Talk about wine and food pairing. With gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, threats increasing to the U.S. oil supply and concerns rising over global warming, several West Coast wineries are powering their tractors, delivery vans and, in some cases, personal cars with recycled cooking oil.
For many reasons, wine producers have begun turning to biodiesel, a renewable, biodegradable substitute for diesel fuel that is often made from vegetable oils such as soybean or corn. Not only does biodiesel burn cleaner than fossil fuels, but it can also be produced domestically and can be used in most regular diesel engines with little or no modification needed (aside from getting used to the faint smell of French fries or Chinese food emanating from the vehicles in place of diesel fumes).
"I'm tired of being held hostage by foreign governments because of our dependence on their oil," said Oregon grower Kevin Chambers, owner of one of the Willamette Valley's largest vineyard management and supply companies, explaining why he uses biodiesel in the tractors in his vineyard. "If we can grow our own fuel, let's do it!"
So far, Oregon seems to be at the forefront of the biodiesel movement in the wine industry, with at least eight wineries having made the switch.
Jim Bernau, owner of Willamette Valley Vineyards, said he became interested in biodiesel more than 10 years ago when university researchers and fuel "garagistes" began fooling around with the idea. (In fact, the use of vegetable oil in vehicles dates to 1892, when the original diesel engine, invented by Rudolf Diesel in Germany, was powered by peanut oil.) As an experiment, Bernau made biodiesel himself for use in his tractor, but he decided it was too much work for a sustained effort.
Things have gotten easier since then. Oregon now has its own major biodiesel producer, Portland-based SeQuential Biofuels, which got its start in 2002 and obtains cooking oil from local companies such as Kettle Foods, which makes potato chips and tortilla chips. The company delivers to a growing number of Oregon businesses and also provides self-service pumps along the I-5 corridor through the Willamette Valley so that vehicles can fuel up at regular gas stations.
In August, SeQuential installed a pump at WVV. Now the winery's tractors, the cars of its employee and the six delivery vans for its Bacchus Fine Wines distributorship can fill-up on site. Shelby Zadow, WVV's customer relations coordinator, said employees are being offered 50 gallons of free biodiesel per month for their personal vehicles as an incentive to switch over. Zadow, who recently purchased a VW Golf TDI, is now using biodiesel for her 100-mile round-trip commute from Portland to the winery.
Currently, the grade of biodiesel most commonly used is b20 (a blend of 20 percent biodiesel and 80 percent conventional diesel fuel), as wineries get a feel for how their vehicles will perform on it. It's also somewhat less expensive than b100 (100 percent biodiesel).
Susan Sokol Blosser, owner of sustainably run Sokol Blosser Winery in Dundee, has been using b20 to fuel her tractors for nearly two years because she is concerned about the impact of fossil fuels on the environment. "That's 20 percent less air pollution than we would have if we were using regular diesel," she said. As with many other winery owners, Sokol Blosser's goal is to gradually move the tractors onto b100.
As biodiesel becomes more readily available, many vintners expect prices to drop to below those of fossil fuels. "When I started to entertain the idea of using biodiesel last spring," Chambers said, "there was a considerable difference in price between biodiesel and conventional petrodiesel. That difference has eroded dramatically in the months since then." Currently, b20 sells for about $3.10 to $3.20 a gallon at most pumps along I-5, while conventional diesel ranges from about $2.79 to $3.19.
"Even using more expensive biofuel, we are saving money," Bernau said. "With the more efficient diesel engine vehicles, we went from gas vans at 8 to 10 miles to the gallon to vans of greater capacity with 26 miles to the gallon."
Among the other Oregon wineries using biodiesel are Argyle, Belle Pente, Bethel Heights, Mahonia, Witness Tree and Lemelson, where owner Eric Lemelson is running seven tractors on b50 and says he is happy with their performance.
There are likely to be more converts in the near future, especially if Oregon enacts tax credits for consumers and producers of biofuel, as part of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's renewable energy plan. Ed King III, owner of certified organic King Estates, plans to investigate the use of biodiesel. He said, "Eliminating the use of fossil fuels on the farm is the missing piece of the puzzle in farm sustainability."
Oregon's neighbors are also getting into the act. In California, maverick winemaker Lou Preston, owner of Preston Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley, has been making his own biofuel for about a year. Every week, he heads to a brewpub in Cloverdale to pick up 20 gallons of cooking oil used to fry calamari and French fries. He warms it up in his solar shed to settle it, then filters it for use in his tractors and his VW Jetta TDI. "It's very clean, and we think we're getting better fuel economy from our tractors than we did with diesel," he said.
Local California fuel companies now also sell biodiesel. Biodynamic producer Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County got its first shipment of b20 in late August from Redwood Coast Petroleum. Chris Benziger, a partner in the winery, said the family is using the fuel to run its visitor-tour trams on it. "Eventually, we hope to ramp them up to b100 and switch our regular farm tractors over. It's all part of our renewable energy project here at the winery."
In July, Long Meadow Ranch in Napa Valley announced it was switching all of its farm equipment to biodiesel after two years of experimentation. In addition to its benefits for the health of employees and the environment, owner Ted Hall said he concluded that it was a "very sound long-term economic decision."
Washington's wine industry may take the biodiesel movement even further. To start, the 10 wineries and seven growers in the Red Mountain American Viticultural Area are attempting to become the first West Coast AVA to convert completely to biodiesel. That is only part of a larger effort, spearheaded by Christophe Hedges of Hedges Family Estate, to get Red Mountain certified as the first appellation to go completely organic. The wineries and other producers who buy Red Mountain grapes can then use this information to promote their wines. Hedges said, "We're planning to create a trademark seal that will ensure quality and environmental commitment to the consumer."