Introducing chickens, cows, cover crops and honey bees to Kelowna’s CedarCreek Estate Winery three years ago paid off: as of July 2021, its vineyards are certified organic.
Why go organic? Given the added labour costs and the expense of certification itself, they didn’t do It for profit. There are two reasons. First, they want to leave the land in as-good or better condition than when it was purchased. “Everything flows down to the lake so we don’t want chemicals ending up in our water source,” says CedarCreek winemaker Taylor Whelan. For instance, some orchards they purchased have been farmed conventionally for a long time, meaning chemicals have been absorbed into the ground for years.
“Second, we wanted to improve the quality of our wines, but how? Looking at wineries in Oregon and California, we knew our next step was to focus on sustainability, which meant growing more resilient grapes,” adds Whelan. “In the past we also applied chemicals. But we’re getting the same, if not better, results by using a seaweed-based spray and planting clover, and honeybees keep clover alive.”
The interest in everything organic has been around since the 20th century. If cost wasn’t an issue, who wouldn’t choose artisanal, local and sustainable products over imported products riddled with chemical pesticides and fertilizers? But here’s the rub: most wine lovers likely don’t remember drinking a glass of organic wine and probably didn’t peruse the organic section at the wine store thinking about what to pair with that expensive organic chicken or grass-fed beef for dinner.
With this move, CedarCreek has joined more than a dozen certified organic BC wineries, but it wasn’t easy. “Weed control and insects—pretty much universal challenges—gave us the most headaches,” says Whelan, “but we found fun ways to overcome these challenges, like the parasitic wasp project.”
Wait a sec, honeybees can be fun, but wasps? Whelan explains that wasps are the natural enemy of grape leafhoppers, a major pest throughout North America. Rather than spraying vines with insecticides, these stingless insects are attracted to certain plants that supply nectar and pollen, and these plants (including alfalfa to fix nitrogen and maintain healthy soil) are now part of the vineyard’s groundcover. Chickens foraging and cows grazing the vineyard will create compost populated by earthworms—another sign of good soil.
Neighbours are another issue because some vineyards are wedged into residential areas. “Homeowners were spraying their lawns and flowerbeds with every commercial chemical known to man. One guy drained his swimming pool into our vineyard the first year of our transition to organic,” says Whelan, laughing. “He was shameless.” To ensure chemical sprays don’t drift by air or sink in the soil, CedarCreek has to create quarantine rows: a few hundred vines don’t make the organic cut.
Some of the best wines in the world are farmed organically but you won’t find that information on the label because it can be a distraction.
Whelan learned a lot about organic farming from CedarCreek’s viticulturists (grape growing scientists) like Kurt Simcic, who explained how organic farming stresses—in a good way—vines’ roots to reach deeper into the ground, changing the root structure. As the vines grapple below ground the canopies above slow down growth and become more balanced. You often see big vines pumped up with fertilizer and water, but with organics more attention is paid to the vines so there is more control.
The grapes grow thicker and smaller by removing leaves, thereby exposing fruit to more sunlight. And they are encouraged to grow thicker skins to protect them against disease. The end result: smaller vines with less leaves and fruit but better quality.
Skeptics may say there is no discernable difference, but by employing practices that go above and beyond certification requirements, CedarCreek has made a philosophical shift, and possibly a cultural change. Goes without saying personal health benefits. But sharing ideas to go organic comes at a cost. “I wound up with a long to-do list,” quips Whelan.
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