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
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
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 production.
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.
According 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," Phil said.
|"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
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
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
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 olive oil."
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
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.