Organic Winemakers: Napa Valley’s Stewards of the Land

712 solar panels work to make ZD Winery energy independent. Photo: Caryn Green

The story of ZD Wines is a family saga—a family as principled about the environment as it is dedicated to wine making.

It’s evident as soon as you pull into the parking lot, where, you’ll note, everyone on staff drives a hybrid. “Except our CEO,” Dustin Moilanen, the vineyard’s hospitality director, explains. Winemaster Robert deLeuze’s car is all-electric. “He plugs it in at his solar-powered home, so his commute to work is completely ‘green.’ ”

ZD Winery has been certified organic since 1999. Photo: Caryn Green

For the ride home, he can charge up at the winery, where 712 solar panels generate more electricity than the entire facility can use. “The excess is returned to the grid,” Molainen assures his visitors.

Clean energy is just the beginning at this sustainable, organic grower and winemaker headquartered in Rutherford, California in the heart of Napa Valley. “My Dad always believed in biodiversity and maintaining healthy, fertile soil without the use of chemical fertilizers,” says Robert de Leuze.

The whole operation was the brainchild of Robert’s father, Norman de Leuze, the rocket-scientist-turned-organic-farmer. Norman pooled resources with aerospace colleague Gino Zepponi to pursue their shared dream of producing Burgundy-style wines from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes.

The name ZD Winery references not only the founders’ initials—Zepponi and deLeuze—but also Zero Defects, an aerospace quality-assurance term that represented their aspirations as vintners.

In 1969, deLeuze and Zepponi released their first 300 cases of Pinot Noir from Zepponi’s cousin’s barn in the Carneros region of Sonoma County. Ten years later, deLeuze had jettisoned from the aerospace industry, relocated from Sonoma County to the six-acre site in Rutherford, started building the winery, and planted the Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard.

What started as a side job grew into a full-time passion and occupation for not only Norman deLeuze, but two generations of his family to follow thus far.

Healthy Soil through Biodiversity

Norman deLeuze started farming organically in the early 1980’s—way before it caught on and long before receiving official California organic certification in 1999. Appalled by the toxicity of chemicals applied for weed and pest control—as well as the fact that they didn’t seem to work—deLeuze became a student and proponent of biodiversity.

Chickens help keep the soil healthy under the vines. Photo: Caryn Green

A single teaspoon of soil from a virgin rain forest, he learned, teems with organisms that promote healthy growth, ultimately resulting in healthier, more flavorful crops. To avoid using chemicals that would destroy these beneficial organisms, he introduced natural predators to keep the weeds and pests at bay.

There’s steady work for the six species of chickens in free range on the cabernet, where they aerate the soil while pecking for pests and weed-producing seeds, leaving lots of rich fertilizer in their wake. Hawks, owls and bats attracted to the nesting boxes placed throughout the vineyards further help manage the small critter population and dissuade visits by fruit-plucking birds.

A wide range of sustainable farming techniques maintain the fertility of the soil. No organic materials are disposed of at the winery. All leftovers from the wine-making process—including the stems, seeds, and skins—are composted and returned to the vineyards. The beneficial organisms keep the soil healthy and inviting to earthworms.

Rosebushes act as "canaries in the coal mines" for wineries. Photo: Caryn Green

Cover crops planted among the vine rows further replenish soil nutrients and prevent erosion. Peas, beans, and clover replace lost nitrogen. Oats and barley add organic material. Mustard allows the soil to better absorb water and minerals.

Flowering annuals promote biodiversity. And perennials provide a permanent, beneficial habitat for pollinators and other invited insects, like ladybugs, who repel incursions from unwelcome species.

We note that rosebushes adorn the head of many of the vinerows, not only here but throughout Wine Country, making an already stunning landscape intoxicatingly beautiful. It’s a convention adopted from French growers, who, according to Moilanen, used roses as an early warning system that mold was setting in. “Sort of a canary in a coal mine,” he explains, their delicate petals being quicker to succumb than the hardier vines.

Sustainable Business Practices

As two more generations of the deLeuze family manage and expand the winery, now producing three different varietals at both the Estate Vineyard in Rutherford and deLeuze Family Carneros Vineyard, they continually look for ways to institute more sustainable practices into their business and daily lives.

Windmills and a biodiesel tractor work together to make ZD farms energy independent. Photo: Caryn Green

According to Robert deLeuze, “Our commitment to finding better and more ecologically friendly approaches has never been stronger.”

Completely powered by homegrown solar energy and wind power, the vineyards recycle or reuse all cardboard, plastics, batteries, glass, metal, paper and any other materials used to make and package wine. They use T8 florescent bulbs and compost food waste.

Out in the fields, a water-conserving drip irrigation system runs on reclaimed water. Extracted from the winemaking process and buildings, waste water is cleansed through an “aerobic digester” and channeled back out to the crops.

We notice a tractor back in the olive groves, which contribute to the farm’s biodiversity as well as produce olive oil served at the vineyards. The tractor runs on biodiesel, we are told. “All our farm equipment runs on virgin soy,” Moilanen affirms. “It emits 67 percent less hydrocarbons and 48 percent less carbon monoxide than conventional diesel—and, of course, it’s renewable.”

Award-Winning Quality

ZD Wines are consistent winners of the coveted Decanter award. Photo: Caryn Green

So is all this passion and dedication reflected in the taste of the wine? Evidently: ZD Wines have garnered international acclaim for decades.

A three-time winner of the coveted Decanter award, they’ve racked up 108 gold medals, 17 Double Golds, and eight Best-of Class awards since 2004. ZD Wines have frequently been poured at presidential dinners spanning numerous administrations.

The public can sample and purchase their lush, structured Cabernet, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay offerings in any number of ways:

  • Stop in for a no-appointment tasting.
  • Take the Wine Train Ambassador Tour.
  • Take the vineyards’ Cellar Tour or Eco-Tour.
  • Or join the Cycle Tour & Taste Sunday mornings from June 14 through August 14.

After a six-mile ride around the property, visitors enjoy breakfast and beverages at the west-facing Vineyard View room and outdoor deck atop the winery’s crushpad. It’s the perfect way to experience the sensual delights of the awakening valley and the fruit of these vineyards so devotedly crafted by generations of the family deLeuze.

Caryn Green

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living

Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities

"There is a very important connection between the health of our environment, the health of our food system, as well as overall public health," says Angie Tagtow. Photo: Julia Wasson

"There is a very important connection between the health of our environment, the health of our food system, as well as overall public health," says Angie Tagtow. Photo: Julia Wasson

E. coli on lettuce. Salmonella on peanuts. Corn sweetener laden with mercury. Growth hormones and antibiotics in dairy cows. Arsenic in chickens. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics in swine. … Consumers have plenty of reasons to be concerned about the safety of our food supply.

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) asked Angie Tagtow, a registered dietitian, who has spent many years working in the public health sector, to talk with us at about the role of public policy in assuring safe, nutritious food.

After working at the Iowa Department of Public Health for 10 years, Tagtow opened a consulting firm to focus on her passion: the connection between the environment, food systems, and public health. She also is a Food and Society Policy Fellow with the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy out of Minneapolis. As we began our conversation, she explained to us what she does as a Fellow. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


Small, kitchen gardens can help families eat healthier foods. Photo: Joe Hennager

Small, kitchen gardens can help families eat healthier foods. Photo: Joe Hennager

TAGTOW: After leaving public health, I recognized that policy is influential with all elements of our food system. So I am connecting the dots between soil, food, and health. Food, of course, is directly related to environmental issues — soil, water, biodiversity and those types of things. I do a lot of public speaking. I work quite a bit with universities, with undergraduate and graduate classes in delivering the message that there is a very important connection between the health of our environment, the health of our food system, as well as overall public health.

Being a Food and Society Policy Fellow is almost an independent study in a way, in the fact that we are located all over the country, though we do collaborate on a few projects. The most recent project that I have been involved with is to launch a National Gardening Initiative in partnership with the USDA. Five of us have been working together on doing that: Rose Hayden Smith out of University of California Davis Extension. We have Roger Doiron, who is the director for Kitchen Gardeners International out of Maine. We have Fred Bohnson, who has established church-based community gardens in North Carolina. Lisa Kivirist, who is an innkeeper, farmer and author in Wisconsin, and myself.  We’re now working together as a group, bringing our different networks and skill sets to the table to help the USDA launch a national school-community-workplace-home gardening initiative next year.

BPGL: What would that look like?

TAGTOW: It’s really capitalizing on what USDA has already done with the People’s Garden Initiative, as well as what the First Lady, Michelle Obama, has done at the White House. We had the privilege of visiting the White House garden three weeks ago with the assistant executive chef, Sam Kass. And they are actually launching their own White House Food Initiative. It’s taking this new momentum in people growing their own food to a greater level from a campaign perspective, very similar to the Victory Garden initiative in the 1940s. But of course, using the latest in technology and social media to do that.

BPGL: Will you reach out to people through social media to encourage them to participate in this effort?

TAGTOW: Absolutely. And we will follow the lead of USDA, and offering our services to them to help them with a national campaign.

Funding with Transparency

BPGL: Who supports the Fellows program?

Angie Tagtow, lecturing in Italy at the Palazzo dei Congressi di Riccione. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

Angie Tagtow, lecturing in Italy at the 21st Annual National Congress of the Associazione Nazionale dei Dietisti Italiani (ANDID), the Italian equivalent to the American Dietetic Association (ADA) Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

TAGTOW: The Fellows program is administered by the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. Support comes from a couple of different foundations. The bulk of the funding comes from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, from their food systems and health initiative that they started many years ago. The Woodcock Foundation out of New York City is providing funding for a couple of the fellows. And we did have, at one time, funding from the Fair Food Foundation, Oran Hesterman’s group out of Michigan; however, that foundation went under last year because of the Madoff scandal.

We have diverse funding for the fellows, and hopefully the funding will continue in future years.

BPGL: So often, research is underwritten by companies with a vested interest in the results — whether it’s about food or pharmaceuticals or coal. Is the Kellogg Foundation that supports the Food Policy Fellows independent of Kellogg cereals?

TAGTOW: Although it is the same company, the foundation is not influenced by the food industry part of Kellogg. The Fellows report to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, so there is really no connection between the WK Kellogg Foundation per se and the work of the Fellows.

And we wholeheartedly believe in transparency in this process. There is no influence by the Foundation over our work.

An Ecological Approach to Food and Health

BPGL: Tell us about your work as a Food and Society Policy Fellow.

TAGTOW: A lot of the work that I’ve done over the last five to seven years looks at food system perspectives as it relates to nutrition and health. After coming out of the Iowa Department of Public Health, I recognized that policy plays a huge role in people accessing food. But I’ve been able to look a bit broader at the food system and at how policy dictates everything — how food is grown, how it’s processed, packaged, transported, exported, imported and ultimately available for consumption.

BPGL: Are you talking strictly about vegetable matter, or are you also talking about meat?

TAGTOW: I’m talking about everything. Investigating how decisions we make in our current food system influence the quality, quantity, and biodiversity of the food and overall health indications for eaters has steered me toward connecting these dots. I deliver these messages not only to dietitians but to public health practitioners, the medical community, and students in all of those programs. I’ve been able to branch out and deliver more of an ecological approach to food and health to other health professionals. My one-minute elevator speech is, “The science proves that healthy soil grows healthy food. The science also proves that healthy food nourishes healthy people — and healthy people live in healthy communities.”

Angie Tagtow shared this message at a recent presentation in Italy. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

Angie Tagtow shared this message at a recent presentation in Italy. Photo: Courtesy Angie Tagtow

I’ve had the opportunity over the past few years to work quite a bit with the American Dietetic Association in advancing the concept of sustainable food systems as a core component of dietetic practice. And I’ve done a lot of work in that area. The American Public Health Association is advancing these concepts as well.

In addition, I have had the opportunity to work with farm organizations in Iowa and learn how I can contribute to meeting the needs of their members in creating a healthy food system.

BPGL: When you work with dietitians or the American Public Health Association, what can they do? What influence do they have over agricultural practices?

TAGTOW: Very good examples are the different position statements that come from the American Public Health Association [APHA], the American Medical Association [AMA], the American Dietetic Association [ADA] on the link between sustainable food systems and how it influences the nutrition and health of the population.

Each of these organizations have policy statements now that have put the tools in the back pockets of health professionals to create change in agricultural practices and the larger food system. AMA and APHA have statements about the use of growth hormones in cattle and dairy cows. They have position statements on the use of antibiotics in livestock. It’s things like that that put health professionals in a position of being able to influence policy using evidence-based information.

BPGL: Are you seeing changes in agriculture based on the policy positions of the physicians and the dietitians?

TAGTOW: Absolutely. It’s been slow, mind you, but the first step that needs to be taken is to increase awareness among those professions. I can speak to that. I was never formally trained in the role of policy and how policy influences nutrition and health. And I was never formally trained in the link between agricultural practices and its influence on nutrients and health. I think that’s a huge disservice within the formal training of health professionals and not having this broader food system framework as a context of practice.

A Recommendation to All Eaters

BPGL: In a nutshell, summarize what you feel about sustainable agriculture and health. What should we be changing about what we’re doing? On Blue Planet Green Living we talk a lot about CAFOs and the detrimental effects of the excess manure and arsenic in the chicken feed, and so on. What might you say to speak to that?

TAGTOW: I think a recommendation to all eaters, regardless of where they’re coming from, if they’re a health professional or not, is that they need to instill some critical thinking when it comes to our food system. Ask questions. Not only, Where is the food coming from? but also, How is it grown? How is it treated? What chemicals are being used? What sub-therapeutic pharmaceuticals are being used?

Ask questions about where your food comes from and how it was produced. Photo: Joe Hennager at Foxhollow Poultry Farm

Ask questions about where your food comes from and how it was produced. Photo: Joe Hennager at Foxhollow Poultry Farm

We need to first establish those critical thinking skills not only among the health professionals but among all eaters. That’s my first recommendation.

What I see dietitians do, especially, is to create an environment in which they can comfortably ask these questions. When we talk about issues of transparency, this is where we definitely have some issues with our professional associations and their connections to the food industry, agribusiness, and pharmaceutical companies. We need to create an environment in which we can comfortably ask the questions and engage in evidence-based dialog about the issues.

BPGL: In what setting might that take place? In public discourse? Social media?

TAGTOW: All of the above. I think it first needs to happen internally within those professional associations, for example within the American Dietetic Association there is a Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group, which is the only group of dietitians within ADA that look at nutrition and health from a food systems perspective. They’re the only ones who address the role of sustainable agriculture in providing for a healthy, green, fair, and accessible food supply for all eaters. We also dabble in water security, organic farming, and agriculture policy as well. Some of these groups are emerging and forming the environments in which these discussions can take place. And they’re also influencing policy within these organizations.

BPGL: So you’re making a difference.

TAGTOW: We hope to think so. But it never fails that there’s always a new challenge on the horizon.

Organic Food Has Greater Benefits

BPGL: What’s the current challenge?

TAGTOW: The current challenge within the dietetic profession has to do with the nutritional characteristics of organically grown products versus conventional products. For years, the ADA has always framed the discussion by saying that there is no evidence to support that organically grown foods have more beneficial nutrients as compared to their conventional counterparts.

Organic food is healthier, according to the ADA. Photo: Joe Hennager

Organic food is healthier, according to the ADA. Photo: Joe Hennager

Just this year, the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group came forward and said, we need to really evaluate this. So after several months, the ADA released a Hot Topic on organic food production. They finally put in writing a position of the American Dietetic Association that says that, depending upon the growing practices, there is evidence to suggest that organically produced foods do have higher beneficial nutrients as compared to their conventional counterparts.

That in itself was a milestone. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but with an organization that has very close ties to food industry, that was a celebratory event for many of us.

Dietitians often reduce issues down to nutrients and their link to treating disease. But I think we need to emerge from the classic nutritional reductionist paradigm and think about food as a complex system and that the health of the environment in which food is grown is the better indicator for human health.

Part 1: Healthy Soil -> Healthy Food -> Healthy People -> Healthy Communities (Top of Page)

Part 2: Soil Is a Finite Resource – Once It’s Gone, It’s Gone for Good

Julia Wasson
Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

Related Post:

Shades of Green – Looking at the Food System with a Critical Eye

Notes from Nepal: Climate Change Reaches the Himalayas


Jagdish Poudel, Aseem Kanchan, Raju Pokharel, and Mausam Khanal pose in front of a snowless Himal (mountain) on the way to Khudi. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

In Jagdish Poudel’s first entry in the “Notes from Nepal” series, he told us that he would soon be going to the Himalayas to teach uneducated rural residents about climate change. Last week, Poudel, along with fellow environmental science M.Sc. students Aseem Kanchan, Raju Pokharel, and Mausam Khanal, journeyed to Khudi, high in the Annapurna Mountain Range. What follows is Jagdish’s second entry, in which he tells us about giving a presentation to Khudi villagers, who live in a place where the once-abundant snow has turned to rain, and the mountainsides are losing their coat of white. — Julia Wasson, Publisher


Nepal is rich in biodiversity and natural resources. While the nation leaps through the process of economic development and embraces globalization at an accelerated pace, she also demonstrates concern for biodiversity conservation and sustainability. Central to this process, however, is the understanding that it is never easy to balance the delicate relationship between conservation and development, especially given the complex effects of climate change.

As the environment warms, the survival of a large number of plant and animal species will depend on their ability to move to higher latitudes and altitudes. The ever-accelerating warming of the environment can, therefore, cause a loss of ecosystem integrity or destroy the habitats of certain species. Consequently, large populations of plant and animal species could be wiped out due to climate change and habitat fragmentation.

Rural residents take notes in the students' presentation.

Rural residents take notes during the students' presentation. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Keeping these things in mind, three other M.Sc. students and I went to the village of Khudi to organize a workshop on climate change and its impact on the local people. We had an idea about the things that we would need to show to them. We had been wondering whether we could make them understand. We four friends gave three presentations, including some important points about temperature increases due to greenhouses gases; the melting of snow and ice; and changes in rainfall patterns, with increased frequency of extreme rains. People living in and around Khudi watershed are experiencing different rainfall patterns than in previous years, sometimes heavy enough to cause the loss of fertile soil, as well as flooding and landslides.

High tech presentation in a rural village

Poudel and his friends give a high-tech presentation in a Himalayan village. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Observers have noted an overall decrease in annual rainfall in the arid and semi-arid regions of the Annapurna Range. So far this year, there has been no rainfall in the area. Consequently, there is less snow on the Himal (mountain) and the water level in the river has been low. I saw that the Himal was bare, where there used to be a huge amount of snow just a few years ago. Meanwhile, there has been an increasing tendency of extreme showers and storms in summer, leading to severe flood disasters and soil erosion. Besides increased floods, there is also an increase in the frequency of other natural disasters, such as heat waves, drought, dust storms, and typhoons.

In the development process and expansion of human activities, lots of range land and forest areas have been, and are still being, replaced by agricultural lands. Besides the above-mentioned impacts of climate change, there are other direct and indirect threats to biodiversity from climate change. We anticipated that the local people would mention these at the workshop. Some points I was expecting them to mention included: widely spreading invasive organisms, especially weeds and pests; shortage and uneven distribution of water resources (we saw this at Khudi, when we took a look around the area); growing vulnerability of grasslands, forests, and wetlands, and of the people who are dependent on those natural resources; and a decrease in the health of the ecosystem.

Poudel explains climate change to the group.

Poudel explains climate change to the group. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

Above all, the increase in climate variability and extreme events will alter environmental conditions and threaten many species that live in narrow habitats. We couldn’t find any data over there yet, but study has to be done on that area for this purpose. The giant panda, for example, has a very brief breeding period in the later spring and early summer. Changes in the timing of seasonal temperatures may upset its breeding season and place further stress on this species. This may apply to many other species, as well, such as the snow leopards and the red pandas that are found in Sagarmatha National Park, Annapurna Conservation Area, and Langtang National Park.

The people at Khudi told us that some vegetables and improved seeds of agricultural crops are growing better this year than before, even though they don’t understand why. People also experienced an increased number of mosquitoes and insects around Khudi. This, too, is due to climate change.

A 71-year-old man listens intently.

A 71-year-old man listens intently. Photo: Jagdish Poudel

As far as I could tell while interacting with local people, they didn’t know what climate change is. But in government and private schools, students are learning about it from their teachers.

I had a deep interaction with an old man of age 71. He was trying hard to understand the presentation I was making. After my presentation, he told me that he now knows what climate change is and how it happened. The old man was not in the mood to know why this is happening; he doesn’t even want to know more about climate change. But he was keen to understand about the mitigation techniques and precautions he needs to take to protect his land and his family from natural disasters that might occur if the Khudi river floods in summer.

The class poses for a group photo.

The class poses for a group photo. Photo: Courtesy Jagdish Poudel

He is an old man. Even if he tries hard to know how all these things happen, he will hardly understand all our scientific data and facts. He does understand the pictures and videos that I took there to show the people. I am happy that he wants to know more about mitigation techniques and precautions against natural hazards.

But climate change is not a problem that can be solved just by the effort of a few people. It needs global support and determination. Educating the younger generation and school students is the most important thing we can do to stop further harmful impacts from climate change.

It was a nice workshop, where most of the local people and school students participated. I would like to do such work again and again in those places where people are directly affected by climate change.

Jagdish Poudel

Contributing Writer

Blue Planet Green Living (Home Page)

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Notes from Nepal: Teaching Climate Change in the Himalayas

Notes from Nepal: Cautions about Expanding Eco Tourism