In the second week of March, new Pinot Noir shoots were beginning to come out on the hilltops of Peter Work’s 25 acres of wine grapes in the Santa Rita Hills at the western end of the Santa Ynez Valley in northern Santa Barbara County. That was a week after bud break, which started some 10 to 15 days earlier than average, he reports.
Meanwhile, with his Grenache starting to swell up, he was expecting bud break in those blocks to start the third week of March. At that rate, bud break should start in his Syrah and Viognier the last week of the month.
“This season is starting about the same time as last year, when January and February temperatures were also warm,” says Work.
He aims to produce yields in his Pinot Noir blocks of 2 tons to 2½ tons per acre. Last year he surpassed that goal. In fact, both tonnage and quality of the grapes harvested here and elsewhere in the Central Coast in 2014 benefitted from very favorable growing conditions.
“Last year was a dream year for both farmers and wine makers,” Work says. “With no weather surprises, we had a really high-level crop. I spent more money than ever for labor to thin shoots and clusters and do a lot more fine tuning in the vineyard, but I also got our highest yields ever.
He planted the first of his Ampelos Cellars vines near Lompoc, Calif., in 2001. Five years later he began implementing biodynamic and organic farming practices, becoming a certified organic and biodynamic vineyard in 2009. The previous year he took part in the pilot program for Sustainability in Practice (SIP) implemented by the Central Coast Vineyard Team. Now, he is going through the Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing program implemented by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. This organization was created by the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG) to promote farming practices that protect both natural and human resources.
In February of this year, Work was elected to the board of directors of the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance “I’d like to see every vineyard in California certified SIP Sustainable,” he says.
Work’s sustainable farming practices include the use of solar energy to run all electrically-powered equipment in his vineyard operations and compost made entirely from materials produced in the vineyard.
He’s been growing winter cover crops in his vineyards to conserve soil, improve soil structure and enhance soil fertility for the past decade. Following harvest, he seeds a mix of nitrogen-fixing legumes (fava beans, oats, rye, sweet peas and vetch) in between each row of vines. With adequate rainfall, as this past winter, these crops can grow as high as six feet, Work notes. Once 75 percent of the vetch has flowered, he mows the plants and disks them into the soil. This year he finished doing that in early March.
“As a certified organic vineyard, we don’t want to use any artificial fertilizers,” he says. “But since we’ve been growing cover crops, we haven’t needed to add any.”
Chickens play a role in Work’s use of natural fertilizers as well as controlling obscure mealybugs in some of his fields. He’s placed a total of 100 chickens among three coops spaced over a five-acre area of mealybug populations.
The mealybugs aren’t a serious problem for him, Works explains. The chickens control them by eating ants, which seek out the honeydew produced by the mealybugs, he explains. Controlling ants this way allows natural parasites and predators to help keep the mealybugs in check.
Work irrigates his vineyard with a drip system drawing water from two wells. However, this year, he will begin a trial project on about 2 acres of his vineyard to grow grapes without irrigation, relying entirely on rainfall to water his fields. “I’ve talked with several wine grape growers about their experience with dry farming and will try some of their practices,” Work said. “It’s part of a plan to transition all of the vineyard, eventually, to what could be a much drier future.”
In another new twist to the 2015 season, Work will harvest grapes from a small block of Riesling vines he planted in 2013. They are irrigated with drip lines and sprinklers that he and his wife, Rebecca, installed. Similar to the vineyards clinging to steep hillsides in Europe, like those along the Mosel River in Germany or the Cinque Terre on the northwest coast of Italy, these vines are growing on 45- to 50-degree slopes. Terraces, no wider than about 1½ feet, provide the only access to the vines, which are planted every 2½ feet apart within rows and 3 feet apart between rows.
Instead of using a trellis system with cordons trained along wires, the vine trunks and shoots grow on two stakes tied together at the top – a style termed echalas, from the French word for stake, Work notes.
“Instead of growing grapes on a boring flat piece of ground, we wanted a challenge,” he says. “Once we realized the opportunity this hillside offered, we fell in love with it.”