The Sonoma Valley of California,
an hour north of San Francisco, is world renowned for its vineyards.
It is picture-postcard beautiful, with roads that wind through
the hills, offering long views and glimpses of rural tranquility.
But it is also an area of intensive agriculture, each acre of
vineyard producing thousands of dollars of value--which are
needed to pay the high cost of taxes and labor in the area.
Real estate has become so valuable that most farmers wouldn't
even think of starting a new farm there.
For the past 25 years Phil Coturri has
been growing grapes and managing vineyards using nothing but
organic techniques. Sixteen years ago, he bought 20 acres
of land near the end of a winding dirt road in Sonoma where
he grows not only certified organic grapes, but also organic
olives for oil.
Phil runs a management company, Enterprise Vineyards, which
grows grapes for Coturri Winery and for other winemakers in
the area who are no longer willing to have fungicides, herbicides
and insecticides sprayed on the grapes they use to make wine.
Phil's brother Tony makes the wine at Coturri Winery.
| [Phil] likes the pea blend because
in addition to fixing nitrogen in the soil, it has a long
bloom period, which attracts beneficial insects. Not only
that, he says, "I like to walk the vineyard in winter
and just graze on them."
Part of Phil Coturri's success with his wine comes from his
lean rocky soil. He does not believe in fertilizing the grapes
with any type of bagged fertilizer, even organic ones. He
feels it promotes fast growth which makes the plants more
susceptible to insects and diseases and compromises the flavors
of the wine.
Instead of using fertilizers, Phil uses cover crops. Most
of the grapes Phil tends are on steep hillsides that have
been terraced. In new fields, Phil plants a mixture of plants
to establish a permanent nitrogen-fixing cover, which also
helps to minimize erosion.
Included in the mix are annual bell beans at a rate of 60
pounds/acre, supplemented by 40-60 pounds of peas/acre. The
bell beans are similar to fava beans, but smaller. The peas
he plants are a blend of Biomaster pea, Austrian pea and Mangus
pea. He likes the pea blend because in addition to fixing
nitrogen in the soil, it has a long bloom period, which attracts
beneficial insects. Not only that, he says, "I like to
walk the vineyard in winter and just graze on them."
In addition to the peas and beans, Phil plants 20-30 pounds/acre
of a cereal grain- either barley, wheat, white oats or Cayuas
oats. This he mows and lets decay, allowing the organic matter
to break down, improving tilth.
Mustard is very beneficial, according to Phil, because it
has a deep tap root to break up compacted soil. It also has
nematicidal qualities, repelling or killing nematodes. He
plants a proprietary mustard known as Mustard Caliente. It
starts blooming in February and blooms for 2-3 months. He
plants 5-7 pounds of mustard per acre.
A reasoned approach to pest management
||One conventional vintner ... sprays
his grapes at night because he doesn't want consumers
to see him spraying: "It's bad for business,"
he said. But Phil Coturri has always been organic, and
he has done just fine without them.
Most wine growers panic at the thought of mildew or molds,
and chemical fungicides are considered a necessary evil. One
conventional vintner I interviewed sprays his grapes at night
because he doesn't want consumers to see him spraying: "It's
bad for business," he said. But Phil Coturri has always
been organic, and he has done just fine without them.
Part of Phil's strategy has involved knowing just how severe
the mildew pressure is during the season. He purchased a high-tech
weather station that keeps track of temperature and humidity
levels. When temperature and humidity climb to a certain level,
he takes action.
Phil has three measures he can take. Probably the most effective
anti-fungal he uses is Serenade, a biofungicide. It is an
OMRI-approved, patented strain of a bacterium, Bacillus subtilis.
It stops spores from germinating, disrupts growth of fungal
germ tubes and mycelia and inhibits attachment of pathogens
to the leaf. It does not adversely affect insects or other
non-target organisms, has a zero-day pre-harvest interval,
and a four-hour re-entry period.
He also uses stylet oil, which serves as a suffocant for
powdery mildew. His spray rigs are equipped with micronized
sprayers that will blend 1 gallon of JMS Stylet Oil with 50
gallons of water.
Elemental sulfur, approved for organic growers, is another
tool Phil uses, albeit reluctantly. He uses it as a dust at
a rate of 10 pounds/acre. It is particularly effective in
getting mildew that lies dormant on the stems of the grapes.
Although elemental sulfur is approved for use by organic growers,
it is still very powerful, and Phil buys top of the line respirators
for his applicators--at a cost of $1,000 each. And he and
his workers stay out of sulfur-sprayed fields for 48 hours.
Although some organic farmers believe that aerobic compost
tea can be used to control mildews and molds, Phil says his
grapes are too high in value to depend on it. He believes
that compost tea has a valuable role to play, however, particularly
in inoculating new soils, or in fields that are in transition
from conventional to organic. "I want to get as much
inoculant out here as possible," he said. He uses it
for fertigation, and sprays it on cover crops, his grape vines
and olive trees.
[Phil] uses Landani tractors,
a small Italian make that can easily negotiate
the terraced hills of vines to mow down the
vegetation. But there is no substitute for hand
labor. In peak season he has up to 50 farm hands.
Phil has a 50 gallon "Growing Solutions" compost
tea brewer, and consults with Dr. Elaine Ingham, the compost
tea guru from Oregon (www.soilfoodweb.com).
He purchases compost from Earthbound Compost of Bodega, Calif.
Their compost is largely derived from dairy manure.
In his tea, Phil uses earthworm castings, minerals, and Microphos,
a finely ground soft phosphate. His soils tend to be low in
phosphorous, he explains, and grapes need phosphorous to ripen
properly. He has found compost tea to be a good way to deliver
it to the plants on time. Over the winter he plans to set
up a 200-gallon brew tank.
Weeds are a problem for any farmer, but probably less so
for Phil than for many because he has kept them under control
for decades, not allowing them to go to seed. Unlike many
grape growers, Phil does not believe in a "bare earth"
approach to growing. He knows that cover crops compete successfully
with weeds, if selected and used properly.
He uses Landani tractors, a small Italian make that can easily
negotiate the terraced hills of vines to mow down the vegetation.
But there is no substitute for hand labor. In peak season
he has up to 50 farm hands, each of whom carries a shovel
or a hoe to slice off noxious weeds when they appear. He sees
no advantage in using herbicides, even ones approved for organic
Doing the math
Phil Coturri manages about 400 acres of grapes each year,
producing 2-3 tons of grapes per acre. Eighty percent of the
grapes are sold to small, upper-end wineries that produce
wines in the $20/bottle range, although some of the better
ones sell for $50/bottle.
to Dan King, wine manager, Coturri syrahs and
merlots are "the richest and most flavorful
organically grown wines I have sampled to date."
Developing new acreage for vineyards in this hilly valley
costs $80,000 to $100,000 per acre, over and above the cost
of land. This includes clearing, terracing, and installing
irrigation systems. The annual costs of growing grapes run
$5,000 to $7,000 per acre. But each ton of grapes produces
about 60 cases of wine, or 720 bottles. In a good year, each
acre can gross up to $40,000 worth of wine on the retail market.
Coturri Winery produces reasonably priced organic wine that
is so good they don't even have to label it as organic. Buyers
want it because of its rich, complex flavors. It was recently
the "buyer's choice" at the wine department in our
local food cooperative in Hanover, N.H.--a store that sells
200 wines or more. According to Dan King, the wine manager,
Coturri syrahs and merlots are "the richest and most
flavorful organically grown wines I have sampled to date.
They are not delicate or refined, but very good nevertheless.
They are meant to drink now, as they have no [added] sulfites."
A California olive oil pioneer
In addition to growing wine grapes, Phil Coturri grows olives
for olive oil. Never one to do things by halves, in 1994 Phil
imported 15,000 olive tree cuttings for propagation. He got
them from Tuscany, Italy, where the climate is similar to
that of the Napa Valley.
Within three years he had propagated 100,000 olive trees
and sold them to farmers all over California, including many
other wine grape growers. Wineries like Jordan and Klein planted
them and began selling olive oil in their tasting rooms.
One of the initial difficulties facing Phil and other olive
oil producers was the lack of processing equipment. There
was just one mill willing to do custom pressing. Before long,
however, supply followed demand, and now there are at least
half a dozen olive oil mills working with area growers.
At first, olives were a trouble-free crop here. But four
years ago the Mediterranean olive fruit fly appeared in California,
and within two years it found Phil's olives. "That year
it decimated crops and I didn't know how to deal with it.
I'm an organic farmer. I've always been an organic farmer.
But if I'd had an atom bomb, I'd have used it on them,"
|"That year [the Mediterranean
olive fruit fly] decimated crops and I didn't know how
to deal with it. I'm an organic farmer. I've always been
an organic farmer. But if I'd had an atom bomb, I'd have
used it on them,"
Phil has used a couple of different approaches to the problem.
First, he uses traps. He uses the sepia trap, which is a bottle
with water and some yeast in it. It has small holes in the
sides, so the flies go in but can't get out. This is a labor-intensive
way to catch fruit flies--especially since Phil has 4,000
olive trees that he tends (both his own and for other people).
Phil now uses an insecticide for fruit flies produced by
Dow AgroSciences that is OMRI-approved for use by organic
farmers. The insecticide is called GF-120 NF, and contains
something called spinosad. Spinosad is produced by growing
a soil actinomycete (Saccharopolyspora spinosa) on a medium,
and fermenting its byproducts using a specific bacteria. The
result is then processed and turned into a highly concentrated
conventional aqueous suspension.
Spinosad is mixed with a bait made of sugar and a protein
byproduct of corn, attracting the fruit flies which ingest
it. It is very fast acting: according to a University of Minnesota
article, cessation of feeding and paralysis occurs within
minutes. Phil explained that they don't have to spray every
tree; just a 3-foot circle of spray on the foliage of every
other tree will do the job.
The good news is that spinosad is not toxic to bees and other
beneficials in the doses used. According to the USDA, spinosad
has not shown any evidence of carcinogenicity in mammals,
and reproductive or developmental toxicity only occurs at
exposures much greater than those which could occur from applications
of spinosad bait spray.
According to Dow AgroSciences, spinosad was the winner of
the 1999 Presidential Green chemistry Challenge Award. Various
other spinosad products have been EPA-approved for use on
cotton, vegetables, flowers and stonefruits.
Spacing, fertility, and climate
Phil plants his olives so that each tree has a 12 foot by
12 foot space, which translates to 200 trees per acre. He
explained that some producers are now keeping trees very small
for ease of harvesting, and are growing on 6' by 8' or even
4' by 8' spacings.
Around each tree Phil creates a donut of compost about four
feet in diameter and four inches deep. This keeps down the
weeds close to the trees and adds organic matter to the soil.
He then mows between the trees to keep weeds down.
||As with his grapes, Phil does not
believe in using bagged fertilizers on his olive trees.
He feels his trees get more balanced growth from nitrogen-fixing
cover crops. And he believes that the more they struggle,
the better the flavor.
As with his grapes, Phil does not believe in using bagged
fertilizers on his olive trees. He feels his trees get more
balanced growth from nitrogen-fixing cover crops. And he believes
that the more they struggle, the better the flavor. If you
add nitrogen, he said, their growth is flabby and more susceptible
to frost or other problems.
Phil does use rock dusts as a soil supplement, however, both
on his grapes and on his olives. Silicaceous rock powders
are believed by many farmers to mimic the remineralization
that occurs when glaciers descend from the north, grinding
rocks into a fine powder that supplies trace minerals. Scientists
have been unable to explain the exact mechanisms by which
rock powders work, just as they are unable to explain how
biodynamic preparations or radionics influence crops.
The rock dust Phil uses is very fine--probably about 200
mesh screening. He gets it from Arizona in one-ton bags. The
micronutrients in the rock dust are thought to be important
for developing resistance to stresses like cold and drought.
Phil uses 300 to 400 pounds of rock powders per acre on both
his olives and in the vineyards.
The hardest part of working with rock powders is deciding
how to apply them. Sometimes during the growing season Phil
will coat the trees using a standard dust applicator. Or he
will mix it in with compost and add it on top of the soil
around trees or vines.
Frost can be a problem. Olive trees withstand temperatures
down to 28 or 29 degrees, but freezes in the low twenties
can do serious damage. That is another reason Phil avoids
fertilizers, since fast growth is more susceptible to frost
damage. His olives are not grafted varieties, but grow on
their own root stocks—so that if a severe cold snap
kills the top of a tree, it can come back from its roots.
Irrigation is used minimally. Olives are very drought resistant,
so Phil waits until after the fruit has set before he adds
any water. He uses a drip irrigation system to avoid wetting
the leaves, which could promote the growth of fungi. Depending
on the weather, Phil provides 25-40 gallons per tree per week
late in the season.
It all comes down to taste
Phil and his wife Arden were some of the original members
of the California Olive Oil Council, and she is now a certified
taster. She explained that there are 25 tasters, and that
they get together to judge olive oils, deciding if an oil
is extra virgin or not. A minimum of eight tasters meet at
any one time. "We are trained to detect defects,"
Arden said. "We are just beginning to start another realm
of tasting - to detect different flavors." She explained
that Mission olives taste totally different from Tuscany olives,
for example. The Board's labeling is primarily a marketing
Phil makes oils from a mixture of green and ripe olives.
This produces rich, pungent oils, although in smaller quantities
than from green olives alone. He likes to start picking in
late October when there is a 50-50 mix of green and ripe olives
on the trees.
"We're getting olive
oils that are world-class olive oils. You come
home and have oil that is within 12 hours old.
There is nothing like the flavor of fresh-pressed
There are as many varieties of olives as there are of apples,
according to Phil. They blend their oils out of different
harvest lots so that the flavors become richer and more complex.
Last year Phil harvested between 1 and 2 tons of olives per
acre. Each ton of olives yields between 20 and 35 gallons
of olive oil. He packages it in 350 ml bottles, which sell
for about $10 each. Even so, according to Phil growing olives
"is the pursuit of a passion more than common sense,"
since they cost $500 per ton to harvest.
Another advantage to growing both olives and grapes is that
it allows him to keep his workers busy all year round. The
olive harvest falls after grape harvest, during a period of
time when he'd otherwise have nothing for his workers to do.
He has a loyal and hard-working crew, and would hate to lose
them by laying them off. So, he said, even if the olives are
just a break-even proposition, they're worth growing.
Phil loves what he does. He's proud of the wines and olive
oil that come from his fields. He loves having both on his
table every night. "We're getting olive oils that are
world-class olive oils. You come home and have oil that is
within 12 hours old. There is nothing like the flavor of fresh-pressed
olive oil." Having sampled both his oil and his wine,
I agree: he should be proud.