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Benton-Lane Winery, Oregon – Steve and Carol Girard

May 6, 2012

When we saw Benton-Lane vineyard for the first time we thought we had won the lotto. It was an old sheep ranch called Sunnymount, and we learned the name was due to a mountain to the west that protected the ranch from winter storms. This mountain carves the rain clouds sending them south and north while the ranch is bathed in sun.

The elevations for our vineyard are perfect. The vineyard begins well above the fog of the Willamette Valley, and ends well below the wind line, where high winds impair ripeness. The land slopes gently to the south and east so the chilly air drains off instead of frosting the vines. The earth is made up of well-drained brick red soils. These soils drain quickly after a rain so the vines don’t sit in water, but instead search for it, and in the process, uncover new areas of nutrition. The drainage is so good that we can usually be on the tractor the day after a big rain.

After 35 years of growing grapes and wondering why growers had to select one of the three models for caring for the land, we opted out and selected the best parts of the three methods and that’s what we farm to.

In Napa, the standard custom was to prevent weeds from growing under the vine by spraying the ground with chemical pre-emergent’s. This reduced competition with the weeds and made the vineyard look “orderly”. We used this method when we started our vineyard in Oregon and our colleagues suggested we stop poisoning the land and learn about Mycorrhizae. These are little fungi that chew up organic material so the vine roots can assimilate the nutrients. They were trying to help the vines and we had been poisoning them. So we learned how to help these little guys. We learned that bio-diversity helps them prosper so we planted lots of beneficial plants in the vineyard including crimson clover, vetch, English peas, oats, fava beans, annual rye and legumes. Then we disc them into the soil. Soon we saw our vines get healthier. The leaves became bright green; they began to grow more actively and were less susceptible to disease. Our vineyard was less “orderly”, but much healthier.

We have designed our own system for caring for the land which incorporates the best parts of the Sustainable, Organic and Bio-dynamic methods. This program was designed after seven years of certification under the LIVE sustainability program. During this time we began to realize that no one program was ideal in preserving and protecting our land. So we took the best parts of each program, added some measures of our own and gave birth to our own system of ensuring the health of our vineyards.

We have always viewed soil as a living entity in need of replenishment. We also embrace the importance of building rich, fertile humus. We do this through discing our green growing cover into the soil and by composting.

We work to keep the vineyard as natural as possible. We use mineral oil as a mildewcide. We control road dust with a natural retardant made from bark, so we don’t have a mite problem. We have hawk perches to reduce rodent populations.

The organic method was developed at a time when available pesticides were harsh. Since then, manufacturers have developed synthetics that are much more earth friendly on the land than some organic counterparts. We believe it is better for our land to use soft fungicides like Elevate, with a soil half life of only one day instead of the organic recommendation of toxic copper.

We allow for large areas of native habitat for eco compensation areas as prescribed by L.I.V.E. We also control erosion by growing cover crops and rocking drainage ways. We believe in the requirements of Integrated Pest Management to ensure that any crop applications reach the target area only and in the correct amount and at the right time. However, Sustainable certification prohibits grazing as a means of mowing and yet we think using sheep to mow our grasses fertilizes the land, reduces soil compaction and saves fuel.

We use compost to rejuvenate our soils. Our compost is a proprietary blend of grape skins, seeds and stems, peppermint, rock dust, manure and estate soil. We cook the compost until these components transform into dark powdery humus. We then incorporate it into the soil to replace the nutrients that the crop may have depleted.

We practice extensive canopy management. We shoot thin to open up the canopy; we remove crop and leaves to open the fruit zone to light and air. This reduces the need for pesticides and produces more flavorful fruit.

We use a cover crop of Austrian winter peas, oats, fava beans, annual rye and crimson clover to reduce erosion, build biomass and rich, fertile soil humus.

Surrounding our 138 acre vineyard are 175 acres of native vegetation that serves as a habitat for wildlife, insects and native plants.

We have an employee vegetable garden that produces food for our families grown under our eco-management system. We grow blueberries on the property.

We cook in a wood burning oven to save electricity.

We recycle.

We have planted numerous trees to mark property lines instead of erecting fencing.

We provide our workers with safe working conditions, safety equipment, training, restroom facilities, hand washing and bottled water stations and a heated break room.

Carol and I know that we will pass on some day but that the land will always be here. We want to make sure that when our daughter takes over, it is as healthy and vibrant as possible.

The latest news is the 100 sheep we have mowing the lawn for us in the vineyard – talk about a win/win situation. The sheep get fresh, clean grass, we get the grass cut without having to burn fossil fuels and compact the soils, and the sheep fertilize the vineyard. It’s fantastic.

We have experimented with sheep before, but it was tough finding the right fit. Many shepherds are eager to run sheep on five acres, but are not equipped to handle one hundred forty acres. Chris looked around until he found a shepherd that would work. The sheep are fenced in by a small electric fence, and the shepherd checks on them every morning. We are watching them to make sure they are only interested in the grass and not the vines.

website: www.benton-lane.com

 

 

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