Compost and Cover Crops Are Revolutionizing Wine Industry

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Tradition is the foundation of the wine industry. Grapes are grown in an environment proven to nurture their flavor and volume and always as a single crop, never combined with others.

Chateau Montelena

Chateau Montelena cover crop. Image courtesy of Debra Atlas.

‘One of the world’s most unique winegrowing properties’

Chateau Montelena, an award-winning winery founded in 1888 in the hills of Napa Valley California, is working to make wine growing more eco-friendly. Here’s how.

Winegrowers generally leave bare rows between their rows of vine, starving the soil of nutrients. But soil must be fed.

At a special event last February held at Chateau Montelena, Winery Manager Dave Vella said “you have to look at soil like a big checking account. Make a deposit and you get a return, but you can’t keep withdrawing from the soil.”

To maintain a healthy balance and nurture the soil’s health, Vella teamed up with San Francisco-based Recology, the nation’s largest waste-related resource recovery company, and soil scientist Bob Shaffer. They created an innovative growing strategy that’s unique to the wine industry.

  • Between rows of Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, Vela lays down Recology’s rich compost created from food scraps.
  • The coffee colored compost is then seeded with diverse cover crops and insect-attracting plants, including mustard, barley, Queen Anne’s lace, strawberry clover, malva and plantain.

The result is better soil, healthier plants and improved wines. This strategy also offsets more than 20 percent of carbon emissions and reduces water use, a real plus during California’s severe drought.

As an agronomist, Shaffer knows the value of utilizing compost.

Chateau Montelena cover crop

Chateau Montelena cover crop. Image courtesy of Debra Atlas.

Curating compost 

Three years ago he started a compost operation in Williams, California for General Mills. Learning of their operation, a local almond grower asked for compost for his large co-op. After telling Shaffer how much acreage he needed to cover, Shaffer said “there’s not that much compost in the state!”

“We need it and we don’t have it,” said Shaffer.

Previously, Shaffer worked with a vineyard in Sonoma, California that put compost under its vines. But they couldn’t put compost on the steep hilly terrain. After deciding to put compost in the tractor trenches, their cover crops took off! Next they joined those to the compost.

Ten years ago, peer-reviewed science by noted scientists/agronomists Paul Hepperly and Rita Siedel showed that if you plant and grow cover crops, you fix one pound of carbon. Add compost to that and it adds another pound of carbon into the soil.

Global trials proved that combining cover crops and compost creates three pounds of carbon in the soil. This proved true when they did this on steep hillsides near Chateau Montelena.

Over the past forty years. it’s become imperative that we work with mineral, organic matter and tillage management, said Shaffer.

“When we do that job well, the soil is healthier and we have more vitamins,” he said. “Our soil and (its) health can greatly reflect our own health,” he said.

Chateau Montelena - Bob Shaffer and Recology compost, photo by Debra Atlas

Bob Shaffer and Recology compost, Chateau Montelena. Image courtesy of Debra Atlas.

Every ton of collected food scraps yields between 1 to 1½ cubic yards of compost. That’s approximately 1,000 pounds per cubic yard. All composting reduces the material you start with approximately 50 to 60 percent.

San Francisco only applies compost to under 20,000 acres of land. “That sounds like a lot,” Shaffer said, “but there’s 85,000 acres of grapes here. And there’s 65,000 acres of grapes over that ridge,” he said pointing.

“We need more compost,” said Shaffer.

A full cycle experience

There’s a cycle to composting and winemaking, said Vella.

You have a nice dinner at a San Francisco restaurant and enjoy a bottle of Chateau Montelena. They clear the table, clear the food scraps and send them to Recology’s composting center.  Recology makes the compost, then sends it to the vineyard, where they grow the grapes and make the wine you’ll enjoy another time with dinner!

Napa County recently completed a successful pilot program to divert food scraps from the waste stream into a compost program. That service is now available at restaurants and other food service businesses throughout the county.

“It’s going to take all of us politically and socially to develop a culture of compost,” said Shaffer, “to develop a culture of sequestered carbon to support our farms and our own health.”

Wineries like Chateau Montelena can lead the way.

Feature image courtesy of Far Enough

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Debra Atlas

As an environmental journalist, blogger, professional speaker and radio personality, Debra Atlas lights the way to let consumers discover exciting, useful green products that won’t make their checkbooks implode. A member of the Society of Environmental Journalists, she is a frequent contributor to environmentally focused publications and conferences.