Home»Feature»Bursting at the Seams: Sustainability At Oregon’s Vineyards Becomes the Norm

Bursting at the Seams: Sustainability At Oregon’s Vineyards Becomes the Norm

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winegrapes1Producing wine isn’t necessarily low-impact. It requires water—lots and lots of water. And lands—lots and lots of land. There is energy, and the resources to bottle, and to ship. It is an elegant, but potentially resource-heavy process.

But, for the past two decades, roughly the same time that the wine industry in Oregon—and, in particular, southern Oregon—has steadily moved from a cottage industry to a major agriculture force in Oregon, vineyards have actively and increasingly gone about the business of growing grapes in a sustainable manner. What had been a handful of vineyards in the mid-90s has blossomed to several hundred throughout the state—and, impressively, the majority of the acreage on which wine grapes are grown in Oregon follow sustainable practices, in ways that are both small and big-scale, and inventive and practical.

Southwest of Portland, the Dundee Hill region, with copious sunlight during the day and cool evenings, has found a potent equation for high-quality wines and boomed with some of the country’s most ambitious wineries, transforming the region into something rivaling Napa Valley. Within the group leading those trends is the Stoller Family Estate—both in terms of expanding sales and reach, and also leading industry trends for sustainability. A decade ago, they became the first Gold LEED-certified winery in the nation back, a recognition that primarily acknowledges a certain commitment to sustainable practices in building and operations, like retrofitting lighting and installing solar panels and, perhaps most organically and interestingly, that Stoller built their stylish new tasting room with wood salvaged from the Biscuit Fire, the massive fire in 2002 that ravaged the Kalmiospsis Wilderness. As well, instead of lawn mowers and pesticides, Stoller uses goats, sheep and raptors.

Likewise, dozens of other vineyards are finding ways to reduce their environmental impact. Outside Jacksonville, Dancin Vineyards is a cozy, family-run vineyard. On their website, they proudly explain they keep “twelve resident chickens” and, in language that echoes Portlandia, “(t)hese chickens are hand held on a daily basis and reside (after daybreak) in open bottom mobile chicken coops, known as chicken tractors that we move through the vineyard rows several times throughout the day. The chickens assist in the vineyard by helping to manage insect pest populations, leaving behind manure in the process, which is rich in nitrogen, a benefit to the vines.”

wineries2Whether big or small, each individual practice, from solar panels to LED light bulbs, is a puzzle piece that adds up to an industry that is trying to reduce its impact; and, together the patchwork of sustainable practices throughout Oregon has reached a tipping point. A year ago, 12,500 acres of vineyards in Oregon were certified “sustainable,” an amount that calculates to more than half of the planted vineyards in the state, an impressive 52 percent.

Industry observers note that the concept and practice of sustainability in the wine industry is growing like a weed, and what were once quaint practices are becoming central to vineyards’ operations and the norm in the marketplace as more and more vineyards adopt practices. Oregon State University hosts a robust research center, including information about sustainability practices, and Southern Oregon University and, a year ago, Southern Oregon University’s Center for Sustainability announced they would plant a half-acre of grapes as a means to experiment with organic and sustainable growing practices.

As well, recognition of sustainability has been formalized by third-party organizations that consider and review vineyards’ practices. Like the LEED process, each vineyard—and increasingly, wineries—receive points for each sustainable practice, in an attempt to reach certain thresholds.

Since launching in the Willamette Valley more than 20 years ago, LIVE has been one of the industry leaders for certifying sustainability practices for vineyards, including certifications for nearly 300 in the Pacific Northwest. A Board member and the LIVE representative for the area is Daniel Sweeney, who also works as the assistant vineyard Manager for Quail Run, an innovative grower that has brought dozens of varietals to the region, and supplies some 30 Oregon winemakers.

“We’re constantly experimenting and talking to other growers and so it’s more of an evolution than a checklist of changes to make,” says Sweeney about their sustainability practices—an extensive list which includes no-till farming and minimal chemical inputs.

“There’s always room for improvement,” admits Sweeney, “but as a commercial farm it’s always a balance between philosophy and economics.” He goes on, “We could run biodiesel in our tractors but how would that pencil out and what would the net impact actually be? I’d love to know.”

Sweeney explains that sustainability seems to beget more sustainability. The buyers—both retail and large wineries that purchase grapes from farms—want sustainability; certifications like LIVE are important distinguishers that buyers consider integral to the quality of products. Those market pressures encourage vineyards to adopt and maintain sustainability practices.

As well, there is also a certain amount of cross-pollination, farmers learning from each other and discovering new practices by sharing ideas. “A couple of inspiring ‘local’ farms I’ve read about,” Sweeney adds, “are Ayer’s Creek Farm in Gaston and Channing Family Farm up in Twisp, Washington; both which are doing really different, amazing and inspiring things on their land.” 

Moreover, Sweeney hopes that these practices will broaden beyond the wine industry, and inform other farmers.

“I’d like to see more,” he says. “I’d like to see the idea of sustainability spread out into emerging agricultural sectors like marijuana.” He goes on, “The reality is that a lot of farm acres in our area are now becoming dedicated to pot farming and that the mindset for that type of farming has long been geared towards maximizing yield. I think it would be great to see some type of regulation or certification standards put forth to help guide pot growers in an environmentally-friendly way.”    

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