Off the Vine: Wineries grow more than just grapes

July 11, 2012 

Lore has it that the Franciscan Friars tossed mustard seed as they were exploring the west coast of California in order that their followers could navigate their paths. While beautiful, some environmentalists complain that the plant is not indigenous to the state. But during the winter months, the wild mustard growing in the vineyards makes it beautiful to drive through the different wine regions of California.

Throughout the world's wine regions, various plants, and even weeds, play a major role in the health of the vines and soil. In addition to the wild mustard that grows naturally, some wineries also seed their vineyards with vegetation such as native grasses, legumes and even cultivated mustard. These cover crops are planted to control soil erosion, suppress weeds, improve water penetration, and to attract beneficial insects and spiders.

Although cover crops have been used in California, since the early 1900s, they fell out of favor in the 1940s and '50s as commercial fertilizers became affordable. The use of cover crops became more prevalent starting in the mid-1980s when wineries were trying to become more self-sustaining and produce wines using organic farming methods.

Schweiger Vineyards is on top of Spring Mountain on 60 acres that have been family owned since 1960. The winery is owned by Fred and Sally Schweiger and their two children, Andrew and Diana, play major roles in the daily operation. The Schweiger family believes that sustainability is more than a way of farming -- it is a way of

life. They have installed solar panels which provide 100 percent of their electrical needs. A new winery was built in 2002 and the barrel room is underground so there is no need for refrigeration. The family elected to only clear 60 percent of their land leaving redwoods, firs and oaks for future generations.

The vineyards' source of water for agricultural purposes comes from natural springs and a hand-dug well. Water is only used to irrigate young vines and once the vines reach 5 years of age, they are dry farmed. Due to the mountainous environment, the grapevines struggle for water and other nutrients, causing their roots to travel about 20-feet deep into the rich volcanic soil that is found in the Schweiger Vineyards. This creates a smaller crop than normal, resulting in smaller grapes, but with much more intense flavors in the fruit.

Some vineyard managers' plant rose bushes at the end of the rows of vines to detect a powdery mildew fungus. Roses shows signs of infection at an earlier stage than grape vines, allowing for more efficient treatment of the vines prior to becoming infected. If left untreated, powdery mildew contaminates the vines, and can cause smaller stunted berries, lower sugar content and even off-flavors in the finished product -- wine. Not only do the roses provide some beauty at the end of the rows, they also help protect the vines from disease.

Next time you visit a winery, take a look at all the different plants that grow in and near the vineyards. If you ask the tour guide the purpose of each plant, you will be surprised at how far sustainable farming stretches.

Jim Rawe, a family attorney in Bradenton, is an avid collector of fine wines. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at jimrawe@gmail.com.

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