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Books to Boost Your Green IQ: 'Down to Earth'

California growers show off the benefits and beauty of working in environmentally and socially responsible ways

Posted: Apr 1, 2014 5:00pm ET

By Dana Nigro

Sustainability never looked so good as in Down to Earth, an informative new coffee-table book for wine lovers that's packed with enticing photography of vineyards full of flowering plants, beautiful birds, lush grapes, adorable weed-grazing sheep and goats, and the people who farm these plots.

Created to showcase the work of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the book highlights the stories of 15 of the state's winegrowers—representing small and large businesses, families and corporations, green pioneers like Bonterra and newer converts. Those picked are considered leaders among the hundreds of vineyards and wineries that have earned or are working toward sustainable certification. Located across the state, in warm, sunny appellations and foggy, cool-climate ones, each faces their own set of challenges in improving their practices as they work through the year's vineyard and winery tasks.

Napa-based food writer and cookbook author Janet Fletcher—her most recent is Cheese & Beer (Andrews McMeel, 2013)—sets the tone for Down to Earth with a friendly, accessible introduction and a two-page summary of key aspects of sustainable, organic and biodynamic farming, along with the alliance's Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program, which "values the welfare of the environment, employees and community." No eco-jargon, no lecturing—just matter-of-fact explanations of what winegrowers do and why.

The book, printed locally in California, is divided into four main sections by season. Even for wine lovers not particularly interested in environmental issues, these descriptions—accompanied by close-up photos showing steps such as budbreak, flowering and fruit set—provide good insight into what's happening in the vineyards and wineries at each point of the year. In spring, for example, the growers need to determine how best to protect the vines from frosts, whether or when to irrigate and if costly, energy-intensive cold stabilization is needed before bottling their white wines.

Anyone can enjoy the sweeping vineyard vistas—lit at sunrise or sunset, flanked by imposing mountains, veiled in fog—photographed by George Rose, an award-winning photojournalist for major news organizations who then worked in California's wine business. Now living in the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, Rose knows just where to go and when the light is right to capture wine country at its prettiest and most dramatic—as also evidenced in his book The Art of Terroir (Chronicle, 2007). The inner workings of wineries, arrays of solar panels and even compost piles—the not-quite-as-photogenic aspects of green farming—appear as well.

But don't look to this book for a critical analysis of what California's wine industry has accomplished, what remains to be done or the effectiveness of the methods employed. Conceived by Wine Institute vice presidents Nancy Light and Allison Jordan, the feel-good Down to Earth focuses on the progress made since the alliance was launched in 2002, the benefits of the wine business (charity fund-raisers such as Auction Napa Valley) and the ideals of sustainability ("It's about pushing yourself.") The growers do acknowledge the realities and trade-offs of the decisions they make—they might choose a single herbicide application to control weeds rather than irrigate the vines more or till between the rows several times with a tractor—but they always stress the positive.

Those featured include Navarro Vineyards & Winery in Mendocino County, a family business started in the 1970s that avoided using synthetic herbicides and pesticides because they lived in the middle of the vines. Now that the second generation helps run the winery, they've added a sheep and goat farm and creamery to their business; the same sheep that weed the vineyards contribute milk for the cheese and compost for the land, while the vineyard workers can be kept employed year-round with other tasks.

Illustrating more recent vineyard development, when Etude Wines acquired a 1,300-acre cattle-grazing ranch in Carneros in 2001, it left wildlife corridors for migrating animals instead of fencing off all the land, and vines were set back 150 feet and oriented so tractor headlights wouldn't disturb residential neighbors.

Particularly relevant during California's drought, water use is a recurring theme in the stories. Sangiacomo Family Vineyards in Sonoma County uses high-tech methods in their 1,600 acres to determine whether, when and which vines need water rather than irrigating on a set schedule. The Murphy family operates Clos LaChance, near Silicon Valley, on a luxury golf resort; water used in the winery is treated through aeration ponds and filtering, then helps keep the fairways green, as well as irrigate the vines. The Honigs are among 40 Napa Valley riverfront landowners who pitched in to restore the Napa River so salmon could continue to spawn there—and their work helped contain insects that spread a vine-killing disease.

Potentially raising eyebrows is the inclusion of large wineries such as Gallo Family Vineyards, which elicited the ire of environmentalists more than a decade ago for actions such as planting vineyards on forested hillsides in Sonoma. But the global wine giant demonstrates that greener practices can work on a large scale. Sustainability has to make economic sense for businesses and Gallo found many ways to cut waste—such as reducing water use 90 percent in the bottling room by changing its sanitizing method—that also helped the bottom line.

Tying sustainability in with enjoyment of the good life, the book wraps up with 12 seasonal recipes to pair with California-grown wine varieties, such as open-faced avocado sandwiches with arugula pesto and crisp cucumber for a Sauvignon Blanc or marinated grilled rib-eye steak with roasted pepper salsa and fresh corn fritters, paired with a California Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc. If the way to people's hearts is through their stomachs, then getting them to taste California's sustainably farmed products makes a fitting epilogue to this book's message.

Down to Earth: A Seasonal Tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California, Janet Fletcher; photography by George Rose (Wine Institute, $40, 256 pages). Sold at winery tasting rooms, www.discovercaliforniawines.com/downtoearth and soon to come on Amazon.com.

Jacob Fetzer
Redwood Valley —  April 2, 2014 12:58pm ET
George Rose is a living legend in Wine Country photography.

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