March 2009 Issue of Wines & Vines

Mixing It Up = Sustainable

A syncretic approach guides viticultural practice in Oregon

by Peter Mitham

I have only indicated these matters on general lines and, for some time to come, these should serve as the foundation for the most varied experiments, such as should lead to most striking results. -- Rudolf Steiner

Kevin Chambers
Kevin Chambers.

That commendation from the close of Rudolf Steiner's lectures on agriculture, the basis of what is known today as Biodynamic viticulture, is what Kevin Chambers puts forward as the key to moving the grape and wine industry closer to a sustainable model.

Sitting in his office at Oregon Vineyard Supply, just west of Lafayette in Oregon's Willamette Valley, Chambers doesn't look much different from other agricultural suppliers. His shop is stocked with a full range of materials that growers want, though some of the supplies are prohibited on organic farms and anathema to strict Biodynamic growers. But even though Chambers is keen on Biodynamics himself--he and his wife Carla have a 20-acre Biodynamic vineyard near Carlton, Ore.--he's not dogmatic about it.

"Biodynamics is just one set of tools along the way to becoming a better farmer," he says, explaining how his own practices mesh with what he sells other growers. "I don't think we really understand everything we need to understand about how we need to be growing our food products, but Biodynamics is one worthy set of tools."

Indeed, the box of acceptable viticultural tools is a lot bigger than it used to be, taking in everything from chemical inputs to low-impact organic products once confined to a small number of growers operating on the fringes--in retrospect, some might say the cutting edge--of
Oregon viticulture. Chambers estimates that no more than 5% of the customer base was interested in sustainable agriculture when he bought OVS in 1998. Today, the figure tops 40%.

The shift has been profound enough to prompt the Oregon Wine Board to develop a program that recognizes the breadth of practices growers have adopted.

The shift reflects the fine-grain approach both government regulations and the market (not to mention consumer consciousness) have encouraged in recent years. While broad-spectrum solutions such as synthetic fertilizers provide a convenient response to soils that lack nutrients, last summer saw a dramatic increase in the cost of conventional fertilizer: The cost of nitrogen topped $1,000 per ton and superphosphoric acid doubled to more than $2,500 per ton.

OVS' response has been to educate growers about the alternatives available to them, and ultimately sell them not just products but the expertise that can help them to make good decisions. What often results is a mix that redefines sustainable practices for the Oregon experience.

Take disease control, for example. The climate in western Oregon means mildew is a concern late in the growing season, but Chambers contends that proper care of the vineyard--its biology, chemistry and physics--ensures that vines are better able to defend themselves. It's an approach that runs counter to the blind use of many of the fungicides and bactericides manufacturers and distributors are all too ready to promote. (OVS, for its part, doesn't accept incentives from manufacturers for selling specific products.)

By recommending practices and products tailored to the specific circumstances of its customers, Chambers says OVS staff could help growers strengthen their vines to withstand 70% to 80% of vineyard diseases. "What we've learned through soil work is if you get the biology right and the chemistry in balance and the physics are in balance, the disease cycle really isn't that severe," he says.

Alternative text
Ted Casteel of Bethel Heights Vineyard (above), is a co-founder of Oregon's Low Input Viticulture and Enology Inc. "We have an organic program until sometime post-bloom," he says.

This makes for healthier vines and a better vineyard environment, because the long-term use of chemical inputs falls. And that's without transitioning to an organic protocol such as Oregon Tilth or the Demeter Biodynamic standard. While these two certification programs may have formal recognition, Chambers says they aren't the only ones that can deliver benefits in the vineyard. He reckons there are twice as many people practicing organic and Biodynamic agriculture--or variations thereof--than actually seek certification.

"(Growers) want to preserve their ability to utilize the conventional answers if they feel it's appropriate to do so. And I would be wholly supportive of that," he says. "There's nothing wrong with that if people feel it's important for them and their farming operation to maintain access (to those materials)."

Chambers says that many of those growers haven't applied a conventional chemical in years, though they have never sought certification. In fact, it's pretty much how the Chambers themselves began growing grapes. Even though their vineyard received Biodynamic certification through Demeter in 2003, Chambers still exercises his liberty to relinquish certification when needed. In 2007, for example, he sacrificed certification of his Pinot Noir due to hydrogen sulfide formation late in the fermentation. He reached for copper sulfate to salvage the wine, something not allowed under Demeter protocols.

"There was no other tool to use, and Biodynamics does not allow the use of any copper sulfate," he says. "I think we have to have that level of practicality."

It's an attitude shared by Ted Casteel, co-owner and vineyard manager at Bethel Heights Vineyard near Carlton. A founder of Oregon's Low Input Viticulture and Enology Inc. program, Casteel got LIVE certification for Bethel Heights' 70-acre vineyard. The certification commits Casteel to reducing off-farm inputs (any synthetic materials used must be reduced risk), but elements of organic agriculture as well as Biodynamics are also key elements of vineyard practice.

"What we are certified is LIVE, but we're doing lots of these other things, too," he says. His approach to controlling disease underlines how the systems aren't mutually exclusive. Bethel Heights sprays about nine times per year, first with sulfur then with synthetic products. It's a mix that works, reducing the impact of viticulture on the environment while ensuring Casteel and his winemakers get the grapes they want.

"We have an organic program until sometime post-bloom, and then for the last two or three sprays for the season, we'll use more reliable products. Mildew usually shows up here early August, if you're going to get it. You've either protected yourself, or you're going to have a problem," he says. "And synthetic products are much more reliable."

Add the fact that the winemaking team at Bethel Heights doesn't want to deal with the reduction in wine associated with late-season sulfur sprays, and the argument for the mix of practices is complete. "They wouldn't allow me to spray sulfur after, say, the first of August," Casteel says.

Reducing fuel use and labor

The mix of practices also reduces overall impacts on the vineyard as a business, Casteel notes. An organic grower will typically make more passes through the vineyard to control disease than a grower who uses a synthetic fungicide. The result is higher fuel costs, machinery and labor expenses.

"When you add in labor, expensive equipment and the cost of diesel…that's a significantly higher cost," Casteel says.

While he says an organic grower might face production costs that are 10% greater than conventional practices, Casteel says vineyard costs at Bethel Heights have increased no more than 5% as a result of LIVE certification.

The willingness of growers to work with various systems to achieve sustainable practice in the vineyard helped prompt the Oregon Wine Board to develop the new Oregon Certified Sustainable standard that debuted this year. Recognizing that sustainable agricultural practices aren't limited to a single system, the program aims to identify under a single banner wineries that embrace any one of the several systems of sustainable viticulture that exist or that buy from growers with certification under one of the protocols.

OWB estimates suggest that about 26% of the state's 17,400 acres of planted vineyards have some form of certification, whether Biodynamic, organic or sustainable. A vineyard with certification from the Demeter Association, LIVE, Oregon Tilth or the Salmon-Safe and Vinea programs would be allowed to use the Oregon Certified Sustainable logo. Wineries could use the logo on bottles containing wine made with no less than 97% certified grapes.

Oregon Certified Sustainable also would verify that wineries are in compliance with the standards of their certifying bodies, reinforcing the claims the wineries make for themselves.

"It's meant to simplify the messaging about responsible agricultural practices," explains Ted Farthing, executive director of the Oregon Wine Board. "We're not advocating one approach over the other, whether that's sustainable, organic or Biodynamic.…All this is meant to do is celebrate what all those different disciplines have in common."

Sustainable fertilizers take off

Keeping ahead of demand for sustainable products has been part of the growth of Oregon Vineyard Supply since Kevin Chambers purchased the business in 1998.

Some of the first green products were kelp-based soil amendments that were viewed initially with skepticism but have since become hot sellers. Chambers eventually added organic fertilizers made from humic acids; he admits these took some explaining at first. This year, demand was such that Chambers went ahead and established his own production plant to make the fertilizers, which are popular with advocates of both conventional and sustainable viticulture alike.

"We built a fertilizer plant to teach farmers to use less fertilizer," he laughs.


Our Northwest correspondent Peter Mitham is a freelance agricultural writer based in Vancouver, B.C. Look for his weekly dispatches at Headlines. Contact him through

Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.