible for substandard wine two years out of three. Green flavors and poor color are closely associated with excess vigor. Excess vigor is closely associated with too much nitrogen and water. By adjusting soil nitrogen by eliminating legumes (nitrogen-fixers) and increasing grasses that need a lot of nitrogen, we were able to decrease the vigor in this block and make a very nice wine two years out of three. That, of course, was still unacceptable—so the Galleron block 4 Merlot is now the Galleron block 4 Sauvignon Blanc—but you get the idea.

In many of our vineyards, we have had to transition from a conventionally farmed system where soil fertility has been ignored in favor of drip fertigation and herbicides. These transitions are fraught with hard work and tough love, but they are often the source of our greatest pride. Upon loosening the soil, returning organic matter and stimulating the soil organisms, we almost immediately see health returning to the vines, and within three years we are usually able to disconnect them from their water and fertilizer dependencies.  In recent years, a number of highly useful tools—soil amendments, nutritional supplements, foliar sprays, etc.—have been approved for organic use: Humega liquid compost and the micro-nutrient foliar sprays from BioLink, for example, can be of great help to the grower until soil fertility is brought back into balance.

W&V: Have you had problems with pests or disease?

Williams: It is a common misconception that the organic grower is either 1. exempt from disease and pests, or 2. powerless to treat for pests or disease should they encounter them. Just because a person lives a healthy lifestyle with a nutritious, balanced diet and plenty of exercise doesn’t mean they won’t occasionally get sick. But when sickness is around, it’s always advisable to be the healthiest person in the room. Organic farming is not about not using chemicals, it’s about building fundamental soil and vine health so as to diminish the need for chemicals.

It is true that many products are prohibited for use by an organic grower, but I can honestly say that never once in more than 20 years of farming organically have we found ourselves without the tools needed to bring in the crop clean and healthy. Meanwhile, new products are being developed, certified and brought into distribution on a regular basis that make the jobs of all growers—not just organic growers—easier. The bio-fungicides (Sonata for powdery mildew and Serenade for Botrytis, for example) that were unavailable a few years ago are extremely useful today. And a whole new class of these products is out there ready for certification. The advent of more people farming organically will, no doubt, bring a higher demand for new products.

W&V: You’re dry farming your vineyards. Why? What have the challenges and the benefits been?

Williams: Frog’s Leap dry farms all 250 acres, comprised of seven different ranches under our control. When establishing a vineyard, we do not install irrigation systems. We may hand-water the developing rootstock once or perhaps twice in its first year, but then the vines are on their own. One might be tempted to believe that this is a radical construct or that somehow we are blessed with extraordinary sites, but the truth is that easily 90% of the Napa Valley vineyard sites neither need, nor benefit from, irrigation. We know this because for more than 100 years that’s how grapes were grown here. All the great and fundamental wines that established the reputation of the Napa Valley, every one was from a dry-farmed vineyard. Drip irrigation was first introduced in 1975 in Carneros but did not become widely accepted, particularly up-valley, until a decade later. I personally think history will show that the introduction of drip was the primary cause for the phylloxera crisis of the late ’80s and early ’90s. AxR roots that had been firmly established deep in the soil now sensed that ready water was available near the surface and, upon coming up to meet the water, put their roots in harm’s way. Other V. rupestris stock like St. George exposed to later season water became over-vigorous and fell out of favor as V. riparian stocks more easily controlled by irrigation regimes took over.

We believe that not only are irrigation systems in most Napa Valley vineyards unnecessary, wasteful and costly, but indeed they have been detrimental to wine quality and a primary contributor to a changing wine style characterized by lower natural acidities, higher pHs, much higher alcohol contents and a greater adaptation of winemaking intervention. The routine application of drip irrigation will inevitably lead to smaller rooting zones closer to the surface and eventually to a growing regime not dissimilar to hydroponically growing. We all know the difference between a tomato grown in the deep soil of our summer garden and one grown in a mixture of fertilizer and water. Could it be that green flavors, lack of color and inability to develop deep, satisfying flavors at what used to be normal Brix ranges of 22°-23.5° are some how related to the fact that we have grapevines with root zones the size of basketballs living on a “Coke and candy bar diet” of fertilizer and water applied weekly until the day they are picked?

Dry farming is not just not adding water. It is a system of building soil water-holding capacity, trapping the winter rain in the soil and then wicking that moisture up by cultivation, only to have it trapped by a thin layer of tightly compacted soil at the surface. It is admittedly labor- and fuel-intensive, but placed in an overall view of ecological balance, it easily wins the day. Properly done, it loosens and aerates the soil and aids in the living soil organism. Walking on a properly dry-farmed vineyard is like walking on a mattress. It is, we believe, essential to the production of truly great wine.

A resident of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Laurie Daniel has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She has been writing about wine for publications for nearly 15 years and has been a Wines & Vines contributor since 2006.

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