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Lodi Vineyards Transition to Biodynamic Practices

Vino Farms Plans to Certify 40 Acres
by Ted Rieger
September 20, 2021
Vino Farms viticulturist Chris Storm overlooking The Bench Vermentino vineyard in
transition to become Lodi's first Biodynamic certified vineyard. Photo: Ted Rieger

Over the past three years, Vino Farms, Inc. based in Lodi, California has been converting select vineyards to Biodynamic ™ (BD) farming practices. Pending approval of its certification application, expected to be submitted to Demeter USA before the end of 2021, Vino Farms will have nearly 40 vineyard acres certified to BD standards. This would be the first vineyard acreage within the Lodi American Viticultural Area (AVA) to achieve such certification, in a region where vineyards are more commonly managed under the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, or using conventional farming practices.

With offices in Lodi and Healdsburg, Vino Farms is a multi-generational farming operation owned and operated by the Ledbetter family since the 1970s. The company manages or owns nearly 16,000 acres of vineyards in California including 5,300 acres in the Lodi region. Vino Farms VP and partner Craig Ledbetter said the move into biodynamics came about after meeting with Ridgely Evers, owner/co-founder of DaVero Farms & Winery in Healdsburg. DaVero Farms specializes in wines made from Italian varieties, currently produced under the Avivo and DaVero labels. Evers is a major proponent of BD practices, with his estate vineyards in Sonoma County certified by Demeter USA since 2012. Evers previously purchased Vermentino produced by another Lodi grower, Schatz Family Farms, until the leased vineyard producing those grapes was no longer available.

Ledbetter said a partnership was developed with Evers, who is interested in increasing case production, and eventually producing a nationally distributed brand of Italian variety wines from BD vineyards. Additional smaller buyers are also interested in Vino Farms' available production.

Ledbetter observed, "I don't see biodynamics taking over our company, but we are willing to provide grapes produced this way for the right buyers for the right price." He added, "We were one of the early adopters of the Lodi Rules program practices and the majority of our vineyards will continue to be certified under Lodi Rules. We are dedicated to farming practices that we think are best for the environment, our company and our people."

Vineyards in Transition for Certification

Vino Farms viticulturist Chris Storm and vineyard manager Mike Harder have been overseeing the vineyard transition process. Storm said the focus has been vineyards producing Italian varieties that are perceived as well-suited for the climate in Lodi, with the ability to produce high quality wines.

The transition acreage includes 33 acres of the white variety Vermentino, farmed in two blocks known as "The Bench Vineyard" within Vino Farms "Grand Vin Lands" property that totals 221 acres. Grand Vin Lands includes a 22-acre riparian restoration project undertaken by Vino Farms beginning in 2007 along the Mokelumne River to remove non-native invasive plants such as "tree of heaven" and replant the riverfront with native species such as cottonwood and oak trees. This project, partly funded with a U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) grant, included planting of a hedgerow with native plants to serve as habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects.

The Bench Vermentino is managed with no-tillage and planted with permanent cover crops that include a grass blend of ryegrass, fescue and brome, and 2 percent wildflowers. Storm said, "We planted a diverse mix of plant species with the cover crops and native riparian and hedgerow plants, that provide year-round flowering to maintain habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects." He added, "I think this all helps with the overall ecology of the vineyard, as we tend not to have bad pest outbreaks or mildew problems, and it supports BD management practices."

With BD practices, only organic pesticides are allowed, but there is a focus on beneficial insect predators. Storm said beneficial green lacewings have been released in the vineyard to combat leafhoppers.

The Bench Vineyard's upper block, planted in 2014 with 039-16 and RS-3 rootstocks on well-drained sandy soils is a  drier site and  tends to produce riper grapes and yields in the range of 8 to 9 tons per acre (TPA). The lower block, planted in 2012 on 5BB rootstock, tends to produce grapes with a crisper "more Sauvignon Blanc character" Storm said, and higher yields in the 10 to 12 TPA range. This lower block nearer the river is within the  floodplain and can flood in high rainfall years. It requires less irrigation in general due to a naturally higher water table.

Weed control and cover crop management incorporate the use of sheep from a local grazing service provider early in the year before budbreak, and for post-harvest cleanup. This provides a component of BD management to include animals in the overall operation. In season under-vine weed control is being done as necessary with in-row weeding tools.

Another vineyard expected to be BD certified is 6-acres of Sangiovese in Vino Farm's River's Edge Vineyard. This is an older vineyard planted in 1995 on 101-14 rootstock. It has been certified under the Lodi Rules sustainable program prior to, and during, transition to BD practices. According to Storm, "This vineyard has always been productive and relatively easy  to farm."

As Storm observed, "BD management involves the use of fewer herbicides and pesticides, and the use of more compost and permanent cover crops with no tillage. These practices are forcing us to do these things and get more comfortable with them, and it hopefully will lead us to incorporate better practices that work into other vineyards we manage." All the vineyards are set up for mechanical harvest, although some sections are hand harvested for wineries that want smaller tonnages.

Wines Produced and Future Plans

The primary winery client for the transition acreage to date is DaVero Farms and Winery. Most of the Vermentino and Sangiovese production has been bottled under the Avivo label priced at about $18/bottle. However, a recently released DaVero label 2020 Favorita Vermentino, produced from The Bench Vineyard and labelled as a vineyard designated wine from "Ledbetter Family Vineyards" is priced at $35/bottle.

Vino Farms plans to transition additional acreage at appropriate sites to help DaVero grow its brands. Up to 18 acres of Syrah at The Bench Vineyard will be grafted to Vermentino for transition. At another vineyard in the Borden Ranch AVA in the northern Lodi AVA, there are plans to graft 17 acres of Petite Sirah to Sangiovese for transition.

Biodynamic Certification and Practices

Vino Farms' certification application will be evaluated by Demeter USA, based in Philomath, Oregon, the official BD certification organization for farms in North America since 1985. Vino Farms staff have been in contact with Demeter USA staff throughout the transition process and incorporated suggested changes to adapt practices as needed. Evers has also provided guidance.

As stated on its website: "Demeter USA is the only certifier for Biodynamic farms and products in America. While all the organic requirements for certification under the National Organic Program are required for Biodynamic certification, the Demeter Standard is much more extensive, with stricter requirements around imported fertility, greater emphasis on on-farm solutions for disease, pest, and weed control, and in-depth specifications around water conservation and biodiversity."  "Biodynamic" and "Demeter" are both registered trademark terms.

BD farming concepts date to the 1920s, originating from the teachings of scientist and philosopher Dr. Rudolph Steiner during a series of lectures he gave to European farmers.  With an emphasis on composting, fertility and the use of natural products, BD practices include the use of a series of specific natural product preparations.

Vino Farms purchases all of the required preparations from The Josephine Porter Institute for Applied Biodynamics, based in Floyd, Virginia, a national producer and distributor of BD preparations since 1985. The nine preparations include three field spray preps--horn manure, horn silica, and horsetail herb; and six different compost preps--yarrow, chamomile, stinging nettle, oak bark, dandelion and valerian.

More than 70 U.S. vineyards and/or wineries are certified by Demeter USA, most of them in California, Oregon and Washington. Notable California vineyards and wineries that are certified include Bonterra Vineyards and Frey Vineyards in Mendocino County, Benziger Family Winery in Sonoma County, Raymond Vineyard and Cellar in Napa County, and Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles.

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