Organic Farming Yields the Finest Wines
Walk through the garden gate at C. Donatiello Winery, and aromas of raspberries, peaches, and fragrant flowers waft to your nose. Take your time. Stroll along, sipping from a glass of Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir, made with organic grapes grown nearby. Savor the experience. You’ll soon understand why owner Chris Donatiello treats the land and the grapes in his vineyards with the care of a loving parent.
Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed Donatiello from his office near Healdsburg, California. We wanted to learn about the sustainable and organic farming practices that are integral to the production of C. Donatiello’s fine wines. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: How do you differentiate your winery from anything else in the Russian River Valley?
DONATIELLO: There are two parts of who we are. Actually neither of them is about being “green” and “organic”; that’s something we do because it’s important to us, and we think it helps make better wine. From a wine profile perspective, we want the wines to show where they’re coming from.
The Russian River Valley is a special place with a lot of varied areas, different soils and vegetation; there’s no point in making a single vineyard if it doesn’t show the valley’s diversity. We look for balanced wines, food-friendly wines. From a wine-making and taste-profile perspective, that’s what’s important. The second part is that when people come here and picnic, we want them to feel our hospitality. We want them to stay as long as they want, to go to our garden and pick raspberries and peaches. Hospitality is a large part of what we do.
BPGL: What are you doing to be organic and natural?
DONATIELLO: It’s more what we’re not doing. We’re not putting Roundup on our fields. We don’t use any pesticides or herbicides that are not organic. We use a lot of organic oils to discourage insects. We’re not using rat poison. You may kill the rat, but then the cat that eats the rat dies, and then the vulture that eats the cat dies. It keeps going and going and going. It’s not healthy for the environment. As much as what we are doing, we pay attention to what we’re not doing. That’s a big component of our CCOF certified organic vineyards.
BPGL: So, are C. Donatiello wines considered “organic wines?”
DONATIELLO: There’s a difference between organically farmed grapes and organic wine. Organic wine requires organic grapes, but you can have organic grapes without making organic wine. It comes down to a winemaking decision. It’s more important from a global, environmental perspective to grow organic grapes. And from a taste perspective, it’s also important. If you don’t take care of the grape on the vine, in process, or in the barrel or the bottle, it will affect the taste of the wine.
None of our wines are technically “organic,” but we use organically grown grapes. Because there are sulfides used in the winery process, we can’t say the wine is organic. For example, Maddie’s Vineyard Pinot Noir is made with certified organic grapes. Even though we can’t advertise it as “organic wine,” using organically grown grapes to make it is important to us — and it improves the wine. Our Bradford Mountain Grist Vineyard Zinfandel and Syrah are also made from organically grown grapes.
BPGL: You mentioned that your vineyards are sustainably farmed. What does that mean in terms of how you tend the land and care for the grapes?
DONATIELLO: It means we’re tending the vineyards in a way that they aren’t going to run out of nutrients and harm the environment. Whatever we take out, we’re going to put back in. It’s not like in the past; when it got to the point that there weren’t enough nutrients, you moved to the next spot. We saw that before farmers started rotating crops. That’s not great for the environment, and not what we want to do. This land is here for a long time and it will continue to provide for us; we need to provide for it. We want to make sure the fertilizers we use and the cover crops we grow will improve the land. That’s not just for the grapevines, but for the land itself.
BPGL: What extra effort does it take to organically farm grapes?
DONATIELLO: The extra effort isn’t substantial. Some of the things we use to be certified organic — such as organic oils for pest control — cost a little more, but it shows. Whatever you do to the earth, it shows through. That’s especially true with the Pinot Noir grape; it makes such a light, elegant wine. We choose our cover crops carefully and want to be as green as possible. We take about 8 to 10 tons off the land each year, and we plant about that much cover crop — New Zealand clover to peas, to yellow and white mustard. We plant between the vines, so that makes a home for the insects. We plant in October, and it grows through the winter. Then it decomposes and adds nutrients to the soil. It’s good for the earth.
BPGL: You mentioned earlier that you plant cover crops partly for the insects. Explain what you mean by that.
DONATIELLO: We plant certain crops to attract beneficial bugs, whether it’s the worms that are helping to aerate the ground or spiders. We love spiders! They spin their webs and catch the smaller insects that otherwise would be trying to feed off the grapevines. We’re in a pretty rural area, and we attract everything from field mice to spiders. We’ll be bringing in bees in another month or two. We don’t need bees for the grapes, as they’re self-pollinating; we want them for the garden. And we’ll sell the honey in the tasting room. We have the space and the facility to do it; it’s beneficial to us and to them, so why not do our part?
BPGL: Are most vineyards in your area using sustainable farming methods?
DONATIELLO: A lot of the vineyards are farmed sustainably. And, if they’re not fully sustainable, they’re working toward it. Vineyard owners tend to have a keen understanding of the need to take care of the environment and balance that with actually doing business. If you’re a vineyard owner and have a serious infestation, you might break down and use pesticides. That doesn’t mean you’re not looking after your grapes in every other way. But you need those grapes to pay the bills. I can’t blame someone who does use a pesticide to treat an infestation. All grape growers care about the environment. They want to see it maintained so generations to come can partake in their profession and not worry about what the generations before did.
BPGL: Is the drought affecting your wines?
DONATIELLO: Not really. The drought has become a problem for a lot of people, and we do need some rain. But we put very little water on the vines. We don’t dry farm, but we come pretty close. We want to stress the vines a little. We can always buy water if we need to. We have enough to grow good grapes. What we need it for is cleaning, sterilizing, and processing when we’re making the wine.
BPGL: I’ve been told that the best wines are produced when you stress the grapes. Is that consistent with your experience?
DONATIELLO: I think that’s especially true when you’re talking about some of the Italian or Bordeaux varietals. But the Pinot Noir is a very delicate grape. I say this all the time, “Pinot remembers everything you do to it, and holds a grudge.” It’s one of the reasons why some of our vineyards are organic, and the rest are sustainably farmed.
BPGL: You talk about wine like it has a human personality.
DONATIELLO: Each wine has its own character. We have expectations for our wines, just as I do for my daughter. I have an understanding of my wines, just as I do of my daughter. I watch them evolve from grape to wine to aged wine. They change and grow. There’s a parallel for sure.
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