They say you can't judge a book by its cover, and you certainly shouldn't judge a Central Coast wine by its label. For though there's not yet an official looking logo to alert consumers to their efforts, many of the region's winemakers are quietly adopting sustainable practices, making much of the wine from the area as good for the earth as it is for your spirits.
One such winery is Laetitia. Founded in the early 80s by French champagne house Deutz, Laetitia's breathtaking Arroyo Grande estate has since come under the careful stewardship of owner Selim Zilkha, and Lino Bozzano, who oversees the extensive vineyards. A third generation California farmer, Bozzano began his career by studying viticulture at college. His love of the land led him to become an early proponent of sustainable methods. Unlike the highly recognizable organic mark, the sustainable movement has yet to tightly bind its rules and put a stamp on them. In the meantime, like many farmers on the Central Coast, Bozzano participates in two voluntary self-assessments: the Central Coast Vineyard Team's Positive Points Program and the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance's Code of Sustainable Winegrowing.
"There's three principles," says Bozzano as he explains the essence of sustainable practices. "Is it environmentally friendly or responsible? Is it socially responsible? And is it economically viable? Whenever we're looking at putting input into the ranch we're asking those three questions."
It could be argued that since the rules of organic farming are so rigid, sustainable practices make sense for such a delicate crop, and a winemaking process that is steeped in thousands of years of tradition. "I prefer sustainability over organic farming because sustainability takes in the whole ecosystem of your farm," says Bozzano. "The hardest part for me about organics is it's very limited, and it doesn't address wine quality in the same way."
Bozzano maintains that some of his sustainable practices may even be more earth friendly than the ones demanded by organic codes when the big picture is taken into account. He cites the issue of spraying versus mechanical weed control as an example of this new thinking. The mechanical methods favored by organic farming require more tractor passes, and therefore use more fuel and spew out more CO2. So which is better for the planet? A well-chosen, minimally or non-toxic herbicide? Or oil-powered, mechanical methods? Where possible Bozzano chooses to take the third way, and uses the best of all worlds (traditional, organic and sustainable) to do what's best for the earth, what's best for the wine, and what's best for the dedicated team that makes it.
The Daily Mantra took a scenic drive up the Pacific Coast Highway to Laetitia to get better acquainted with their grapes, both in the glass and on the vine. As we toured the vineyards with Bozzano, he pointed out many of the sustainably-minded practices that lie behind each bottle of Laetitia's wine.
- Super-Natural Weed Control/Border Management By Goats
"They're environmentally friendly, you're not burning fuel and you're not spreading herbicides. It's economically viable, because you're not paying someone to do it. You buy the goats as an upfront investment, but they recreate and have more and more babies. And it's socially responsible because you're not exposing your workers to hazardous terrain. The big benefit is you reduce your weed seed population, because your weed seeds come in from the borders, and so by keeping these borders managed you reduce the amount of weed seed coming into your vineyards, and theoretically you have to use less herbicide."
"Everything that doesn't get turned into wine gets turned into compost. The skins, the seeds, the stems, they get composted and then we put them back out in the summer as soil amendments."
- Recycled Water
"We use water from our reservoirs to irrigate the vineyards. It's a combination of well-water and reclaimed water. We use the water that comes out of the winery. We have a pond that catches it. We aerate it so it has very low levels of B.O.D. (biochemical oxygen demand). We pump it up here and we put it back out in the vineyards."
"The flowers we planted are an insectary blend that attract beneficial insects. The roses unfortunately are just aesthetics. They originated from Europe as an indicator of a disease, but we don't have the same disease here. It's called downy mildew, and we don't have that on the West Coast, we have powdery mildew. Roses are more of a tradition."
- Cover Crops
"We use a grass and bean mix. The grasses help stabilize the soil because they have fibrous roots, and then the beans add nitrogen to the soil."
- Solar-Powered Weather Stations
"We use weather stations to help predict when the most likely environmental conditions happen for either pests or the disease, so we can focus our efforts better on controlling it."
- Biofuel Powered Tractors And Other Farm Equipment
"We've been using B-99 which is 99% biodiesel here for the last twelve months. It's a little bit more expensive but it's almost negligible when you look at the overall budget. It was point one five percent increase (.15%). If that's your profit margin you might as well give up. I think there is some real benefits to it. I just read a statistic about biodiesel saying that in the year 2015 it's going to contribute $24 billion to the economy, and $14 billion is going to stay in the U.S. as opposed to going overseas. So on the one hand, yes it's costing us a little more money as a practice, but it gives us an opportunity to market our wines better in the Unites States.
"The other thing about sustainability that you don't hear people talk about much, which I think is an important factor, is the social side of it. What are you doing for your workforce? How are you addressing their needs beyond just giving them a paycheck? It's the neglected area of sustainability. There's all kinds of research and ways to help the environment, and we pretty much know how to save a buck right? But what do you do to protect your workers? We give very good health coverage for everyone. It's above and beyond the industry standard. We give paid vacation, which is rare in agriculture for field workers. We have the employee garden for fun, and we welcome them to bring whatever they want to plant in it, as long as it's legal. We give them coveralls, so they don't have to get their clothes dirty. Sometimes you find out that little things like that mean a lot. We have really good employee retention, that's what's important from year to year, less training, less accidents, a better quality of work, and better wines.
If you'd like to check out the fruits of Bozzano's labor, Laetitia also make wine under the Barnwood and Avila labels, the latter of which is surprisingly inexpensive and available at many branches of Trader Joe's. They also make excellent sparkling wines, among others, under the Laetitia label, which are the perfect choice for Valentine's Day, and can be ordered from their website. Laetitia welcomes visitors. Their tasting room is open daily (certain holidays excepted) from 11 am to 5 pm. Click HERE for more details.