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