There's no better way to tour a California vineyard than on horseback. So when Karl Wente, the 30-ish head of the 3,000-acre Wente vineyards in Livermore Valley, suggested that we saddle up late yesterday afternoon, I happily lied and told him I'd ridden enough times to handle it.
Though he's from the fifth generation of Wentes to grow wines here, Karl represents the new kind of California winemaker: experimental and sustainable, not constrained either by the traditions of how wines are blended or by the farming practices that have been in place for 50 years. As we rode up the hills through the rows of vines then walked through the fermenting, barreling, and bottling buildings, he pointed out all of the concerns that he's trying to address. In the fields, it's the plants themselves--how to protect the grapes from mold and viruses with natural rather than man-made pesticides, to irrigate minimally and most effectively, to make as few passes with a diesel tractor as possible, and his biggest fear, how to save the soil from increasing in salinity. From atop the hills we could look across the valley at hundreds of acres of vineyards separated by pockets of houses--brand new enclaves for the Silicon Valley set who have made land use another critical issue here.
At the plant, water and energy use are Karl's focus. Water is a scarce resource in California, and wineries use a lot of it, not for making the wines but for cleaning the equipment, which must be free of any traces of the previous batch. And temperature control in the fermenting vats is critical to the wine's quality, making electricity a considerable factor.
It's a daunting list, but there's a lot of progress here. This is not an organic operation, but it is more sustainable by the day. Water use, Karl says, is down from 10 gallons per gallon of wine to just one. Plant oils are proving to be reasonably effective mold-fighters. All organic waste--including thousands of pounds of grape skins and seeds--throughout the operation is composted and added to the soil to help preserve its quality. And Karl has his eye on the algae industry as a potential source of clean power.
This week, Karl Wente and I will both be on panels at the first Green Wine Summit in Sonoma Valley. I'll have more posts on how wine is going green over the next few days. And by the way, despite his interest in starting to gallop up hills, Badger the horse and I got along fine.