Getting the Dirt on Napa’s Organic Wine

Contributing Writer Jim Conaway gets the dirt, literally, on Napa Valley’s organic wine business.

Photo: Frogs Leap Vineyard

The barn is old, red, and lovely, topped by a droll weathervane – an elongated frog in mid-jump – and surrounded by a riot of blooming mustard and other chest-high nitrogen-fixers. This dense, nutritious jungle overruns the nearby vineyard and nearly hides the name, Frog’s Leap, painted on a fence rail. Despite sheets of black plastic stretched over a very large mound of aging manure, both the winery and grounds looked, the last time I visited, more nineteenth than twenty-first century.

Its owner is John Williams, a bearded, unassuming proponent of organic agriculture for two decades and co-founder of the Rutherford Dust Society – a collective which has as one of its primary concerns the health of the nearby Napa River – and he was talking sustainability. “We got the farming down,” he told me, “and then I realized that there are 35 cars parked here belonging to workers. You don’t want to come off holier than thou when half the things you do still contribute to pollution.”

He has hopes for a parking shed with a roof of solar panels to recharge the batteries of the hybrid cars he wants to one day make available to employees, and one for a tractor that runs on the sun. But that’s another story in the broader narrative of organics, in part an attempt to instill in farmer and consumer a greater appreciation of the taste of place. Inherent in that taste, they say, are healthier communities at both ends of the production cycle – growing, and imbibing.

Photo: John Williams

Williams led me out into the vineyard, first grabbing a shovel; he parted the mat of vegetation to show the rich mix of cover crop, and turned over black soil full of worms and white nodules on the roots of plants where the nitrogen resides. He learned this and other lessons in the late ’80s, after visiting Fetzer Vineyards over in Mendocino County, which had undertaken an organic regimen early on. Williams hired a Sierra foothills farmer and itinerant ag consultant, Robert Cantisano, aka Amigo Bob, who traveled the state advocating effective holistic practices. Frog’s Leap was certified organic in 1990 by California Certified Organic Farmers, and today it makes about 60,000 cases annually from Williams’s 200 acres plus 50 acres owned by other organic growers who share his concerns.

Some organic growers practice the “bio-dynamic” principles of the late Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian polymath, founder of “anthroposophy” and the Waldorf Schools, and who in 1924 delivered lectures in Koberwitz, Silesia, on agricultural theory. Today these principles incorporate organic farming but differ from it as orthodoxy differs from free thinking. Bio-dynamics is an oxymoron in the opinion of scientists, but some of Steiner’s ideas seem logical enough, including the rule that animals roam the fields and vineyards part of each year, contributing natural fertilizer.

It’s the other Steinerisms that really push eyebrows into the hairline, however: Planting and harvesting must be done in strict accordance with the movements of extraterrestrial bodies. More controversial is the claim that common manure is somehow transformed into a much more potent force by putting it in a cow horn, burying it for six months, and digging up and storing it in specially fabricated containers (you can watch a video to learn more about this practice here). It is then diluted with large amounts of water and sprayed on the vineyard, with supposedly decisive effects.

Most organic growers don’t follow this regimen, but  don’t necessarily knock it, either. The cow horn and the vessels are the “sacraments” of such an approach to organic farming, in John Williams’ view, and can’t do any harm. Another vintner says matter-of-factly, “I believe in cosmic forces but I can’t run a vineyard this size by the calendar.”

At Robert Sinskey Vineyards, and at Grgich Hills, Steinerian maxims were being followed, with varying degrees of obeisance, the last time I was there. Grgich Hill’s de facto winemaker, Ivo Jeramaz, was more assertive about the physical efficacy of both cow horns and planets: “You don’t have to know how something works, to know that it does work.”

Organic farming, said Williams, “has evolved into a deeper understanding: if you want healthy soil, you don’t want the guy tending it to have to live in his car or under a bridge. You don’t want your winery using up too many resources.” He leaned his spade against the barn, surveying the organic garden from which he helps feed employees.

“In the end you take better care of everything,” and that’s got to lead to better wine.

Photos: Above, Frogs Leap Red Barn 2007, by Terry Joanis; Below, John Williams Owner/Winemaker, by Tori Wilder.


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  1. Limo Services CA
    June 6, 2009, 6:23 pm

    Great info, I didn’t know too much about organic wine and you really opened my eyes. Napa does have some innovative wineries, I love tasting there.

  2. Beach Lodger
    October 14, 2008, 1:13 pm

    Great article! Napa wine is the greatest, thanks for getting the dirt on it. I love that first photo of the barn in the distance and the road winding up to it, did you take it yourself?

  3. Marilyn Terrell
    October 4, 2008, 10:50 pm

    Thanks for the kind words, FishHawk, and for linking to our site.

  4. FishHawk
    October 3, 2008, 7:23 am

    This blog has been included in this weeks FIVE FOR FRIDAY on AsTheCrackerheadCrumbles. I hope you like the image that I featured, and I hope this helps to attract many visitors to your wonderful site.