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Scratching Below the Surface of Napa Valley

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By Mark Lubell - Posted on 12 August 2010

I'm currently engaged in one of the most enjoyable activities of my job: interviewing real people engaged in real environmental and agricultural decision-making situations. In this case, I'm talking about winegrape growers and winemakers in Napa Valley, who I am interviewing as part of the sustainable viticulture project. I've interviewed 6 people so far, and all of them have been interesting for different reasons.

One of the cool things about the Napa growers is that it gives me a chance to scratch beneath the surface of the country's premium wine region. The grape prices, land prices, and wine prices are the highest in the country. Napa growers feel they provide some of the best wine in the world (and most people agree), and also are leaders in sustainability.

Here are some of the interesting stories I've heard; these may or may not ever end up in a scientific publication but I can vouch for their authenticity:

1. The winegrape growing in Napa is handled by a fairly small number of farmers relative to the number of vineyards. There are lots of vineyard management companies who are paid to farm the grapes of other people.

2. Ultra-rich people who buy less than 10 acres of property for their once-per-month house are hiring vineyard managers, who refer to the jobs as "landscaping". If you're lucky, your grape sales from the 10 acres will break even but often it does not. You need a decent number of acres to make money in Napa, or a really sweet spot in terms of terrior and grape quality.

3. There is all kinds of interesting stuff going on in terms of environmental stewardship and sustainability. For example, there are several efforts to restore riparian habitat in Dry Creek and Napa River. This is actually good for the growers: it helps stabilize banks, reduce flood risk (you don't want your grapes underwater), and restoring native riparian vegetation will buffer vineyards from pests like the glassy-winged sharpshooter. I was lucky enough to be walked down into Dry Creek, and I'm pretty sure the tourists in high heels and patent leather shoes wouldn't see it. Dry Creek goes dry in the summer (hence the name...as was pointed out to me...), but it still has breeding salmon populations whose young make it to the Napa River before Dry Creek earns its name!

4. I met with one guy who has been growing grapes in Napa since 1973, when the industry was just emerging. He was rubbing shoulders with famous people like Robert Mondavi and has watched Napa go from 30 wineries to hundreds(many of which require fees to taste!). He said Napa was born in a spirit of camraderie with lots of information sharing to make it all happen. This spirit still survives among many of the growers, who ultimately are trying to make a living in agriculture beneath the surface glitz of Napa.

Well, that is it for now. Napa is a very interesting place. The growers I met are real California farmers trying to make a living in a complex industry, and many of them are paying close attention to sustainability. Our research project will investigate how widespread this committment really is.