The Livermore Valley may be well-known for its variety of wine selections at its more than 50 wineries, but the practices that go into making the wine are just as notable as the end result.
Environmental sustainability is becoming more widespread in winemaking and three Livermore wineries in particular are already ahead of the curve.
Retzlaff, Wente and Concannon vineyards have all implemented a number of measures from using innovative technologies to building habitats for wildlife in their vineyards in an effort to be kinder to the environment.
A California Certified Organic vineyard, Retzlaff uses no pesticides or herbicides, making the soil on the property biodiverse and in balance. The organic vineyard was planted on the site of a former sheep ranch and as a result, the soil had never been farmed even prior to planting the vines. Soil health is the most crucial component of sustaining agriculture, according to Retzlaff winemaker Aaron Taylor and his wife Salomé Taylor.
Instead of using herbicides to get rid of weeds, Aaron Taylor said that they allow them to grow at Retzlaff. While he said that he understands why people are concerned with weeds as they do take up some water and can create a microclimate for certain pests, they haven't been a major problem for their vineyards.
Furthermore, he said there are ways to eradicate weeds without using chemicals -- such as mechanical discing -- and they choose those options in the rare times that weeds do become an issue.
"To be sustainable in agriculture, you have to look at the future and at the health of our soils," said Salomé Taylor, who also maintains an organic garden on the property.
As for pests, Retzlaff looks to Mother Nature to manage problematic critters. They have nesting boxes for birds of prey on their property, inviting the natural predators such as owls and hawks to hunt for gophers, ground squirrels and moles.
However, the biggest pest issue -- according to Aaron Taylor -- is mold and mildew.
"We do get the Bay fog that comes in on summer mornings and that creates more humid conditions and an environment for mold and mildew occasionally, so our best way to battle that is with fresh air and sunshine on the grapes," he said. In order to increase the grapes' exposure to direct sunlight, they conduct selective leaf thinning and canopy management which involves removing unnecessary branches, limbs, sprouts and leaves.
This process also helps the bunches of grapes mature more evenly, Aaron Taylor said.
"I think it's fair to say that the term sustainability is perhaps a bit of a catch phrase these days, but I think that the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program is really a step in the right direction. Anything an industry can do to make people more aware of their footprint is hugely important," Aaron Taylor said.
Like Retzlaff, Concannon Vineyard also relies on birds of prey for pest control with owl boxes and hawk perches around its property.
Concannon winemaker James Foster echoed the Taylors about the importance of protecting the soil and maintaining its fertility for their industry. He also emphasized the critical need to conserve water, particularly in a state like California that experiences frequent drought.
"We have to be conservative on saving water and make sure that we have plenty of water to thrive and feed our vines with," Foster said.
One of the ways Concannon preserves water is with a drip irrigation system. The vineyard uses pressure-compensated, drip line emitters on all vines that open and close automatically under varying pressures to distribute water evenly to each vine, which greatly reduces water use.
While Concannon is not an organic vineyard, Foster said they are mindful about the amount of chemicals they use. "We want to make sure we're using the right amount of pesticides for our vineyards," he said, adding that they keep the wildlife in mind and strive to avoid harming nature in their practices.
Concannon has been implementing its many sustainable practices over the course of several years. For example, back in 2009, they installed solar panels on the rooftops of their production facility, small lot winery and original winery and barrel room. According to the vineyard's website, the panels capture the sun's heat for regulating the perfect temperature for the grapes and wines.
Wente Vineyards is a certified sustainable vineyard and winery from the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Wente is among the less than 10% of wineries that hold both the vineyard and winery certifications.
"We really look at sustainability from a three-pronged approach -- which is environmental sustainability, social equity and fiscal responsibility -- so that we can continue our business and continue to provide jobs and community support to those around us," said Niki Wente, director of vineyard operations.
Wente's sustainable methods include implementing regenerative farming practices to build and maintain healthy soils and keep carbon in the ground, including having sheep graze the vineyard weeds in the winter to eliminate the use of tractors and chemicals.
The vineyard also puts a focus on water use. The wastewater at Wente is put into a water reclamation pond where it is treated, which is the most effective means for the biological oxidation of winery wastewater.
Using a combination of multiple technologies, including artificial intelligence and evapotranspiration sensors, Wente gathers information to create an irrigation program that helps them to apply water when the vines actually need it to avoid wasting water unnecessarily.
Wente said another practice they do is "skip chemical passes" in the vineyard.
"For example, if we're applying sulfur to prevent powdery mildew in the vineyards, if I'm able to skip a pass because it's a low pressure day based on a mildew model -- so invest in the mildew model so that you can then skip a pass -- from there you just saved on your chemicals, you're no longer applying the chemicals which is also good for the environment because there's no CO2 release from the tractor going through the field, there's no chemicals being released, you're not having your employee on a tractor applying chemicals which is better for the employee," she said.
"So it's three-fold: better for the employee, better for your pocketbook and better for the environment. That's what true sustainability looks like," Wente added.
As for how sustainable farming impacts the wines these vineyards produce, Niki Wente said that overall, "doing the right thing for the grapes and the environment and everything around us, is going to improve the product ten-fold."
All three vineyards also highlighted that they strive to maintain sustainable business practices in addition to their farming techniques such as making sure to value their staff with fair pay and benefits in a safe and healthy atmosphere, conserving energy and making financially sound decisions, encouraging visitors to their tasting rooms to recycle and bring refillable water bottles, among other efforts.