A special section of The Healdsburg Tribune, Cloverdale Reveille, The Windsor Times and Sonoma West Times & News
October 31, 2013
Vintage 2013 — Can you spell phenomenal? By Rollie Atkinson
Staff Writer Earnest farmers count favorable weather as an answer to their most fervent prayers. When they are blessed with recordbreaking growing seasons two years in a row, they begin to wonder what they did to deserve it. No two harvests are ever the same, but comparisons of this year’s Sonoma County winegrape harvest to last year’s record tonnage crop all use the same accolades, superlatives and exclamations of greatness. The 2013 growing season was long and tempered, the fruit was clean and selectively ripe and the climax of harvest was a bit early, quick-paced but rewarded with strong prices. If tending vineyards and picking grapes wasn’t such hard work, office workers, stock brokers and corporate executives might all trade their desk jobs for driving a tractor, starting work at 3 a.m. and always keeping one eye cast on the weather charts. This week and next, the very last winegrapes are being pulled out of the vineyards and all preliminary crop numbers are pointing to a very bountiful crop, across almost all of the region’s white and red varietals. It would be incredible if the 2013 crop surpassed the 267,000 ton, $583 million record crop of 2012, but it might happen. Many growers and winemakers are reporting much heavier yields than expected, some five to 10 percent above predictions. “It was a moderate, ideal growing season for us,” said Karissa Kruse, completing her first harvest as the new president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. “We had a slightly early beginning and a lot of varietals tended to ripen all at once, but the yields look outstanding. There were some real heavy crops out there.” Final 2013 crop totals from Ag Commissioner Tony Linegar won’t be tallied until mid-2014 in his official Crop Report that measures all the region’s crops and farm production. Last year, winegrapes accounted for 70 percent of the county’s total $821 million crop value. This total also includes apples, dairy, poultry, livestock, vegetables, nursery stock, oats, hay, timber and commercial fisheries.
Photo by Rollie Atkinson
FAST HANDS — The 2013 winegrape harvest started in mid-August, two weeks earlier than normal, and the heavier than expected crop kept vineyard crews on a night-and-day schedule all across the county as most red and white varietals ripened all at once. Winemakers already are raving about the quality of the crop as the last of the late harvest reds are being picked this week and next. Above is Dutton Brothers Farm's worker Oscar Carmona, picking Pinot Noir in the Gold Ridge region west of Sebastopol.
All the crop totals except apples were up in value over previous years, the official report said. After grapes, market milk ($85 million), poultry ($46 million), livestock sales ($25 million and nursery stock ($20 million) were the next biggest crops. Once dominant on the landscape, especially in Sebastopol and the western county, Gravensteins and other apples were only a $5.4 million crop in 2012. Now the big values are mostly colored purple. “The fruit is outstanding,” said vineyard and winery owner John Balletto. “It was all so clean with optimum sugars and acids. The
pinot (noir) was just some of the best I’ve ever seen.” When the mid-summer weather warmed up and no stunting heat spikes occurred, many of the white and red varietals all started to ripen at the same pace. Harvest started two to three weeks earlier than usual in most regions and wineries had to scramble to find enough tanks and storage space for all the crushed juice. “Wow, we were really in the thick of it,” reported Susan Lueker, of Simi Winery in Healdsburg. She said early planning at the winery paid off, allowing a steady pacing in the cellar for careful fruit handling. Tim Bell, winemaker at Dry
Creek Vineyards, shared the same experience. “We were a little concerned at first that everything would be too rushed, but I think the heavy crop slowed things down a bit. It all ripened and the quality right now looks really good.” Bell said he was “a little surprised” to have two great years back-to-back, adding that his winery’s zinfandel crop was 20-25 percent larger than expected this year. Others can’t stop raving about the quality. “Phenomenal” was a word used by more than one grower and winemaker, including Clay Mauritson. “The zinfandel especially,” said Mauritson,
Tasting history in locally crafted beer By Kerrie Lindecker
Staff Writer On a half-acre property in the Dry Creek Valley, a big man with a big mustache stands next to a hundred feet of 18-foot tall hop poles — it’s an image that could have easily been seen at the turn of the twentieth century, when hops were plentiful throughout the north county and hop kilns spotted the landscape. This time, though, it’s fifth generation Dry Creek resident Phil Enzenauer, who finished his sixth annual hop harvest in a field situated between sauvignon blanc, chardonnay and merlot grapevines. The Cascade hops, which were picked by Enzenaur’s vineyard management crew, were loaded in grape bins in August and sent straight to Healdburg’s Bear Republic Brewing Company, where they were “wet-hopped” to create a special batch of locallygrown, locally-produced craft beer, bringing a bit of history forward.
“I saw hops go out,” Enzenauer said, of the crop that for 100 years was just as important to the local economy as grapes are today. “And I didn’t think I’d be the one to bring them back.” Richard Norgrove, Bear Republic’s owner and master brewer is excited about the opportunity to produce a local beer, made from local ingredients. “This lets us do something really special. Phil is keeping the tradition alive,” Norgrove said. In fact, hops were one of the main cash crops in northern Sonoma County in the late 1870s through the 1920s. “The first hops in the region were planted by Amasa Bushnell and Otis Allen in the Russian River Valley,” said Holly Hoods, Healdsburg’s museum curator. “During a typical harvest in the early 1900s, whole families camped near the hop fields and parents and children spent whole days stripping the hops from the vines. It was hot, sticky work, paying the pickers one and a half cents per pound in the 1930s.
winemaker for his family’s Dry Creek winery. “It may be the best in the last 10-12 years — even better than 2009.” Mauritson and his brothers farm vineyards high above Lake Sonoma in the Rockpile AVA. “It (zinfandel) was truly amazing, unbelieveable. We always have a longer season up there and the two little rain incidents (in early September) didn’t hurt us. The winds dried everything out and we had no rot anywhere.” On Pine Mountain, the area’s newest designated AVA, northeast of Cloverdale, Tim Ward last week was still waiting to pick his last VINTAGE continues on page 4
INSIDE Wine experiences
Vine virus strikes
Chili pepper terroir
The growing trend of specialized tastings and tours Dry Creek winemaker’s ‘road less traveled’ Disease can turn fruit’s juices undesirable
Locals favor more mild peppers, but some like it hot
School Garden Network 
Photos from around the schools as children get their hands dirty
Man versus machine
I have, I need
Winemakers test for picking preference
Farmers Guild provides resources to young farming community photo provided
BEER BOUND — Bear Republic Brewing Company owner and master brewer Richard Norgrove, Jr., takes a look at the hops grown in Dry Creek Valley just hours before they were used to make a batch of beer.
Migrant workers joined the locals in the harvesting. “After harvest, hop blossoms were taken to kilns to be dried and shipped to be used in the brewing of beer. The Wohler Ranch hop kilns were among the many operating in the early decades of the twentieth century.
By the 1960s hops were no longer a dominant crop in the area,” Hoods said. Enzenauer was in high school when the final hop fields were ripped out. He remembers when Mr. Vaskova at the end of Hassett Lane pulled his hops, some of the HOPS continues on page 4
Innovative school programs lead students into the industry
Hope for honeybees as local interest grows Industry struggles or blooms with changes in economy Moving towards a Sonoma county fiber shed
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October 31, 2013
Surfing for next-level wine experiences Estate tours, specialized tastings augment tried-and-true tasting room experiences By Stuart Tiffen Staff Writer Many in Sonoma County have walked into a winery’s tasting room to be greeted with a long bar, a menu of wines and friendly staff who talk the visitor through the day’s wine pourings. It’s a model that works well for many of the region’s wineries, some of which have small production and rely on direct-to-consumer sales. In an effort to bring their consumers closer to the wine and the vines themselves, many wineries with vineyards are now offering tours of their estates and others
are organizing specialized tastings designed to educate in the hopes of developing greater loyalty with a more informed customer. These expanded experiential offerings are on the rise, according to management and wine business professor Liz Thach, of Sonoma State University. “I definitely see it growing as a trend among the more sophisticated wine growers in the region,” Thach said. “Consumers are becoming more sophisticated in wine and as a well-established region, businesses need to keep pushing the envelope and coming up with new and
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creative ways to bring people back again.” These ‘next-level’ experiences augment the wineries’ entry level tasting rooms, and reservations are required. Jordan Vineyard and Winery’s new estate tour and tasting launched in September, and includes a three-hour tour across the opulent 1,200 acre Jordan Estate in a custom 12-person Mercedes Sprinter bus. From Jordan’s expansive gardens, to a tasting with food pairing beside their 18-acre olive tree orchard, a stop in the vineyards and finally a vertical tasting of Jordan’s Cabernet Sauvignon at Vista Point, looking out over Alexander Valley, the lavish tour reinforces the winery’s already well-established luxury brand. At a price point of $120, it could seem a little steep compared to many of its neighbors, but Liz Thach said Jordan is looking very competitive alongside similar offerings further afield than the Alexander Valley. “While $120 is high for Sonoma, in Napa Valley that’s not very much,” she said.”Jordan also has some less expensive tours you can take and I think that’s important because you have to know what your wine brand is and who your consumers are.” Jordan also offers a $20 tasting as well as a $30 tour and tasting, though all their experiences are by appointment. “A winery like Jordan, that’s considered to be a Grand Cru of Sonoma County, an old, well-established and well-known brand, attracts a pretty afflu-
Photo by Stuart Tiffen
TERROIR TASTING— Mauritson’s Loam Series offers wine connoisseurs a chance to taste the distinctions made to the wine by the earth itself.
ent group of consumers so I think they can definitely succeed with this and I understand the tour is doing quite well,” she said. Jordan reported its on-site sales figures in September were the highest in its history, of which some measure was attributed to the tour’s success. “The Jordan Estate Tour and Tasting has been booking at about 80 percent to 90 percent capacity in its first seven weeks,” Jordan’s communication director, Lisa Mattson, said. “It's been really nice this fall to have an additional experience to offer guests. We even have reservations for guests next May.” A few miles away from Jordan, in the Dry Creek
Valley, Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves has also recently begun offering what it calls The Ultimate Tour, a very different experience from that offered at Jordan. Where Jordan offers luxury, Bella serves up rustic charm in equal measure. Bella’s tours are designed to last approximately two hours, and begin at 10:30 a.m., before the winery opens to the public, allowing guests to experience the peace of its lovely setting overlooking the valley. The tours evolved out of a need to fulfill the demand of Bella’s repeat visitors, hospitality manager Lisa Wegener said. “The tours started out with us just walking through the wine caves and talking
about the history of Bella, but eventually we realized our club members, who come time-after-time, are looking for a special experience,” Wegener said. ”We decided to make this a high-quality tour that really educates the guests about Bella and the wine process in general.” Bella’s tour takes up to 12 guests in an offroad Pinzgauer military transport vehicle to the top of Lily Hill, one of the winery’s signature vineyards, to let guests taste grapes, measure sugar levels with a refractometer and taste a variety of Zinfandel. The tour then progresses into the wine caves for a barrel tasting and comparison EXPERIENCE
continues on page H3
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Lou Preston’s ‘road less traveled’ Dry Creek winemaker farms among ghosts and other spirits by Rollie Atkinson Staff Writer Lou Preston’s winery and farm straddle a long dead-end road in upper Dry Creek Valley. He’s been farming there for 40 years amidst what he claims to be the ghosts and spirits of earlier farmers and other predecessors. At the same time, Preston Farm & Winery is very much a part of a forward-moving wine and agriculture scene in Sonoma County and his road welcomes many dozens of visitors every day. Still, one can’t help but conjure up words of poetry about the “road less traveled” while listening to this humble man talk about his land, his extended farm family and his bygone neighbors. He most certainly has taken an opposite course from nearly all other winery owners in Sonoma County’s wine country, first building a successful 30,000 case winery with national sales, only to abruptly downsize his wine production 12 years ago to just 8,000 cases, turning his work and spirit to baking breads, growing olives, composting, selling vegetables and spending lots more time at the end of his dead-end road. “It was about getting the size right,” said Preston, sitting in his winery’s kitchen at the end of this year’s winegrape harvest. “Back then we were making so much wine it was horrible. Every corner of the winery was full of barrels, tanks, case goods and everything. I was spending all my time on United Airlines going around the country selling this stuff. I said this is not right. This is not farming. This is not a life.” So Lou and his wife Susan and longtime winemaker Matt Norelli pored over sets of spreadsheets to construct a new business model that would sustain Preston Winery, while adding new and diverse crops and other farm products. Today most wine sales are through the winery’s wine club, with two California distributors and direct sales to farm visitors who find their way down the long dead-end road off West Dry Creek Road. At Preston Farm & Winery, visitors can buy great Dry Creek varietals, but can also tote home some fresh-baked bread, pizza, apple ciders and vinegars, olive oil, chicken eggs, walnuts, cheeses and all kinds of seasonal produce. Sheep graze between the vineyard rows for weed control and natural manure
toppings. All of the Preston lands are certified organic and Preston and winemaker Norelli have introduced biodynamic principles. “I’m not too sure about all the spiritual aspects of biodynamics,” confessed Preston, “but I can tell you it works.” For the most part, Preston is a self-taught winemaker, turning from a formal career in business accounting to winemaking shortly after graduating from Stanford University in the early 1970s. He found himself taking a viticulture course at UC Davis with future winemaking neighbors Dave Stare and Rich Thomas after he caught the winemaking bug during an accountant audit at Napa’s Beaulieu Vineyards where legendary wine guru Andre Tchelistcheff was just retiring. After a short year at Davis, Preston and his wife Susan started searching for land. They met Americo Rafanelli in the valley who showed them around and shared his homemade wine during frequent visits. “I always liked his wines but they tasted a little like whiskey because of the used barrels he had,” said Preston. The Prestons bought the old Hartsock Ranch and planted their first grapes in 1973. This was the same time Dave Stare was building his Dry Creek Vineyards winery in the middle of the valley and others like Bill Wheeler, the Rafanellis and the Lamberts also erected wineries. “I had a little book learning from Davis (General Viticulture by Winkler and Cook) but I learned mostly from the Italian dirt farmers here. I love the natural way of a born-to-farm farmer. We were absolutely enchanted with our property and its two creeks (Pena and Dry Creek),” he said. The Preston farm is an aggregate of nine original parcels once owned by Giuseppe and Marina Cavallo, Walter and Olive Bell, Bob Hartsock and his mother Grace Dickson. Jim Guadagni and bootlegger Silvio Pasquini were mentoring neighbors. The lands were planted with prunes, mixed lots of Italian varietals and 100-year-old gnarly zinfandels from three different, untraceable clones. The first Preston wines were zinfandels, sauvignon blancs and a chenin blanc — all made in a converted prune dehydrator. At Preston, they still make plenty of zinfandels and sauvignon blanc. But Lou has added many Rhone varietals, including Roussanne,
“I think it’s a shame that the valuable traditions of our family farms and our ancestors could all be lost in the span of a single generation.”
EXPERIENCE from page 2 with a finished wine and also provides a glimpse into the winemaking process at the winery itself. Appealing to the return customer and yet balancing the needs of the first time winery visitor was also important in designing this experience, Wegener said. Liz Thach broke wine consumers into three basic segments: the first time wine consumers, wine club members or those with some experience, and wine connoisseurs. “You are still going to have your everyday, firsttime wine tourists that come to the winery and they’re having the traditional wine tasting experience of coming up to the counter and paying the tasting fee and tasting five wines and learning a little bit about them,” she said. “But as that consumer gets more sophisticated and starts moving into these different segments by joining the wine club, going back time and time again and moving into the connoisseur range, they’re craving something else and I think the wineries are listening to consumers and are trying to meet their needs.” Another winery that is offering a rare look into the winemaking process is Mauritson Winery. Mauritson’s Loam Series
is a set of four Cabernet Sauvignon wines, of which each could have a single vineyard or appellation on the label, but winemaker Clay Mauritson wanted to make a point with this project about the wine industry, as well as the process of making the wines themselves. “How often do you hear everyone talk to you about what makes their wine different,” Mauritson said. “‘I use this rootstock, I use this clonal selection, we use upright oak tanks, we ferment in barrels,’ everyone’s talking about what makes their product different, and I get it, I mean it’s Business 101: differentiate your product, but what we’re saying is ‘We’re doing everything the same,’ so that you can taste what makes wine what it is.” And what makes the wine what it is, for Mauritson, is dirt. The Loam Series is Suther, Positas and Clough, each bottle a Cabernet Sauvignon grown in a specific soil type, with the fourth in the series, Loam, being a blend of the other three. “Great wine is made in the vineyard and a great vineyard originates in the soil,” he said. “I think in this day and age, with all the advancements in wine-making technology, and with over-marketing of wine, it’s an approach that is refreshing and simplistic.”
Photo by Kerrie Lindecker
NOT DONE YET — Lou Preston started his winery in 1973, expanding it to 30,000 cases annually, until he downsized and diversified his farm 12 years ago and now bakes bread, sells vegetables and has pulled out some vineyards to grow grains and other crops.
Voignier, Grenache Blanc, Marsanne, Barbera, Syrah, Grenache Noir, Carignane, Mourvedre and Cinsault. “We strive to make well-balanced wines that are pleasant to drink and go with food,” says Lou. With the Rhones we try to emulate a fieldblend. We don’t use commercial yeast and we want our wines to express the uniqueness of our property. Some people call that terroir, but I don’t” The current winery facility was built in 1981 and expanded in the early 1990s. The 125-acre property has 16 varieties of grapes planted on 65 acres of vineyards. The remaining acres are set aside for riparian corridors along the creeks and intermittent hedgerows that foster birds, beneficial insects and plant species that provide natural control of crop pests. “The economics of farming is very difficult,” admits Preston. “There’s a lot here that’s very expensive. I’m fortunate to have great people and a crew.” Besides winemaker Norelli, Preston’s vineyard manager Jesus Arzate has been with him since
Mauritson admitted that his family thought he was insane to choose grapes for this project because they were growing in igneous suther soil, or pebbly river rock clough, or clay positas. But by isolating the soil types, and then doing everything he could to ensure the rest of the process was identical, from clonal selection and pruning methods to the wine making, Mauritson said the resulting differences between the wines make this one aspect of wine making, and grape growing, more apparent. “What’s amazing about this is I can tell you definitively that everything about these wines is exactly the same except the dirt,” he said. “You’re not tasting a variant in oak treatment, you’re not tasting a variant in pruning and you’re not tasting a variant in winemaking.” Looking at the soil is not a new technique in winemaking, he said. The French had been doing it in Burgundy for centuries. “With Burgundy often the joke is ‘What separates a Grand Cru from a Premier Cru? Besides $200 a bottle, it’s often only six inches of rock wall.’” he said. “That’s how dramatic soil breaks can be and that’s what we’re really focusing on here.” “We can use the Loam series as a variant to help
1978. “He sees things going on in the vineyards that no one else can see,” says Lou. Rebecca Bozzelli is the lead gardener and heads up the weekly sales trips to the various community farmers markets around the county. Lou and Sue have two daughters, Francesca and Maggie who share chores and a love for the farm. Lou’s son, Tim is a roaming archeologist who teaches in the Bay Area. Asked about his “road less traveled” sensibilities, Lou says he hopes his success will be measured in the “further evolution of this property — that we will steer the land into the future for the benefit of our family and community.” Preston admits it might be a “blurry future,” but he adds, “I know I’m not finished yet.” Beyond the wine industry, Preston is called a “food activist” and a sustainable agriculture visionary. “I would like to think that by example or persuasion that I can model a more inclusive approach to farming and motivate other people to do the same,” he explains. He said he used to call himself a “winemaker” but now goes by the
explain the depth and the approach we take in making all of our wines,” he said. “It can be a great educational tool, taking wine back to a simplistic level.” For those wineries that still offer the traditional tasting room experience, without expanding into these other offerings, Liz
title of “owner” unsure whether he owns the farm or whether it owns him. “There was a time when I did everything here, like the old Italians did before we got here. That’s not a license to brag, it’s just that I believe you have to be very intimidate with what you’re doing,” he said. “The old farmers used horses, they didn’t have fossil fuels. When that came along people started using sprays and pesticides. People forgot how to keep the soils alive.” The Prestons and their older neighbors have witnessed many changes to their verdant and soilrich valley over the decades. All the bottom land, sloping benchlands and reachable hillsides are all vineyards today. Many, if not most, do not have a farm family living on them. “Some of these vineyard properties don’t even have a tractor,” says Preston. “It’s mostly contract management. There’s too much of the ‘best practices’ model and approach. It’s too corporate. There is no single silver bullet answer to farming.” “It’s all about farming with a conscience and about farming without destruction,” he says. “The oldtimers knew that and now more and more of us are turning back to it.” Preston doesn’t get angry. He said he is full of optimism for the region’s agriculture economy and its people. He points to young people like Emmett and Lynda Hopkins of Foggy River Farm, who raise goats, chickens and a operate a CSA farm adjacent to their parents premium winegrape vineyards in the Russian River Valley. He mentions neighbor farmers like Ed Miller and Yael Bernier who sell produce next to him at the Healdsburg Farmers Market. He’s excited about the “modern Grange” concept of Cindy Daniel’s and Doug Lipton’s SHED. He also praises neighboring wineries like Truett-Hurst and Quivira for their sustainable and biodynamic ag practices. Preston endorses the concept of agri-tourism and farm tours while opposing the advent of too many non-agriculture winery events like weddings, concerts and mass tastings. He says county land use planners should consider the “sense of community” above specific land use permits. “I think it’s a shame that the valuable traditions of our family farms and the contributions of our ancestors could all be lost in the span of a single generation. I hope that doesn’t happen,” he says. “it’s not about drinking; it’s about farming. Wine is best appreciated in a social setting where many things are being shared.” As Preston keeps moving along his ‘road less traveled’ he says he is “keeping one foot in the past and the other edging into the future.”
Thach said it’s important to review their marketing strategy. “If they want to attract more customers, I think it’s important to take a look at this trend,” she said. “Between both valleys there are more than 800 wineries in Napa and Sonoma, so you need to look
at what your competition is doing. What can you do to get consumers to come and spend more time on your property so that you can convert them to a loyal consumer, to join the wine club and bring their friends back?”
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New threat strikes vines By rollie Atkinson
Staff Writer Not all the news about the bountiful and beautiful 2013 winegrape harvest in Sonoma County is good. It never is. Startling tell-tale ruby-colored leaves and weird sugar counts in some grapes is now confirming what ag scientists have been tracking since 2007. Growers like Alexander Valley’s Brad Petersen are calling it the “pest du jour,” while university scientists have confirmed a new virus they have named Grapevine Red Blotch-associated Virus (GRBaV.) The disease can spread fast, stress vines, reduce photosynthesis and turn the juice flavors undesireable. Vineyard owners are tagging and examining individual vines that show the reddened-vein and curly leaf symptoms. A new informational web site dedicated to the mysterious virus was launched here last week and Rhonda Smith, UCCE Farm Advisor for the county is tracking the plant disease from vineyard to vineyard. Not only is there no cure or defense against the GRBaV virus, growers and scientists don’t know exactly how the disease is spread. For the past few years, the newly-tagged germ was
mistaken for two other viruses, leaf curl and syrah decline. Early hunches think the virus may be spread by flying vectors like aphids, whiteflies or leaf hoppers, but other evidence suggests the disease is spread by grafting and pruning activities orfarm equipment. The potential economic harm is unknown at this point, growers like Petersen have said. Vines affected by GRBaV produce lower sugar levels, 3-6 degrees (brix) below desired ripening levels. The fruit also exhibits a “change of flavor.” “I was in a vineyard last year where there were no signs at all of Red Blotch,” Petersen said. “Now it is showing up on vines not even next to each other.” He said the virus appears to attack both red and white varieties. The most urgent impact right now is being confronted by growers who want to plant new rootstock or do grafting. Since the GRBaV was just identified last year by DNA sequencing, there is no certified testing in place for nurseries to assure clean and GRBaV-free plants. Red Blotch-affected grape plants have already been identified in other parts of California, as well as New York, Maryland, Virgina,
Texas and Washington. In recent decades, the County’s wine industry has had to mobilize against such vineyard pests as phylloxera, Pierce’s Disease, the Glassy-winged Sharpshooter and the Eastern European Brown Moth. Insects can be eliminated or controlled by sprays or vineyard management techniques, including replanting. However, viruses can almost never be eliminated and are very difficult to mitigate. At least one team of scientists now studying the GRBaV virus recommends more research in genetically engineering a Red Blotch virus-resistant rootstock. Visible symptoms show up in August and September as irregular blotches on leaf blades on basal portions of shoots. The secondary and tertiary veins turn partly or fully red. Local growers who suspect signs of Red Blotch in their vineyards are advised to contact Smith at the local UCCE office in Santa Rosa or the offices of the Sonoma County Grapegrowers Commission. Red Blotch updates and background can be found at the UCCE web site, www.cesonoma.ucanr.edu. Look under the Viticulture “tab.”
HOPS from page 1 last in the area, and planted beans. “Every kid in high school went to pick those beans,” he said. The beans were a natural replacement, as hops grow similarly up tall poles before being harvested. During this year’s harvest in Enzenauer’s field, the 18-foot tall hop vines were removed from the trellises and twine they climbed all summer, before the cones were hand-picked. The process gets tricky at this point. In Washington, for example, the cones, or “buds,” are then processed. There’s a short window from picking time to processing time before the hops decay, which happens fast. Locally though, the infrastructure to hang, dry, store and compress the hops into bales is no longer here. In the 1950s and 60s, hops were torn out throughout the County — mildew and financial pressure brought the crop to a virtual standstill, and prunes became a better investment. The invention of the hop-picking machine by Santa Rosa resident Florian Dauenhauer sealed the deal as larger hop fields in the Pacific Northwest could be picked easier and faster. When Enzenauer’s hops are picked in the valley, there’s nowhere to dry them, which is why Bear Republic’s brewers used them to “wet-hop” this batch of beer. “They came from the field, and six hours later, they went into the beer,” said Norgrove. “They have to be processed or used immediately.” The hop cones, which contain oils that add flavor and aroma to beer, are placed in bags and soaked in the beer — similar to steeping a tea bag. Grandpa’s Homegrown is the product. One full batch of beer is made with the hops from Enzenauer’s 300 plants that yielded about 600 pounds of hops. A batch of beer fills 30 kegs. “This year was one of the best years quality-wise,” Enzenauer said of the hop harvest. “But I’m learning as I go.” He’s adjusted the amount of water given to the plants while they grow — a work in progress, he calls it. Grandpa’s Homegrown is sold on tap at Bear Republic’s Healdsburg bar, until it runs dry. It’s a Wet Hop American IPA with 7.2 percent alcohol. The golden
Photo above, courtesy Healdsburg Museum & Historical Society Photo below by Kerrie Lindecker
PICKERS — Entire families would flock to northern Sonoma County in the early 1900s to pick hops, one of the county’s main cash crops.
beer pairs well with spicy dishes and citrus, and a strong, hard cheese. Wet hopped brews are more earthy and grainy. “It’s like the difference between fresh herbs or dried herbs. The fresh herbs are going to be stronger,” Norgrove explained. In a traditionally-brewed beer, the hops that are used have been dried and made into pellets. Grandpa’s Homegrown, named after Phil, is a special one-time batch, unlike most of Bear Republic’s flagship beers. By comparison, Bear Republic spends $1.5 million in hops to produce 65,000 barrels of beer annually, and expects that to continue to grow as the craft beer industry booms across the nation. Sonoma County’s brewing industry, which is blossoming into a craft beer mecca, saw a 41 percent increase in volume in 2012. As of last year, there were 18 breweries in Sonoma County alone. The total economic impact of the industry in Sonoma County last year was estimated to be $122,807,840, according to a Craft Beverage Report released earlier this year by Sonoma County’s Economic Development Board. According to the USDA, the total projected hop harvest in the United States will be just over 35,000 acres, nearly all of which is situated in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Washington’s Yakima Valley, which produces 80 percent of the nation’s hops, is where Norgrove spends a few weeks every harvest hand-
selecting the hops for the rest of Bear Republic’s beer. He analyzes the aroma, texture, and size of the buds and picks lots from multiple farmers, the same way a winemaker does. Unlike wine, though, differences between vintages aren’t celebrated in the beer world. Norgrove faces the challenge of replicating the taste of say, Racer 5, his best selling IPA, using essentially different ingredients each time. It’s why he handselects the hops each year. “He’s away when it’s harvest time, just like with the grape harvest,” Norgrove’s wife and business partner, Tami, noted. “Rich goes to the field and chooses lots and has a relationship with the farmers, just like a winemaker with grapes.” And his relationship with the old Dry Creek Valley farmer seems to be working just fine. “I’m just excited to be a part of this,” Enzenauer said.
October 31, 2013
VINTAGE from page 1 grapes. “Things take a little longer up here,” he said, referring to his mountainside elevation of 1,600 to 2,000 feet. “They call it ‘extreme farming’ because it’s mostly vertical here.” But even on Pine Mountain, the 2013 harvest action started earlier than usual. “Temperatures got up to above 80 degrees (in August-September), but they dived down at night, making for a very long hang time which we like,” said Ward. He grows mostly Bordeaux reds and said it looks like his overall yields will be 10 percent over last year’s. Down at a lower elevation in Alexander Valley, Silver Oaks vineyard manager Brad Petersen said his harvest was almost two weeks early. “We started out concerned about a lack of rain in the early spring, but we had a beautiful summer and we didn’t get the usual hot spells (in July August),” he said. “The little late rains didn’t bother us because it warmed up right away and everything dried out. “The fruit was very, very good quality and the early tank tastes right now are outstanding,” he said. Petersen is the newly elected chair of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and is looking ahead to a busier-thanusual winter. “Yeah, instead of just looking at my Alexander Valley perspective, I have to take on a county-wide view now.” Old-time Dry Creek Valley growers Duff Bevill and David Mounts raved about their white grape crops this year. “The winemakers are talking about it already,” said Bevill, of Bevill Vineyard Management. “We had high acids and high sugar,” said Mounts about his White Rhone grapes, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne. “Good colors, great flavors, exciting.” Once the grapes are harvested and produced into wines, Sonoma County wineries must compete in the world market for distribution, shelf space and marketing muscle. Last week, even before the last grapes were picked, an entourage of county growers, winemakers and chefs headed off to New York City for the Wine Spectator’s Wine Experience Weekend. Kruse and Honore Comfort, of Sonoma County Vintners, led a Sonoma Lunch for 800 people, featuring several wineries and the cuisine from Forestville’s Farmhouse Inn. The event was at the New York Marriott Marquis in central Manhattan. “Sonoma County’s wines stand up very well on the world stage,” said Kruse, who says a big part of her job is making sure her 1,800 grower-members can keep selling their grapes and wines. “We are very proud of the Code of Sustainability we adopted in 2004 and we
Photo by Will Atkinson
ACTION — Pinot noir vineyards produced some of the heaviest yields in the 2013 Sonoma County winegrape harvest. Above, a crew from Dutton Brothers Farming were harvesting in mid-October at this Gold Ridge area vineyard, west of Sebastopol.
measure our success in both economic and environmental results,” she said. Kruse moved here from Chicago in 2007 to buy a vineyard and make wines, jettisoning a previous career in business administration. Her Argot label produces about 2,500 cases a year. Different from Napa and other better-known wine regions, Kruse says Sonoma is known for its family-style approach to farming and winery ownership. “We make an everyday $15 sauvignon blanc and we make $50 chardonnays and pinot noirs for special weekend gatherings,” she said. “We believe our wines continue to rank highest as both top quality and top value.” Price charts for this year’s vintage are still being tabulated, but the official 2012 numbers tell the story of a very healthy winegrape industry and an improving economy. Last year, 52,793 tons of pinot noir were grown and sold at an average price of $3,014 per ton. Chardonnay grapes sold for $1,894 per ton and 81,581 tons were produced. The 2012 record crop ($583 million) was 41 percent higher than the weather-depleted crop of 2011. With two “bumper crops” in a row, there could be some pressure to maintain the same or higher crop prices next year as supply keeps meeting the demand of wine-loving consumers. “It’s an open marketplace,” said Kruse. “There’s no such thing as a perfect balance. A little scarcity is not all bad.” Most growers have multiple-year contracts with wineries to purchase some, or all, of their crop. With tooheavy crops, some wineries will “cap” purchased tonnage, forcing some growers to sell in the bulk or “spot market.” Kruse said her member-growers are selling about 15-20 percent of their winegrapes to processors outside of Sonoma County. Another price factor is what has been happening in France and other parts of Europe. For two years now, hail, heavy rains and other severe weather has decimated parts of the crops in Bordeaux, Burgundy and elsewhere. There are 59,200 acres of winegrape vineyards planted in Sonoma County.
Only 7,000 new acres of vineyards have been planted since 2002, following the previous decade when vineyard acreage doubled here. While the winegrape crop accounts for 70 percent of the County’s harvest value, vineyard acreage is just six percent of the county’s total one million acre land mass. Chardonnay (15,989 acres), Pinot Noir (12,077) and Cabernet Sauvignon (11,904) equal two-thirds of the County’s vineyard total. Only two other varietals exceed 5,000 acres of plantings (Merlot, and Zinfandel). Sonoma County’s wine industry is much more than just farming, fermenting and drinking. Once called the Redwood Empire, the vast valleys, sloping hillsides and coastal ranges are now tagged as Sonoma Wine Country, attracting over seven million visitors a year who spend nearly $2 billion for lodging, dining, wine, recreation and shopping. More and more wineries are seeking permits to add weddings, concerts and other attractions for visitors and customers. Last August the Grapegrowers Commission and Wineries Association joined with the Sonoma County Tourism Program to form a new “marketing trio” under a new brand called “Sonoma Country.” Currently, the three organizations have formed a joint task force to open a new dialogue about the future of the wine and hospitality industry. “We want to continue to share our wine country experience, but we want to first be sure we are sharing that experience among ourselves,” said Kruse. “I think the wineries and growers need to do a better job of telling more of our story here at home. It’s a challenge because our grapegrowers are so humble and see themselves as farmers only.” Sonoma County has 16 American Viticultural Areas from the Sonoma Coast to the Carneros flats along the San Francisco Bay. There may be a thousand microclimates and hundreds of soil types. “Every site and every soil is different, and it’s wonderful when you taste that in the many wines,” said Kruse. “There’s still a lot of romance in wine.”
hArvESt 2013 is a special supplement to the October 31, 2013 edition of:
The Healdsburg Tribune
The Windsor Times
SONOMA WEST T
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All contents are copyrighted by ©Sonoma West Publishers, Inc. PO Box 518, healdsburg, CA 95448 For additional copies call 433-4451
Publication Staff Production Jim Schaefer Ruby Reed Eileen Mateo Denee Rebotarro Administration Sarah Bradbury Penny Chambers Grace Garner
Editorial Kerrie Lindecker Matthew Hall David Abbott Brandon Daubs Laura McCutcheon Rollie Atkinson Lynda Hopkins Frank Robertson Patricia M. Roth
Advertising Sales Cherie Kelsay Steve Pedersen Paula Wise Sara Braun Neena Hanchett
October 31, 2013
| H5 |
Chili pepper terroir Some like it hot By Frank Robertson
It seems a little disappointing that no one’s keeping track of the Sonoma County chili pepper harvest the way they do the grape crop. Chilies are big business elsewhere in California, but locally grown hot peppers don’t even get a mention in the annual Sonoma County Crop Report. Instead, chilies get tossed into the category of “miscellaneous vegetables,” comprising a fraction of the county’s total agricultural production value that added up to nearly $1 billion last year, and that’s not counting the habañero chilies I tried to grow in a pot on my back porch. As a commercial crop, Sonoma County’s chili production is marginal. Serious commercial chili growers in California prefer hotter climes such as the desert valleys of Imperial and Riverside counties near the Mexican border, and Tulare, Fresno and San Joaquin counties in the Central Valley, according to a U.C. Davis report on California pepper production. Why is it so hard to find really hot chilies grown in Sonoma County? The question seems to come up every year at my house when local farmers markets get going and the season’s bounty begins to roll in. Reliably hot chilies are available (and cheap) at Mexican markets such as Lola’s in Healdsburg, but those mostly come from Southern California and Mexico. Locally grown hot peppers
Photo by Frank Robertson
HEAT WAVE — Ghost peppers from Tierra Vegetables are “super hot.”
just don’t seem to have the fashionable foodie cachet associated with heirloom tomatoes or Gravenstein apples. Tom Noble of Armstrong Valley Farm in Guerneville grows hot peppers in a greenhouse on Sweetwater Springs Road, but sometimes he doesn’t even bring them with him to sell at local markets. When I stopped to talk to him at the Santa Rosa farmers market in September he had none on display. “Why bother?” he said. “Nobody buys them.” Noble nevertheless grows jalapeños and other hot pepper varieties, so many that he doesn’t remember all their names. “I can’t even pronounce some of them,” he said. Some are pungent; customers have said they’re too hot, but others buy them because they are pungent. A vendor in a nearby booth had
just ordered ten pounds that he planned to use for salsa. Who’s even trying to grow hot peppers commercially in Sonoma County? Wayne James at Tierra Vegetables, for one. The diversity of hot peppers on display at Tierra this fall was impressive. Wooden boxes of bright red, orange and green chilies basked in the late summer sun at Tierra’s farm and market on Airport Boulevard in Larkfield. The varieties included Bhut Jolokia, the Ghost Chili, once considered the world’s hottest pepper. It has a rating of one million on the Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) index, the somewhat voodooesque measuring system chiliheads use to compare pepper hotness. Last year a hybrid chili, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, was declared the world’s hottest chili by the Chile Pepper Institute at
New Mexico State University where some Moruga Scorpions had earned a rating of more than two million SHUs. At Tierra, Wayne James grows a really good Jamaican habañero that’s two or three times as large as the habañeros found in a supermarket. Its scent is subtle and tantalizing and just a tiny bite delivers a pungent authoritative heat. “It’s considerably more mild than other habañeros,” said James, who grows his habañeros from seeds a Jamaican guy gave him. “Wonderful flavor,” said James. “Hot but not deadly hot.” Tierra’s Aji Roja peppers are also impressive with a robust chili scent and a tangy heat that can open your nose, which is one reason people like to eat hot chili peppers — because they enhance the sense of taste. But there’s always a point when the SHU doesn’t fit. Tierra’s Paper Lantern peppers are about two inches long and offer a pungent scent promising enough heat to test your palate’s pain threshold. “Hot little devil,” I thought at first bite. Tierra’s Aji Roja is one of the more memorable hot chilies I’ve tasted; fortunately I sampled it with a comforting mouthful of triple crème Cambozola Black Label cheese and an ice cold IPA. I wasn’t crying after trying the Aji Roja but my nose was running and I made a mental note to wash my hands as an act of self-preservation. Then it was time to try the Ghost Pepper. James grows Bhut Jolokias that are a little more than two inches long
with a bright orange-red skin that’s wrinkled and thin. The pepper throws a scent that says, “Beware — consummate hot chili.” In your mouth the heat comes on slowly and then rises and spreads around your tongue, which will start to cry for help. “These things will kill you,” James had warned me. “They’re incredible.” Even his Mexican farm hands, known to appreciate heat in their food, found the Ghost Pepper formidable. One Tierra worker mixed chopped Ghost Pepper into his burrito, said James, “and it was still too hot.” This pepper is so intense you wonder in what context eating it would be enjoyable. I know there’s an almost cultish obsession among some chiliheads who seek out the hottest peppers they can find for reasons known only to them. In the United States commercial market, the big trend with hot peppers now is for hot sauces, a whole other world that in the next few years is projected to grow into a $1.3 billion industry. “Spicy chili/pepper sauces have continued their incredibly swift growth pace in 2012, posting an estimated 9 percent gain in current value terms to reach sales of $540 million,” reported Companies and Markets.com this year. The hot sauce boom is fueling efforts to develop these “super-hot” pepper varieties that can be a very hot commercial commodity. “There is a huge international reaction when a new super-hot variety is found,” said Dave DeWitt and Paul
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Bosland, directors of the Chile Pepper Institute at the University of New Mexico and authors of “The Complete Chile Pepper Book.” Wayne James, who most days can be found bare-footed and wearing a pair of shorts while he works Tierra’s 17acre garden, said he sells most of his fresh Ghost Peppers in San Francisco where his sister Lee James runs the Tierra Vegetable stand at the San Francisco Ferry Plaza farmers market. “Lee has a lot of people who want them,” said James, “but there is a limited market.” Tierra’s Ghost Peppers sell for fifty cents apiece; others such as the Aji Rojas sell for a quarter. Tierra’s peppers also get processed into hot sauce. Is there such a thing as chili terroir? I asked James. Can hot pepper cognoscenti recognize a pepper’s place of origin when they taste it? I guess the question sounded kind of silly. It may be difficult if not pointless to make any more of a hot chili’s taste than what it is — the smell of the pepper and the hot chili jolt of capsaicin, the colorless, odorless alkaloid that gives chilies their heat. It’s not exactly like you’re sipping a complicated wine with lurking hints of cigar box aromas and velvety leather mouthfeel to worry about. When I asked James about his peppers’ terroir, the defining characteristics of the place they were grown, he paused and looked at me thoughtfully. “It’s more about the variety,” he said.
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| H6 |
October 31, 2013
School Garden Network
The School Garden Network of Sonoma County supports sustainable gardens and nutrition programs throughout the county. Shown above are two programs they support. Occidental’s Harmony Elementary/Salmon Creek Middle School’s Garden Coordinator, Erin O’Brien leads a group of 1st graders in the garden, including composting, planting, harvesting and cooking. The garden also offers a CSA program for 24 school families. Richelle Stoufer, the new Garden Coordinator for Guerneville Elementary School works with 4th graders collecting and saving a variety of tomato seeds with 4th graders in the school’s 5.7 acres of riparian wetlands on the Russian River. The curriculum activities, in addition to food growing, include cooking and nutrition, wetland habitat, native history, journaling and art. For more information, visit www.schoolgardens.org — photos by Sarah Bradbury
October 31, 2013
| H7 |
Choosy pickings: man versus machine Winemakers test for picking preference By Matthew Hall
Staff Writer In the wine businesses, sometimes what’s best for the business isn’t always what’s best for the wine. A winemaker’s relentless drive for quality can be thwarted by cost concerns, logistical constraints or customer preferences. When it comes to harvesting, picking grapes by machine has long been more economical than picking by hand, but most winemakers have traditionally preferred hand-picked grapes. But, a growing group of high-end winemakers are converting to mechanical picking thanks to innovations that they say make the machines as good for the wine as they are for the business. For most of history, grapes have been picked by hand. Workers descend on vineyards in late summer armed with sharp knives and lugging bins. They pick as fast as humanly possible and the grapes are transported to a winery where winemakers separate grapes from Material Other than Grapes (MOG) such as stems and leaves before beginning fermentation. With thousands of acres ready to harvest within a few weeks span, it means long, potentially dangerous hours for pickers, increasingly high costs for wineries and frustration as ripe grapes wait on the vine. In recent years, several companies have developed mechanical picking machines and while there are subtle differences, they all work the same way. An oversized vehicle drives between the vine trellises. The vine is shaken as it passes through a narrow channel in between the two sets of tires. Conveyer belts catch the grapes, and modern machines separate grapes from MOG before transporting the fruit to the winery. Modern harvesters can
Photo by Rollie Atkinson
BY MACHINE — Machine harvesters are growing in popularity as field labor continues to become less available and more expensive.
minimize trauma to the grapes, streamline the harvest process and deliver fruit that winemakers say is as good as anything harvested by hand. Justin D. Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong Wine Estates said his company conducted side-by-side tastings for two years comparing hand picked fruit and fruit picked with a machine using a “select harvest” technology. He said there was no evidence that machine harvesting diminished the quality of the fruit. “It was unanimous that
the select harvested fruit was equal to or better than hand picked,” he said. Modern harvesters can come equipped with a variety of options that allow the machine to sort grapes before delivering them to the winery. In some cases, a series of belts and filters can physically remove stems, leaves and twigs. This “selective harvesting” can occur on the harvester itself or at a second stand alone sorting machine at the winery. Other harvesters have optical technology, essentially a smart camera with an onboard comput-
er) that can identify mold or sun-damaged grapes. Separating material in the vineyard speeds the process for the winemaker and also frees precious space at the winery. Seidenfeld said the winery has made some changes recently to accommodate mechanically-harvested fruit. “The retooling that we did was to handle the selective harvesting technology that allows the fruit to bypass any de-stemming device or mechanism that would damage the fruit that comes in in great shape.” He said the winery doesn’t own a harvester but that they encourage their suppliers to use them where possible. He has seen more and more wineries working to retrofit their equipment to bypass the de-stemming machines because mechanical harvesting is proving to be not just viable, but actually preferable. Seidenfeld said all local wineries have been squeezed by a tightening labor market with the result being a delay in harvesting fruit, and the possibility of missing the ideal window of opportunity. By using mechanical harvesters, wineries can increase the overall quality level for every wine they make, not just those picked by machine. He said using a mechanical harvester where possible frees up crews to hand pick those vineyards that a machine can’t. The result is fruit picked at its peak. “Because of labor shortages, getting the fruit picked in the manner that we want is more and more difficult,” he said. “(Mechanical picking) costs dramatically less,” he said, “but it also allows us to pick the fruit when I want it to be picked. At the end of the day the quality for every fruit of every varietal is heightened because the manpower is available because its
not being tied up out of necessity. I can get the quality that I want and it also allows us to pick fruit within a day or two of being ready versus having to wait up to two weeks.” Brian White of White Oaks Vineyards has used a mechanical harvester since 1989 and while he has seen the quality steadily improve, he has also seen a major boost to his bottom line. “It was quite a concept at the time,” he said. “There were only a handful of them around and it was a European piece of equipment. Wineries wouldn’t accept the fruit that way, but over the years they’ve learned to like them.” He said the machine helped pay for itself with cost savings as a machine can pick a vineyard for 50 percent less than it would cost to hire a crew. The machine can also harvest faster than hand pickers and can be delivered on-demand to other vineyards, making it much easier to schedule the harvest. White said the demand for a mechanical harvester has proved so popular, he has been able to offset the cost of his investment by renting the machine to other grape growers. “The revenue is significant, it’s important enough to where it’s worth doing it. I basically supplement my harvester payment with outside work.” While the cost of a harvester may be prohibitively high for small producer, White said renting a machine was easy, efficient and potentially a significant benefit for a small winery who would otherwise lose out when bidding for labor against a large producer. He said he would pay off his $200,000 machine in three to five years. Paul Pigoni sells mechanical harvesters at Belkorp Ag California North Coast and
said they can range in price from about $200,000 to $450,000 for more advanced machines. He said he has seen a steady increase in demand. “Because of the size and how much they cost, they are a big dollar item but we have about 74 units out working and we’ve sold six units in the past 12 months.” Pigoni said Clos Du Bois Vineyards used a new model of mechanical harvester that features trunk-shaking picking-head technology that smoothly completes the harvesting operation without touching the fruit; thereby preserving a high quality product. Mechanical harvesters have obvious benefits — they help growers handle harvests that occur early or late in the season, when labor might not be available, ease the pressure during heavy harvests and are now capable of producing premium quality fruit. However, they are not without their problems. Grapes grown on steep landscapes are hard to machine harvest, some varietals may require hand picking if they are particularly fragile and in some cases, winemakers may want the flexibility of separating grapes in-house depending on the kind of wine they are making. However, those restrictions are relatively few in the grand scale of the industry and Pigoni said he expected more vineyards to utilize mechanical pickers to combat future labor shortages while also boosting their profitability. “It’s about dollars and resources,” he said. “To hand pick has become a very expensive deal and finding available labor has also become very difficult because the work force has become greatly reduced.”
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| H8 |
October 31, 2012
â€˜I have, I needâ€™ Young Farmers Guild expands into many communities, including online By Patricia M. Roth Staff writer Itâ€™s a warm October evening, a crescent moon illuminates the sky and more than 60 young people have congregated inside the GrowKitchen in Sebastopol for a Farmers Guild meeting. The get-togethers are free, independent and everyoneâ€™s welcome. Some have driven two to three hours to join up with like-minded spirits, who describe themselves like this: â€œWe are the newest generation of farmers who each month come together to share skills, knowledge and a few
drinks after a day in the field, pasture or milking barn. Whether you grow turnips or raise pigs, make cheese or manage a farmers market, we are committed to building a more united, enjoyable and intentional community of food production.â€? The vibe is casual and fun â€” a mix of young and aspiring farmers who are engaged in passionate conversations. Theyâ€™ve brought the bounty of their harvests to the meeting: potatoes and greens steam over a stove, piles of lettuce and mounds of heirloom tomatoes fill cardboard
COME TOGETHER â€” The newest generation of farmers gathers at a Farmers Guild meeting in Sebastopol.
boxes. There are rainbow-colored salads, platters of eggplant lasagna and veggies sprinkled with feta cheese, homemade apple pies and more. But nobody touches the food â€” dinner follows business. Farmers Guild community organizer Evan Wiig gets everyoneâ€™s attention and people line up in a circle around the room. Wiig points to a community board on the wall where one side reads â€œI Haveâ€? and the other side reads â€œI Need.â€? â€œThis is about collaboration, sharing resources,â€? Wiig GUILD continues on page 9
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| H9 |
Passing on the plow Teaching ag and viticulture to the next generation By Brandon Daubs
Verdant Sonoma County, with its rolling hills green with the leaf of crop and vineyard, has been the epicenter of wine and agriculture for many generations — and thanks to local high school programs, likely for many future generations, as well. Programs such as Windsor High School’s Vineyard Academy, Healdsburg High School’s agriculture and Farm-toTable programs, and El Molino’s horticulture and wine-grape harvests are teaching students the merits, as well as the vast responsibilities, of the agriculture and viticulture industries. Windsor High School’s Vineyard Academy is a core of study that focuses on tourism and hospitality — both key aspects of business in the region. “Vineyard Academy’s main goal is to give our students a glimpse of the opportunities in Sonoma County,” said Windsor High School’s business instructor Bernard Kaufman. “Whether it’s the wine industry or the hotel industry.” Currently 150 students are enrolled in the core, which was started in ‘05 or ‘06. “It’s where we live, it was appropriate, and it gives our students who have families that work in the wine industry an opportunity to take a deeper look,” said Kaufman. “We have internships working with our local Chamber of Commerce, we have internships working up at Coppola, and we have several students doing catering events for their junior and senior projects.”
GUILD from page 8 said. “Most of us are coming from small farms, which means we don’t have the resources to have some of the stuff we need to make it. This is about working together and sharing resources we have as a community. I hope you take up that spirit of collaboration … you’d be very surprised what you get if you just ask.” Wiig introduced several speakers, who talked about services available to young farmers, such as an alternative lending program for family farms. He announced upcoming events, like Farm Hack, “an awesome opportunity for the tinkerers and brainstormers to get in touch with technology in new ways.” Then he explained a new food safety policy going through Congress. “Two initiatives affect small farms … I am asking you to look this over, find out how this is going to affect you. It’s open for public comment. I want you to write a letter tonight.” He promised to send their letters wrapped in a bundle to Congress then asked who was hungry. A long line quickly formed on both sides of the food-covered table and the conversation continued. And that’s how the young farmers movement is rolling in Sonoma County. In addition to the North Coast Farm Guild, Wiig has helped form
Photo by Karen Perez
HANDS ON — Students from across the county, including those from Healdsburg High School, pictured above, are learning the ins and outs of farming in innovative ag programs at local high schools.
Another junior-senior project opportunity at Windsor High, designed to familiarize students with the winegrape growing and winemaking process, is their viticulture project. Currently, Kaufman says nine students are taking advantage of the program to tend to a oneacre block of old vine zinfandel, lent for school use by Darlene Walley of the Villa Terra Bella. Students checked the sugar of the grapes on Friday, Oct. 11, which Kaufman said was at 22 brix at the time. With some rain, but not enough to rot, and some sun, but not enough to burn grapes into raisins, Kaufman had high
hopes for the success of the harvest. After the harvest, the grapes will be sent to Taft Street Winery in Sebastopol to be made into wine that the school can sell for funds. “I worked at Coppola last year for my junior project,” said Windsor High School senior Isabel Davis, as she selected grapes to test for sugar content. “I thought I might as well learn the rest of the industry.” “My dad’s been in the wine business for years,” said junior Manuel Acosta. In the viticulture project, he said, students “learn everything from picking to bottling to smashing.”
As he crushed sample grapes in a Ziplock bag in preparation to test for sugar, professional vineyard manager Phil Bertoli, who Kaufman described as “his mentor” in caring for the vineyard, explained that zinfandel grapes were a hardy variety originally brought over on boats from Czechoslovakia. “It was more durable,” he said. “You’d be lucky if you got 50 percent of your crop back then.” Healdsburg High School also boasts an innovative agriculture and Farm to Table program that teaches students all the steps of agriculture, from plowing to sow-
groups in Sonoma Valley, Mendocino and Yolo counties — and the conversation has expanded online. It all started with Meatloaf Monday.
ing. Instead, you have some idealistic folks like us, foolish young people who think we can jump into agriculture. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” He realized the only way to make it on a small scale was through collaboration. “If you are running a small operation, just the overhead is so daunting and not everyone — if you’re farming an acre or two — is able to buy your own tractor.” That understanding led to the creation of the “I Have/I Need” community board that become an essential aspect of every single Farmers Guild meeting. “It’s a casual board, and then people start talking about it. It’s been a lot of fun,” Wiig said. It also symbolizes the core of what many farmers say they want and need — community connections.
dream was — and he said it was to have individual guilds functioning all over the country “… where people can visit and where each place has its own vibrant ag community, where people know each other and share resources and tools and are semi-self contained communities. By creating our small-scale communities, the money stays in the area. The solidarity stays in that community, and you have a network of communities with one another,” Wiig explained. Call it serendipity or just one of those things, but when the ranch where Wiig was living lost its land and he was looking for a place to help farm and to work, Cheng approached him, saying, “Evan, you said you wanted to replicate this. Let’s do it.” FarmsReach has recently fine-tuned and expanded its services for farmers, and the Farmers Guild is part of FarmsReach now. “We are funding Evan to replicate the guilds everywhere, but each is autonomous. It’s power to the people and they have the support from FarmsReach. Every guild group is their own entity but the only requirement is they tap into the FarmsReach network for courses,” Cheng said. Now, many young farmers — some of whom traveled several hours to get to guild meetings — are taking their conversations online, hooking
Meatloaf Monday “I was living on a ranch and I got the impression we were the only ones there who were farming under that age of 60,” Wiig said. “Most of the people there were old dairymen and ranchers and we were the anomaly, until one day we met a couple of young folks in their 20s who were also farming. We invited them over to have beer and meatloaf. We became friends and got together every week for Meatloaf Monday after that.” “I started noticing how much you can get from people being in the same room together and talking. They are sharing planting patterns, talking about markets or their blueprints for a mobile chicken coop. Most of the people there — we were all brand new – none of us came from farming backgrounds.” Wiig noticed that many people whose families came from farming backgrounds had little interest in taking over the family farm. “They have seen how their parents struggled and how it’s becoming less viable, and I don’t blame them for up and leav-
Then Came FarmsReach When Wiig invited social enterprise FarmsReach founder Melanie Cheng to speak at a Farmers Guild meeting about their online services for farmers, she could see what was taking place. “Because Evan started with Meatloaf Monday, he had a pretty solid group of people to start with. Because he is charismatic and social, it happened very quickly and organically.” Cheng asked him what his
ing, growing and harvesting, and even (in conjunction with the school’s culinary programs) preparation and presentation. “We wanted to expose our students to the current trends in farming right now, and couple that with our culinary program,” said Healdsburg High School agriculture instructor Lissa Beard. “We’re taking them through the whole process of developing a farm, harvesting the vegetable and produce from the farm, and we want to go and teach them about marketing and sales of the products.” The agriculture program at Healdsburg High School began with a fallow piece of land, a weed-infested greenhouse and a tag-team effort with the school’s CASA program to turn it around. First the CASA students helped build three raised garden beds on the fallow land. “But we wanted to go beyond just a school garden,” Beard said. “We wanted to try to do a mini-farm, so we wanted to grow more intensively.” As a result, agriculture students worked hard to clean up a greenhouse that had lain abandoned for a long while, while CASA students constructed benches. At last, students began propagating plants and growing from seeds right at the beginning of the school year. In the West County, Forestville high school El Molino started off the year with a fruitful harvest of winegrapes, right on the first Monday of school. “We harvested three full, really big garbage cans full of grapes,” declared El Molino agriculture instructor Marilee Mazur. “It was a lot.”
According to Mazur, Mr. Curtis, the school’s culinary teacher, said it was the most he’d ever seen. Some of the plans for the agriculture and viticulture programs at El Molino include the repurposing of their current old greenhouse into an animal barn that will house pigs, goats and sheep, while bringing in the greenhouse donated from Windsor High School to serve as the new horticulture facility. “We’re going to put in beds with flowers and we’ll grow row crops that will tie into our Farm to Table program,” said Mazur. “We’re trying to have it so the kids can have access to everything.” El Molino also boasts their own vineyard right there on campus, a little over an acre in size, managed by the Dutton family. Wine grapes harvested from the vineyard are even made into wine, which is bottled and sold as a fundraiser for the school. “The Russian River Valley Winegrowers are a big supporter of our program,” said Mazur. “The first harvest is bottled under the label Lion’s Pride Wine, and the second crop the viticulture class gives to the culinary class ... they made pinot noir jelly.” This year, the first harvest occurred on the first Monday of school — fast, Mazur said, but the grapes were ready then. Dutton wanted to make sure they got off the vine and were able to get pressed and crushed properly. It’s programs like these that sow the seeds of abundance, and ensure that agriculture and viticulture in Sonoma County will continue to thrive.
Photos by Jeff Roth
COMMUNITY — Farmers Guild community organizer Evan Wiig encourages young farmers to “take up the spirit of collaboration” by using the community board to share resources and ask for what they need.
up with experienced farmers and getting information and support in ways that extend beyond their monthly meetings. The website fosters connections with the goal of helping the farmer above all else. The programs are free for farmers and nonprofit organizations. Momentum is growing. “In the winter we should have 1,000 members and that is primarily farmers. Our goal is to get 10 percent of farmers in California — even 5 percent — to beef up their business savviness and skills and develop the peer-to-peer mentorship,” Cheng said. What’s the main message? “If you’re a farmer or
rancher, join the community. Everything we do is dictated by our members and our farms. It’s empowering. Everything we’ve built – that was because our members wanted it. So join and tell us what you want and what you need.” As Wiig continues to travel to other regions to help start up new guilds while also working with FarmsReach, he said he is “energized and psyched. And while I can’t quite say we are single-handedly saving the food system, I would like to think we are creating more awareness about the current state of ag.” Go to farmsreach.com for more information.
Online Visit us online for complete harvest coverage, including the 2013 special Harvest edition, and so much more. www.sonomawest.com • www.healdsburgtribune.com www.windsortimes.com • www.cloverdalereveille.com
| H10 |
October 31, 2013
Keeping bees There’s hope for honeybees as increased awareness boosts local interest By David Abbott
Although it may represent but a blip on the yearly Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner’s report, bees and bee products — officially known as apiary products — are a fundamental part of the landscape. In 2012, apiary products, including honey, wax and hives rented for pollination, represented $227,600 of the $821,345,000 total gross agricultural revenue in Sonoma County. While overall ag value increased about 41 percent from $581,081,700 in 2011, the value of apiary products decreased by 14.9 percent from $267,400. Although there have been historical fluctuations in apiary production in the county — there was a $50,000 increase from 1989 to 1990 due to “exceptional honey flow” — apiary numbers have been steadily decreasing in recent years. From 2009 to 2012, the value has dropped by more than $150,000, from $378,100 to $227,600. There are many contributing factors to the decrease in value. Weather and climate are major determinants in apiary production and bee health, which can affect the overall value of the product. “Bees are farming,” Doug Vincent, owner of Beekind in Sebastopol, said. “In the terroir of bees, a month or a mile makes the honey.” According to Vincent, honeybees have an effective foraging range of about two miles. Producing sufficient food stores requires one square mile for each hive, an acre of flowers and 50 pounds
Photo by David Abbott
BUZZ — Unexplained losses in the bee business have farmers on edge.
of pollen per day. The recent instability of the weather not only affects the grape harvest, but has had a harsh effect on honey and bee populations as well. A wet spring led to an overabundance of nectar, but the ensuing drought-like conditions have dried up sources of food for bees. “The harvest is way down. It was good in spring and there was plenty of honey,” Vincent said. “We have three (honey) extractors and there is usually a waiting list to use them. Now they are just sitting there. Production is off 40-50 percent.” The average hive in the U.S. produces 65 pounds, but Vincent said Sonoma County hives have a slightly lower harvest at 30-40 pounds. “It has to do with available forage for the bees,” he said.
“The Dakotas are the main producers of clover honey and hives there can produce 100200 pounds per hive.” The U.S. consumes about 300 million pounds of honey per year, but only produces 140-150 million pounds, relying on imports for the rest. But bees are not just a commodity to add a minor footnote to the crop report. They are unique creatures that are essential to the health of the environment. “Bees are creating life by creating seeds,” Vincent said. “Their major contribution to our environment is pollination. When you have bees, you have more seeds and everything does better — birds, rodents and reptiles — and soon, animals are living in an area that they were just passing through.” Aside from climate instability, and possibly abetted by unpredictable weather patterns, bee populations have been affected by a phenomena known as colony collapse disorder (CCD). CCD captured national attention in 2006, when nationwide, beekeepers experienced 30-40 percent losses in bee populations. That trend has continued with the exception of the winter of 2011-2012, when the U.S. experienced one of the warmest winters on record, which may have contributed to an ebb of the losses. “CCD-like problems were happening in 2004, and ever since,” UC Davis Entomologist Dr. Eric Mussen, said. “It was given a name and national attention in 2006.” But CCD is a complex problem. Pesticide use and the appearance of deadly parasites have played a role, as well as the industrialization of beekeeping. “CCD seems to be the culmination of quite a few stresses that the bees must endure — malnutrition, transporta-
tion, parasitism by at least varroa (maybe tracheal mites, too), diseases including nosema and the myriad RNA viruses, and chemical contamination by acaricides used in the hives for varroa control, and agricultural products brought back to the hive on contaminated pollen.” This is not the first time that beekeepers have faced unexplained losses. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there are records of honeybee disappearances in the 1880s, the 1920s, and the 1960s. While the descriptions sound similar to CCD, there is no way to know for sure if those problems were caused by the same agents as CCD. “Beekeepers felt early on that CCD was a large portion of their losses that exceeded the 15-20 percent that was the average after the mites arrived,” Mussen said. “The national colony loss average still hovers around 30-35 percent. However, more recently the beekeepers reported that CCD probably was responsible for only about 17 percent of their losses. Varroa mites and starvation were higher on the list.” Continuous, near-catastrophic losses has made it difficult for beekeepers to get back on track. “While about 75 percent of our beekeepers can keep their losses reasonable, the other 25 percent are losing from 40 percent to 100 percent of their colonies,” Mussen said. “That is what pushes the national average so high.” In many corners of the beekeeping world, the industrialization and creation of monoculture agriculture are at the heart of population collapse. “We’ve created the perfect storm: bees are losing forage, there are new pesticides and there is too much monoculture farming — we used to grow soybeans and more clover, but now there is not enough variety of food,” Christine Kurtz, president Sonoma County Beekeepers Association, said. “We’re looking at bees as livestock instead of as wild creatures.” Modern industrial beekeepers truck their hives thousands of miles a year, following the flowering of pollen and nectar producing plants, and some crops, such as almonds, are almost totally dependent on imported beehives. Each year, beekeepers from all over the country load up their beehives on tractortrailers and head for the clover fields of the Dakotas in the hopes of harvesting the precious nectar. “Bees don’t travel long distances, but we put them in trucks with other colonies,” Kurtz said. “There are temperatures changes and vibrations. Bees are very sensitive to vibrations.”
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Mead men By David Abbott
Chris Byrne is a man on a mission to help create a more bee-friendly habitat in Sonoma County through the production of naturally fermented mead. “My approach to meadmaking is as low-tech as possible,” he said. “The ‘Champagne method’ is labor-intensive … when you pasteurize or boil it, you kill the biology.” Byrne has been making mead for about three years and has about 75 batches under his belt, so he feels he’s ready to mass-produce — on a fairly small scale — a consistent and natural beverage made from regional materials. Using “wild” fermentation techniques, Byrne is fermenting his mead with ambient yeast present in the honey and bottling it “live” in re-useable swing-top bottles “to make a naturally effervescent beverage without artificial carbonation.” It is raw and made without boiling, so it preserves the natural, live micronutrients in raw honey and to increase sugar content Byrne has been using a variety of locally-produced fruit juices to achieve different flavors. He has used apples, plums, white cherries, mulberries and even sugar snap peas. As honey is the main ingredient, Byrne hopes to encourage and support the development of bio-diverse bee-friendly habitats, such as apple orchards and other Sonoma County landscapes. “Mead and cider work well together,” Byrne said. “They’re two products from one landscape.” The resulting product is “an innovative version of a
pre-historic drink, perfectly suited to the flowers and hives of Northern California: a semi-sweet beverage of around 11 percent ABV, with a tangy, fizzy mouth-feel like ginger beer,” according to the description of his mead posted on a recent indiegogo fundraising campaign. The campaign sought to raise $15,000 to fund the production of the first scaled batch of honey and apple sparkling “ciser.” Although his funding goals fell short, Byrne is dedicated to the cause and considered the attempt to be a learning experience. “We raised $1,500 with no preparation at all,” he said, adding, “It’s like selling futures. I’m confident it will work at scale.” Byrne is gearing up to try again in his attempt to create a Sonoma County meaderie. “Mead is where beer was in the 1980s,” he said. “There is all this potential inside what we call mead.” To see a video about Byrne’s project, go to www.indiegogo.com/projects/l ocal-live-wild-mead. Anyone interested in learning more, or providing funding, can contact Byrne at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kurtz also believes that the industrialization of bee populations is weakening the genetic stock of honeybees worldwide. When commercial beekeepers split their hives to try to increase production, they have to depend on queens that are mass-bred for production rather than longevity. A queen can live and be productive for several years, but when there is so much turnover through CCD and other beehive dangers, there is no way to determine the long-term effects of current, large-scale beekeeping practices. But if recent trends in Sonoma County are any indication, there is hope for honeybees, due to an increased interest in sustainable beekeeping practices. Vincent said that Beekind
is helping 200 to 300 new hive starts a year and the Sonoma County Beekeepers Association has seen an explosion in membership from 80 to 400 members. That explosion has led Kurtz to take a year sabbatical in order to help facilitate the non-profit’s expansion, which includes creating educational programs to plant the seeds of beekeeping in the next generation. But ultimately, bees are an indicator species and the collapse in population does not bode well for industrialized food production. “We’ve had collapses in the past, but this one is lasting longer,” Kurtz said. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. It’s much more complex than CCD: We need to re-think the way we farm and the way we eat.”
October 31, 2013
| H11 |
Farming flowers Industry struggles or blooms with changes in economy By Laura McCutcheon
Wine grapes may be Sonoma County’s premier crop, but nothing, speaks to the heart like flowers. Flowers are used to celebrate birth, marriage and love affairs; to mourn death, to say “I’m sorry,” and everything in between, as one local grower points out. “There is no other business that I can think of where you touch on so many different parts of people’s lives: birth, death, and everything in between. Celebrations, apologies, and just plain, ‘I love you.’ I cannot think of another profession that has that wide of range. … There is nothing like a rose. It’s true aromatherapy. It goes straight to your heart,” said Bonnie Z of Dragonfly Farm in Healdsburg, who would know, as not only does she have six acres of mixed plantings — hundreds of perennials, a variety of annuals and lots of shrubs — but also over 2,000 rose bushes that grow on land formerly covered with grapevines. “We pulled out grapes 24 years ago and now it’s very diverse plantings. There’s a lot of habitat. When it was all grapes there were no birds here, but now we have huge populations of birds … the air is just filled with birdsongs. We also have ducks that eat snails and slugs, so they are worker ducks. We grow cut flowers primarily for our own use for weddings, events, par-
Photo by Laura McCutcheon
BUNCH — Jorge Calderon, of Sebastopol’s Devoto Gardens, inspects several bunches of cut flowers.
ties, local deliveries and also (sell them) by the stem in our retail store (a full service floral shop, located on site),” said Z, who works with her daughter Carlisle YuillThornton and her son-in-law. But vegetables were also grown on the premises prior to flowers taking over the whole scene. “We started growing flowers to augment the produce we were growing. We were the first at Healdsburg Farmers Market to sell bouquets and we just kept adding more and more flowers as people asked for them. Before we knew it we were in the flowers business, instead of the vegetable business,” Z said. The cut flower industry
was the county’s 13th biggest crop last year, valued at almost $2.6 million, according to the 2012 Sonoma County Crop Report. This is down from 2011, when cut flowers ranked 12th on the Million Dollar Crop list, valued at $3,126,400. Last year’s crop was also worth less than it was in 2010, when it placed 11th on the list, valued at $2,792,100. Last year’s figures were up from 2009, however, when the value of cut flowers was down to $2,360,000, according to past crop reports. Clearly this fragrant crop has had its highs and lows since 2000, at least in part due to the weather any given year, and the state of the economy.
Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar said “weather is definitely a factor,” especially with roses, which have a number of different pests and are also sensitive to fungal infections, which increase with damper weather and high humidity. “I also know for a fact that the nursery industry in general, which includes the cut flower industry, suffered a pretty substantial decline in sales, as the result of the economic downturn. In terms of nurseries, people are not landscaping or buying those bedding plants for the yard that they normally would have,” he said, noting that goes along with the cut flower industry. “Those are the type of expenses that people tend to eliminate when they cut their own personal budget; you know, no more Starbucks coffee and no more two-dozen roses for the misses.” Also, Linegar said the Agricultural Commission can only report the production that gets reported to the commission by the producers, which can vary from year to year. “We don’t always get 100 percent participation in our surveys. If one fairly good-sized producer fails to report one year, that can have a really big impact on the final numbers,” he said.
Grower Stan Devoto, of Devoto Gardens in Sebastopol echoed Linegar’s sentiments. “When there is an early, warm spring growers are able to get into their fields earlier and plant. My crops fluctuate a little from year to year. This year we were able to plant a month and half earlier, so that meant we had a month and a half of extra harvesting time. We were able to start planting earlier and so far we haven’t had any hellacious rain so we have been able to sustain that planting up unit about mid September, which is when we knock off,” said Devoto, who with his late wife Susan, founded Devoto Gardens in 1976. Today Devoto Gardens grows more than 50 varieties of heirloom apples, pinot noir grapes and about 12 acres of specialty cut flowers, at two separate locations. At one point Devoto grew about 20 acres of cut flowers. Asked if he thinks the cut flower business is a profitable one, Devoto said: “It used to be, but now over the last five or six years, not so much, because of foreign imports, and also the prices we are receiving are not sustainable. Labor is also an issue in agriculture right now, Devoto said. “In Sonoma County it’s hard to find labor,” he said, noting one of the reason’s Devoto Gardens is such a
diverse farm is because it has year round labor — because it provides year round farming. In other words, “having multiple crops keeps everyone busy and it keeps them here,” Devoto said. For some growers, the future of the cut flower industry doesn’t look as bright and cheerful as the crop it produces. “I am an optimist to begin with. There will always be some people scratching out a living with cut flowers, but the industry as a whole is suffering,” Devoto said, attributing this mostly to foreign imports, low labor costs, and expensive land prices in Sonoma County. “It’s value added that’s important,” Z said. “Look at wine grapes: Maybe you make as much money selling grapes as you do making wine, I don’t know, but it’s the skill put into the product after it’s grown that adds to its value,” she said. And value has different meanings. Devoto’s wife would spend a lot of time doing the company’s administrative work and then she’d “go outside and find her joy working in the flowers,” he said, adding, “I enjoy growing them and it’d be much more fun and rewarding, if I didn’t have to make a living farming cut flowers.”
November is our release month for our multiple award winning Port and we have two events featuring the new release: November 16 Release party & wine club pick up
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CELEBRATING OUR 86TH HARVEST
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| H12 |
October 31, 2013
Fiber revival Moving towards a Sonoma County f iber shed By Lynda Hopkins
Sheep ranchers and fiber artists are flocking to an unlikely mecca: the tiny town of Valley Ford, where the Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill recently opened up shop. “I used to send my wool all the way to Michigan, and the reason for that was that by the time I paid the postage, it worked out to be cheaper than any of the other mills in California,” said Deborah Walton, owner of Canvas Ranch and the new wool mill’s first customer. When sheep or other fiber animals are shorn, the resulting raw fleece — full of dirt, burrs, and oil — must be sent to a wool mill to be processed into clean, usable fiber in the form of batting, roving, or yarn. The new wool mill in Valley Ford receives raw fleeces and puts them through a hand washing, drying, and machine carding process that results in batting. The mill will also offer felting services on what the owner believes to be California’s only 10,000-needle loom. Out in front of the wool mill, a retail store is designed to delight spinners, knitters, and fiber fanatics. The storefront offers bedding made onsite from local wool, as well as yarn, wool clothing, felted soap, and other artisanal products. “The closest mill we’ve had has been Yolo Mill, which is where everybody in Northern California would send their stuff. And you’d have a six month or longer wait to get your product back. To have a local mill is awesome because it will help us get wool back in a more
Photo by Lynda Hopkins
FROM SHEEP TO SLEEP — Valley Ford Mercantile and Wool Mill owner Ariana Strozzi with the clean wool batting that will be made into a king sized mattress.
timely fashion,” Walton said. Walton noted that the new wool mill offers other benefits to local fiber producers. “She can also guarantee — which is not true with all mills in the US — that we’re getting our own wool back. Some mills will lump you in with everybody else’s wool, and send you back cleaned wool that’s not necessarily your own.” For most large-scale commercial producers, mass milling does not present a problem as long as the appropriate quantity is returned. But for artisanal wool producers, the specific qualities of the fiber — and
where and how the animals were raised — mean everything. “The whole fiber shed concept is like the local food movement, but with local fibers. We started finding out that all these young designers that are coming out of school, that’s what they’re really into: small local lines of clothing that are from local fibers,” said Ariana Strozzi, co-owner of Valley Ford Mercantile & Wool Mill. “There’s this huge movement that’s beginning... and it’s bigger than you think.” Using local wool for clothing is nothing new. According to the American
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Sheep Industry Association, the practice is approximately 10,000 years old. Wool was once a highly prized commodity: so much so that the British government attempted to deprive the North American colonies of it as a way of maintaining power. Wool producing sheep in North America had to be smuggled in from Europe. In the 18th century, King George III of England made wool trading in the colonies an offense punishable by hand amputation — a policy that, along with other oppressive measures, helped to inspire the
Revolutionary War. However, the rise of modern synthetic fabrics — which could be produced at a fraction of the cost of wool, and which are more easily laundered by customers — caused the wool market to plummet. By 1993, synthetic fibers accounted for 66 percent of mill use and 56 percent of domestic fiber consumption. Wool accounted for approximately one percent of mill use, and domestic consumption was pegged at 1.7 percent. Despite the downturn in the national wool market, in Sonoma County, many local ranchers continued to graze sheep to produce lamb and mutton. Since shearing sheep was an expensive process and demand for wool was negligible, many ranchers began to raise‘hair sheep’ breeds which did not need to be shorn. But in the past decade a wool revival has taken place: one in which wool has been successfully marketed by local producers as a sustainable, local, farm-fresh product. A burgeoning market has developed for bedding. Strozzi’s store is struggling to keep pace with the immediate demand for her pillows, mattress pads, and mattresses. “We officially opened late July. Within a week of us telling two people that we were going to open a wool mill, it went through the community like wildfire. People couldn’t wait. We’ve already done probably a dozen wool customers, we’ve sold out of almost all of our wool, and we are scrambling now,” Strozzi said. Strozzi has her own flock
of sheep, but is planning to purchase additional wool from other Sonoma County shepherds to produce her line of bedding. And for local ranchers, her wool mill may offer a way to keep their fiber truly local — grown and processed in Sonoma County — and at a competitive price. “She’s totally comparable, price-wise,” Walton said of Strozzi. “I did some research on all the other mill prices a while back. And because we can hand deliver it to her, we’re saving on postage both directions… For artisan producers and people who are very conscious about how their wool is cleaned — they want to do it in an environmentally sound way and no synthetics, hypoallergenic and organic — that’s her customer.” While Strozzi is hoping that some of the larger local fiber producers will utilize her wool mill to turn their fleeces into batting, it seems she has already cornered the backyard sheep market — or mom market, as the case may be. “This mom brought in eight fleeces. She has three kids, eight fleeces. They’re pets, and she said, ‘I just want to do something with this wool.’ There’s all these women, they don’t know why, they just love their wool and want to hold on to it. And the husbands are like, ‘the garage is full of wool, what are you going to do with it?’ And they think, ‘maybe my husband will be okay if I make something out of it.’ It’s funny, I’ve heard that so many times,” Strozzi said.