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My Tiny Winery’s Big Goals for a Small Environmental Footprint

By Kathleen Inman

In September 2010, Inman Family Wines opened a tasting room at the new, eco-friendly winery at Olivet Grange Vineyard, in the heart of Sonoma County’s beautiful Russian River Valley. A commitment to organic gardening, recycling and treading lightly on the environment has been a central tenant of my personal philosophy all of my adult life. The creation of our winery and vineyard is the perfect embodiment of my outlook.

I grew up in the Napa Valley. When I was a girl, I often stayed with my grandmother, on what remained of her family’s farm on Monticello Road in Napa, and helped her in the garden. My friends all called her “Grandma-Apron-Field” because when they drove by, she was always working outside and she always had on a clean, freshly starched apron. I have taken after grandma, and although you will often find me in the vineyard and garden, it won’t be with an apron on; my grandmother had a profound impact on my interest in gardening. Interestingly, I can remember her using a combination of natural methods of pest and disease control as well as manmade poisons. When I began to have my own garden, I was not comfortable using the pesticides she had used. Instead, I began learning about more natural alternatives.

Although I grew up in Napa, I moved to England in 1983 and remained there until 1998, when I returned to California to start our vineyard and winery. Even in my small urban garden in our first home in Yorkshire, I began using dilute dishwashing liquid preparations for ridding my roses of aphids, beer traps for snails who were eating my vegetable seedlings, and began cultivating worms to compost our food scraps to feed the plants. As the size of our gardens grew as we moved from the town to the countryside, my interest in organic growing grew too. I became a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and even won a few awards for my vegetables in the village garden fete!

Our last home in Yorkshire was The Grange at Elvington, a small village just outside of the city of York. We had 11 acres there, and this included an enormous organic walled garden of fruits and vegetables as well as more formal gardens and a conservation meadow. During our first spring at The Grange, I noticed that our five-acre paddock had a range of beautiful wildflowers growing there and I set a goal of trying to increase their populations. This involved allowing the meadow to go to seed before mowing at the end of summer, and then after mowing, bringing in sheep one year to graze and naturally fertilize the meadow and small Dexter cows the next. The animals were cared for by a neighbor with a small holding, and I received a whole lamb or half of a cow in payment, as well as a beautifully fertilized field! The animals were moved off early each spring and the wildflowers and native grasses allowed to grow. The display was amazing. Without knowing it, I was managing this field biodynamically.

Between the meat from the grass fed animals and the produce from our garden, many meals were totally produced from our land, and little was wasted as we composted all of our food scraps. Besides being the right thing to do, I wanted to teach my daughters that food comes from the earth and knowing their meat by name gave them a respect for the animals and a mentality that meat does not come on a Styrofoam tray from the market, and should not be wasted.

Fast forward a few years to our arrival in Sonoma County and our purchase of Olivet Grange. Retaining many of the old fruit trees and the decorative plants around the 1918 farmhouse and old barns as well as restoring the buildings came naturally, as did the decision to farm the property without the use of inputs that are not certified organic.

In developing our Olivet Grange vineyard, we preserved the majestic oak trees that grace the property and avoided sterilizing the soil, in order to maintain its natural ecology. Today, we use only organic fertilizers in the vineyard. Among these is “Four-Course Compost,” so named because it derives from table scraps discarded by high-end San Francisco restaurants and hotels such as Aqua, The Slanted Door, Boulevard, The Fairmount, Farallon, Hotel Nikko, Jardinière, Lulu, Sheraton Place, Tadich Grill, and the Westin St. Francis. Recently, with new mandatory composting laws put into effect by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom, food scraps from domestic collections are also included. In addition to being a nutrient-rich alternative to synthetic fertilizers, the gourmet compost helps us form a perfect loop from table to earth and back again, in the form of sustainably produced wines that enhance the meals providing the raw materials to renew the cycle. Each year, I use approximately 350 cubic yards of compost to spread under the 9.8 miles of wine rows. Over 140,000 pounds of food scraps are used in the creation of 350 cubic yards of compost. I could never create that much homemade compost!

We also use worm castings, obtained from Sonoma Valley Worm Farm, to create an easily assimilated bio-fertilizer rich in nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium. I brew these castings into a compost tree which is then dripped through our fertigation system. Applied three times a year, the teas introduce a diverse spectrum of beneficial microorganisms that improve soil and plant health and aid the vines’ natural resistance to pests and disease. All of these products are certified organic.

To further promote a healthy ecosystem, we have planted permanent cover crops of native grasses, which have the side benefit of producing higher quality grapes by forcing the vines to compete for water and soil nutrients, resulting in smaller berries with more concentrated flavors. Close vine spacing – 6’x 4’ in our vineyard – also promotes more flavorful grapes.

Once cover crops are established, simple mowing keeps the vineyard tidy and well-groomed. Because there is no tilling of the soil, the vineyard requires less use of fossil fuel for tractor use, and its population of earthworms is preserved. Cover crops also mitigate soil erosion from wind and rain and serve as habitats for beneficial insects that feed on vine pests such as mites and leafhoppers, minimizing the use of pesticides.

Since 2003, we have used only organic fungicides (sulfur, copper, Serenade, Sonata and organic Stylet oil). Weeds are controlled by the use of mechanical weeders and mulching with Recology’s Four-Course Compost to suppress new weed growth. This is supplemented by hand weeding. In 2005, we began to augment our farming with some biodynamic farming techniques, namely using the lunar calendar to make decisions on pruning, thinning, and harvest. However, because our farm is relatively small it would be difficult for us to create a totally closed system (raising the food for our animals which would then supply the manure for the many prescribed preparations), and therefore we are unlikely to ever be biodynamically certifiable.

The new 3,000 sq. ft. winery building is on the site of one of the two old barns we inherited when we purchased the property. The small barn has been restored, and the larger was carefully dismantled and the barn wood retained to reuse in the tasting room and public spaces of the new winery building.

Our commitment to building an energy efficient winery, which makes use of as many post-consumer recycled materials as possible, is a consideration in every decision we have made in the building process. The new metal winery barn was more environmentally responsible than a wooden building because it is made from recycled automobiles. In addition, the sandwich wall panels we are using have an “R value” of 30 and the roof panels are R38. This will help us to use very little energy to cool the building, and will make the ambient night air cooling system more effective. The roof is also coated with a light reflecting paint which meets cool roof standards, again saving energy. The new barn building makes use of the same footprint as the original barn and retains the same roof line to help it fit within the agricultural architecture heritage of the area.

We targeted our new solar photovoltaic system to power 98% of our electricity requirement, but thus far we are producing more energy than we are using, probably because of all of the energy saving features we added to the new building – besides the insulation, all of the lighting is LED or compact florescent, and all of the windows are tinted and Low-E. Water heating, air cooling and heating, and all of our equipment, from an electric forklift to electric steam generator for sanitizing, make use of our home generated power. We have also invested in a process waste water recycling system to reuse all of our waste water from barrel and tank washing for vineyard irrigation and compost tea brewing. This will also save us from drawing on our well and the aquifer.

Inside the new building, countertop and flooring choices were made based on the percentage of post-consumer recycled material they have and the distance they have had to travel to get to us. We used recycled glass and fly ash (a byproduct of coal fired power stations) for countertops and tasting bars as well as flooring made from recycled tires. All paints used were low or no VOC.

Within the winery and our offices, our goal is zero waste. All of our paper and printed material are 100% post-consumer recycled. The products we use to sanitize our winery equipment are as gentle on the environment as possible. We currently recycle all recyclable materials in our office and tasting room. We have been changing our wine packaging as new products become available to ensure that they are made in the US, have high recycled content, use soy or water-based inks, and are sustainably manufactured. We recently introduced tree-free labels made from bamboo and sugarcane cellulose and printed with water-based inks; we have just changed our bottles to domestically produced, lighter weight bottles with a higher recycled glass content.

In short, at Inman Family Wines, we endeavor to grow our grapes and to make our wines as naturally as possible, with as few additions as possible, to ensure they embody not only the pure personality of the grapes from which they’re made, but also the singular character of the place where they’re born while at the same time making the smallest impact possible on the land, water, and air around us.

Kathleen Inman
Owner and Winemaker, Inman Family Wines and Olivet Grange Vineyard