Visit to Dry Creek Valley Part II: Organic and Fish Friendly Farming

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a portion of the extensive gardens at Quivira

The second stop on our day-long tour through Dry Creek Valley was Quivira Vineyards, which is about halfway up the Valley, off West Dry Creek Road on Wine Creek Road. There we heard about sustainable farming practices at a number of Dry Creek Valley wineries, had lunch, and sampled wines from Quivira, Michel-Schlumberger and Kachina. I found the testimonials for organic and biodynamic farming from Michael Brunston of Michel-Schlumberger and Hugh Chappelle of Quivira, respectively, quite compelling. Below is a video of Hugh’s explanation of how and why Quivira does biodynamic farming. I have also summarized what I learned from Michael Brunston below. I was particularly fascinated to learn of the work of many Dry Creek Valley producers in attempting to restore and improve the habitat in Dry Creek and its tributaries for the endangered fish that traditionally spawn and spend their first year or two there, particularly Coho salmon and Steelhead trout. These fish then migrate to the sea where they mature until they return to their birth stream to spawn.

Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley® is a trade association of over 60 wineries and 150 wine grape growers formed in 1989. Most of its members engage in sustainable farming practices, and some are certified organic or biodynamic. The certified organic wineries in Dry Creek Valley are Forchini, Hawley, Martorana, Michel-Schlumberger and Preston. The producers that are not only organic but certified biodynamic are Montemaggiore, Quivira and Truett-Hurst. In addition, a number of producers, including those above, are engaged in farming designed to protect the environment, particularly the environment for endangered fish. Several producers are even certified, or becoming certified, as practicing fish friendly farming.

Dry Creek is a major tributary of the Russian River. It was once a seasonal creek with little flow in the summer. This area experienced devastating floods over the years, and plans were eventually developed to build a dam at the juncture of Dry Creek and Warm Springs Creek. It took over a decade of planning, litigation and construction to complete Warm Springs Dam in 1983. Its filling in 1984 created Lake Sonoma, one of the largest reservoirs in California. Lake Sonoma provides urban water supply and releases flow year-round, which has changed the ecology of Dry Creek.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency has studied this ecology and found that delivery of water down Dry Creek has created unacceptably high summer flows for survival of the salmon and trout. The NOAA has developed plans to provide summer living areas for these species while continuing to permit the delivery of up to 75,000 acre feet per year of water from Lake Sonoma to Sonoma County Water Agency (SCWA) customers on the Russian River. A pilot enhancement project on about one mile of Dry Creek at Lambert Bridge is being designed with construction planned for summer of 2012. This is not restoration to historic conditions but enhancement to create new habitat on the Dry Creek main stem taking advantage of continuous flow of cold water from the dam. The plan is to enhance a further three miles of stream by 2018 and to then judge success. If this is found successful, an additional three miles of enhancements will be constructed. If unsuccessful, work will begin on final environment review, engineering and construction of a bypass pipeline to allow SCWA to deliver water to their customers with reduced summer flows in Dry Creek.

At any rate, all this makes Dry Creek and its tributaries vital to the effort to ensure the survivability of the salmon and trout. Tributaries to Dry Creek, as shown on the map below, include Wine, Dutcher, Peña, Grape, Fall, Schoolhouse, and Crane Creeks.

Drycreek

Quivira led the way over a decade ago in participating in this habitat restoring and preservation effort. In 1996, former Quivira owner Henry Wendt met Bob Coey, a senior biologist for the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG), at a seminar on restoration. Coey then visited Quivira, where he identified the rare presence of Coho salmon in Wine Creek. Quivira and the DFG initiated a restoration project, for which Quivira put up money and pulled out healthy vines to allow for stream bank restoration. Restoration techniques include using excavators, boulders, living willow mats and fallen trees. Inspired by the discovery of the salmon there, the DFG started approaching other property owners about a multi-phase plan to clean up Wine Creek. In 2006, Pete Kight purchased Quivira from the Wendts, and has continued the restoration and fish friendly farming practices.

Michel-Schlumberger is the last winery at the top of Wine Creek, with 90 acres bordering the creek. Winemaker Michael Brunson has overseen the Fish Friendly Farming certification process and is implementing a riparian revegetation and invasive non-native plant control project on Wine Creek. Among other things, they use cover crops and straw in muddy areas to prevent run-off into the creek. Minimizing mowing and using goats for weed control also helps prevent soil erosion. Michael explained to us how the use of skim milk sprays and compost teas to control powdery mildew, instead of copper, has been very successful in controlling the mildew and in preventing the copper, which is highly toxic to fish, from contaminating the creek.

Other wineries and vineyards that have been particularly active in the habitat restoration and fish friendly farming effort—in part through cover crops and instituting hedgerows, which act as barriers and prevent runoff–have been Ferrari-Carano, Polesky-Lentz, Preston, the Beckman and Keegan ranches, and Ridge Vineyards’ Lytton Estate East Ranch.

Kachina

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Greg Chambers and his wife Nancy are the owners and winemakers at Kachina. Nancy makes the white wines and Greg is the winemaker for the reds. They produce about 1500 cases a year, which includes their Dry Creek Valley Chardonnay, a Cabernet, a Zinfandel Port, a Charbono, and a Russian River Chardonnay. They grow 10-20% of the fruit they use and buy the rest. Their new winery needed to be powered, and they decided to make it self sustaining. It runs on solar energy, storing power in batteries to run things in the evening. They thought they might need a generator to run everything during harvest, but found that they are able to run their house and winery, including the crusher, destemmer, presses and everything, on the stored power. They have a well down on the bench and pump water up the hill for irrigation. They are installing pipes to generate additional hydropower from the gravity used to irrigate. They are also looking at taking the rain run off from the roof and doing the same thing. They planted Zin for the port, and generally don’t harvest it until November.

  • 2008 Kachina Vineyards Chardonnay – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Medium yellow color; a little oxidized, sherried, tart citrus nose; oxidized, lightly sherried, tart citrus, lemon palate; medium finish (barrel aged in French oak, 70% new and 30% 1 year old) (87 pts.)
  • 2007 Kachina Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Opaque purple red violet color; primary, grapey, black fruit, tar nose; ripe, tight, tart berry, tart black fruit, tar, structured palate; needs 4-5 years; medium-plus finish (with 5% Syrah) (88 pts.)

Michel-Schlumberger

Michael Brunston originally started at Michel-Schlumberger as assistant winemaker and vineyard manager. He took over the position of winemaker in 2004. That is also when the winery started its conversion to organic farming. Michael told us that one of the reasons they adopted organic farming is that they truly believe it results in tastier fruit. They farm about 85 acres on two properties, with a total of 15 different varietals, from Pinot Blanc to Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and even Pinot Noir. Michael explained that the milk sprays they use instead of copper to control mildew cost 65% less than man-made products. Strauss Family Creamery is really happy about it. The sprays have been particularly helpful in a cool and overcast season like this when there has been much greater mildew pressure than normal. Michael told us that 2011 so far has been the most challenging vintage of any he has worked, now 23 vintages. There were rains during bloom that created some shatter. There have also been 36 days of constant mildew stress.

  • 2010 Michel-Schlumberger Pinot Blanc – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Light yellow color; light, oily, light peach nose; soft, lightly oily textured, fresh, light, ripe grapefruit, tart peach palate; short-medium finish (89 pts.)
  • 2008 Michel-Schlumberger Cabernet Sauvignon Dry Creek Valley – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Dark purple red violet color; brett, tart black fruit nose; brett, tart berry, unbalanced, tannic palate with medium acidity; short-medium finish (81 pts.)

Quivira

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Hugh Chappelle, formerly at Flowers, is winemaker at Quivira. Hugh asserted that biodynamic farming has enable Quivira to achieve greater phenolics at lower sugar levels. Biodynamic producers are not allowed to add or change things much when the grapes come in—e.g., no acidulation and limited fining agents–so they have to be more active in the vineyard to get the raw material needed there. Part of biodynamics, as opposed to organics, is the heightened emphasis on biodiversity and sustainability. They need the chickens, cows and other crops, their materials and waste products, to be truly biodynamic. Almost all of their preparations are now made in-house, which would be impossible to do if you’re a monoculture. In the video below, Hugh talks further about the challenges and benefits of biodynamic farming, and about the particular difficulties of growing and ripening Zinfandel.

  • 2010 Quivira Sauvignon Blanc Fig Tree – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Very light yellow color; intensely smoky, lemon grass nose; tasty, complex, tart grapefruit, lemon grass, minerally palate with medium acidity; medium-plus finish (one of the best California Sauvignon Blancs I’ve tasted this year; 80% stainless steel, 20% neutral French oak and acacia barrels; no malolactic) (92 pts.)
  • 2009 Quivira Grenache Wine Creek Ranch – USA, California, Sonoma County, Dry Creek Valley
    Medium cherry red color with 1 millimeter clear meniscus; smoke, charcoal nose; sharp attack, light-medium bodied, tart red fruit, cranberry, mineral palate with near medium acidity; needs 1-2 years; medium finish (95% Grenache, 5% Mourvedre; aged in 500 liter oak puncheons and large foudres) (87 pts.)
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One Response to Visit to Dry Creek Valley Part II: Organic and Fish Friendly Farming

  1. Great post Richard! Lots of great info! Quivira is one of my faves in Dry Creek Valley. I especially like the Fig Tree SB you rated 92pts. I also enjoyed the Rosé, and a few others.

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