In 2014, Karissa Kruse, the president of the trade group Sonoma County Winegrowers, announced a goal for Sonoma County to become the first 100% certified sustainable wine region. As lofty as it sounded, a lot of people were committed to the concept. From grape growers to vintners, sustainability has long been part of the soul—and survival—of this remarkable place.
Sonoma County is a vast region of more than one million acres. Just 6% of the land is planted to wine grapes, the majority of which is managed by family farmers. Those grapes are sold to more than 425 local wineries, as well as many outside of the county. The hugely valuable crop has kept the area grounded in agriculture and lessened the threat of housing and commercial development.
Ultimately, sustainability in this industry involves land, people and business in harmony. Thanks to the help of a few inspirational advocates with an understanding of each, Sonoma was able to reach 99% of its goal in 2019. Read on to learn more about some of these leaders’ quests to make Sonoma County’s sustainability a success.
Terra de Promissio vineyard and Land of Promise wines
A native of the former Soviet Union, Karren studied at the University of Pennsylvania’s esteemed Wharton School. In 1998, she met her husband, Charles, an American, while working on a project near the Caspian Sea. The two were engaged a year later and began searching Sonoma County for property of their own.
They eventually found a 50-acre, cool-climate ranch near Petaluma, which they planted to Pinot Noir.
They added 33,000 vines in 2002, but, as luck would have it, soon found themselves facing a host of unexpected expenditures in order to comply with new legislation. They could no longer afford labor, so Karren’s parents and sister moved from Russia to help manage the vineyard. They would later plant another 18,000 vines between 2012 and 2013.
“To me, the most important aspect of sustainability is being humble and recognizing we are temporary stewards of the land that was entrusted to us,” says Karren. “There is something very special about the relationship between vines and a grape grower. With different challenges each year, this relationship strengthens. Terroir is a concept that encapsulates this idea of intimacy in its most fundamental form.”
Three generations of family members currently live on Terra de Promissio. Karren believes that sustainability amounts to the search to minimize impact on the environment, to foster a nurturing habitat for wildlife, take care of vineyard workers and maintain a business that can be passed down to the next generation.
“Our family lives in a barn,” she says. “Our children observe what we do, and we have to lead by example. We constantly ask ourselves, ‘What can be recycled? What can be repurposed?’ ”
The Karrens sell grapes to an array of fine-wine producers, including Williams Selyem, Dutcher Crossing and Senses. Since 2013, Karren has also sourced grapes from Terra de Promissio to make her own wines, named Land of Promise, an homage to her own pursuit of the American dream.
“What I love about America is its focus on caring for the environment,” says Karren. “One of the most important issues is survival of the American family farm.”
Bevill Vineyard Management
Involved in Sonoma County agriculture since 1973, Bevill is a leading member of Sonoma County Winegrowers. He was instrumental in helping to push the idea to become 100% certified sustainable.
His company, Bevill Vineyard Management, oversees vineyards across the county for an array of notable wineries, but Bevill and his wife, Nancy, also own and lease 80 acres in the Dry Creek and Russian River valleys.
Dry Creek Valley was the first place Bevill landed, taking a summer job in viticulture. The appellation’s old-time farmers inspired him to put down roots in Sonoma County, just as it was becoming a premium region for wine grapes.
“In the early ’70s, some had dairy, grapes, prunes and pears on the same farm, so you had your bills paid and your labor working throughout the year,” says Bevill. “Agriculture was diversified, but grapes got to be so good by the 1980s, you were one crop only. Grapes become more valuable than dairy.”
“Labor’s not available like it used to be. A generation of workers is gone.” –Duff Bevill, Bevill Vineyard Management
Although diversification might be the key to sustainability going forward, Bevill is currently most worried about the labor required to farm these high-value grapes.
“Labor’s not available like it used to be,” he says. “A generation of workers is gone.”
Bevill believes that mechanization to supplement a stable work force will become key, and he wants to be ahead of the curve. He approximates that a mechanical harvester can do the work of 50 people, as long as the land is set up correctly. Right now, he says he can only mechanize 40% of what he farms.
“On a hill or terrace, a lot of these vineyards break the rules of sustainability,” he says. “They’re not sustainable at all. They’re likely never to be made efficient, and at some point, we won’t be able to afford to farm those locations anymore.”
A long-term view is essential.
“You’ve got to change with the times,” says Bevill. “The last old plow horse got replaced with a tractor. There’s still too much infrastructure in place that requires labor. The process is already starting. Challenges trigger fresh thinking on how to do better.”
Dutton Ranch and Dutton-Goldfield Winery
The first Dutton Chardonnay vineyard in the Russian River Valley was planted in 1967, the same year Steve Dutton was born. It was a time when wine grapes were not a given, and that foresight has served the family well.
Dutton represents the fifth generation of his family to farm here, and today, Dutton Ranch is a collection of around 60 distinct parcels, about 1,300 acres in total, all owned, leased or managed by the family. While approximately 1,150 of those acres are planted to wine grapes, the other 150 or so grow Gravenstein apples.
The Dutton family was also one of the area’s premier apple farmers, and growing both fruits throughout the Russian River Valley, Green Valley and Sonoma Coast appellations is a tradition they are proud to continue. Their apple orchards are certified organic, and the vineyards are 100% sustainable, many of them dry-farmed.
Steve Dutton sees labor as one of the biggest sustainability challenges. Recently, he invested nearly $1 million to build a 37-person bunkhouse to comply with the H-2A temporary agricultural worker program, which allows foreign nationals into the U.S. to work, but, among other regulations, requires employers to provide no-cost housing.
“I don’t see any other way than H-2A,” says Dutton.
“A big part of sustainability is how to stay in business and have viable ranches and businesses for our kids to inherit one day.” –Steve Dutton, Dutton Ranch and Dutton-Goldfield Winery
Dutton, like Bevill, is increasingly looking into mechanization in his vineyards and orchards.
“That will be our future,” he says. “A big part of sustainability is how to stay in business and have viable ranches and businesses for our kids to inherit one day, and we’re late to this [mechanized] game.”
Dutton knows that adaptation is vital, and what might be a valuable crop today could change.
“If there’s another crop that’s federally legal and viable, I’m not opposed to it,” he says. “We would figure it out. I don’t ever want our farmland to turn into houses or ranchettes, because that never goes back into ag.”
No matter the crop, Dutton believes that long-term partnerships between grower and buyer are paramount to sustainability. He sells grapes to 70 wineries, and, though 2019 was a tough year due to increased supply and lower demand, none of his grapes went unsold.
“We have a true partnership with our wineries,” says Dutton. “We’re not taking advantage of a buyer, and we’re growing grapes they want. Being sustainable means reinvesting in your long-term partnerships.”
Headquartered in Lodi, Vino Farms manages around 16,000 acres across California, including about 6,000 acres of wine grapes in Napa and Sonoma, planted across 100 vineyards. The third-generation family grower sells its grapes to about 120 of the state’s wineries.
Ledbetter-Foster has worked for the business since 2006, and she’s currently based in Santa Rosa as the vice president of operations for the North Coast, in addition to serving as treasurer for Sonoma County Winegrowers.
Vino Farms has been committed to sustainable practices for some time. Throughout the Lodi and San Joaquin area, the business has been updating its tractors, installing solar arrays to work irrigation pumps and implementing integrated pest management. The family was also integral in the creation of the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing program.
Ledbetter-Foster’s grandfather, Keith, started Vino Farms in Lodi during the 1970s, and today, the business is a whole-family affair. Her father, Jim, and his older brother, John, run the company alongside their children. Over the years, the family has expanded operations into Napa, Sonoma County and beyond.
“We call ourselves ‘G3,’ [the] third generation,” she says. “We want to continue the legacy. We try to be as economic as possible, though the climate of our state makes it hard to be economically sustainable.”
Some of the obstacles include the area’s high cost of living and the related difficulty to find skilled labor.
“With sustainability, the challenge is labor and people,” she says.
For its part, the family has continually sought ways to provide worker housing. It built four 38-person houses for workers in the late 1990s. Last year, Ledbetter-Foster began to find labor through the H-2A program and filled two of those houses. She estimates Vino Farms employs up to 200 full-time employees in the North Coast alone and needs an additional 100-plus seasonal field workers every year.
“Right now, the H-2A is working wonderfully,” says Ledbetter-Foster. “We used to be able to find 100% of our own domestic labor, but that generation retired and the younger generation wants more, they’re going to school, etc. We have domestic labor challenges from competing industries.”
The Mauritson family has farmed in Sonoma County since 1868. Its own grapevines were first planted in 1884, in the wilds of what’s now the Rockpile appellation, where the founders began to carve out an impressive living.
By the early 1960s, the operation had grown to 4,000 acres when all but 700 acres were taken by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to help develop Lake Sonoma. Sheep were put on what land remained, and the family worked to acquire farmland elsewhere.
“We do a disservice to sustainability if it’s [about] the environment only. It’s paying a living wage. If you take care of your people, they stay with you.” –Clay Mauritson, Mauritson Wines
Mauritson, who represents the sixth generation of the family business, began working in 1997 after graduating college, where he played outside linebacker for the University of Oregon. He was the one who pushed the company to expand beyond grape farming and into winemaking.
“Vertically integrating allows us to be sustainable,” he says. “We are a multigenerational business that has evolved.”
That includes an understanding of the key role that employees play in sustainability.
“You can’t prune every grapevine, you can’t be on every tractor,” he says. “Employees are your first line of defense and have institutional knowledge. Tenured employees understand your core values.”
Those values are handed down to their customers, too. Mauritson believes they voice their opinions with their wallets if they don’t feel a winery or vineyard operation is respectful.
“Ignorance is not bliss,” he says. “We all have access to so much information. We have the unbelievable ability to support people doing it right and not support people doing it wrong. As a wine producer, we now have a touch point. We can convey our message with a higher level of accountability. We don’t have anything to hide.”
He feels the element of sustainability that takes care of people is increasingly crucial.
“We do a disservice to sustainability if it’s [about] the environment only,” he says. “It’s paying a living wage. If you take care of your people, they stay with you.”
In the end, like many farming families in Sonoma County, they’ll figure out a way through both good times and bad.
“The land has sustained our family and nothing more until 1968,” says Mauritson. “Take care of it, and it’ll take care of you. Just make sure the land is in the most sustainable state possible. We see the big picture.”
In the Russian River Valley, Lynmar Estate has been a family farm for 50 years, first planted to wine grapes in the 1970s.
Today, owners Lynn and Anisya Fritz run the property with sustainable practices and sell most of their wine direct to consumers. Their beautiful site includes an expansive tasting room with ample food-pairing options largely sourced from on-site gardens.
They’ve taken a holistic approach to managing the carbon footprint across all their crops. Perennial grasses that require almost no maintenance, mowing or weeding grow in the vineyards to inhibit weed growth, while cover crops help with erosion and water-holding capacity in the soils. As a result, 70% of the vines are dry-farmed. The gravity-flow winery, meanwhile, keeps water and electricity waste to a minimum.
Lynmar is currently on its second 30-year plan to grow the business while practicing sustainability in every facet of growing, making and selling wine. This includes the people that keep it going.
“We have a relationship model with our customers,” says Fritz. “It’s a shared-value system. As a family-owned business, everyone who works here and who buys our wine becomes part of the family.”
Full-time vineyard, garden and kitchen teams work year-round and receive benefits. There’s also bimonthly paid training on a range of subjects available to the hospitality staff. Their congenial relationship extends so far into their customer base that many children of wine club members are now becoming members themselves.
This sort of connection to people extends to the surrounding community, too.
“Our neighbors and employees are our partners and are given access to bring their families, pick the fruit from our gardens and walk the property,” says Fritz. “During the fires of 2017, this was the first place many of our neighbors, club members and employees who had been evacuated turned to.”