It’s no surprise that the notion of preparedness and designing defensible spaces has made its way into the mainstream vernacular for all members of our community. Since 2017, 60% of the landcover in Napa County has been touched by fire. Across California, over 4.3 million acres of land burned in 2020 alone.
Wildfires may have become the new normal in California, but as a community we can work together to be more resilient and better prepared. To this end, creating fire-ready vineyards and landscapes is essential.
In the aftermath of the 2020 Glass Fire, which burned large swaths of the Viader family’s Howell Mountain estate vineyard, as well as 30,000 surrounding trees, proprietor Delia Viader and her son, grape grower and winemaker, Alan Viader, are rebuilding their estate property through a new lens.
They are preparing for the next fire threat by creating a defensible space that protects their vines and structures and, in circumstances as serious as the Glass Fire, gives firefighters a chance to fend off impending flames safely. And they want to help their wine country neighbors to do the same.
Beautiful and alluring acres upon acres of vineyards along the valley floor and up to the mountains attract many to the Napa Valley to live, work, and visit, and while the tourist economy is going strong it has become increasingly challenging to live and work in the area, motivating many growers in the region to explore alternatives to traditional farming.
Of significant importance to growers is how best to plan for and incorporate sustainable alternatives to traditional agricultural burning in vineyard management. Health and climate change concerns are a crucial part of reevaluating and renovating outdated farming practices. There is clear motivation to implement innovative, community-based solutions to minimize effects on air quality from various sources including transportation, building energy use, wood burning stoves, agricultural practices and more. And after devastating wildfires that have rocked the region and a significantly dry year, growers have more reason to invest in alternatives to traditional agricultural burning.
Napa Valley Grapegrowers (NVG) announces that bud break has begun in Napa Valley. “We’re seeing variable bud break in our chardonnay planted in the Carneros AVA,” said Brittany Pederson, Director of Viticulture for Renteria Vineyard Management, “Within the next week, we’ll begin seeing bud break throughout the valley.”
Pederson added that her water reserves were full in most locations, and while grape growers need rain, she feels good heading into the new season. “Because the soils are dry, we got a head start with floor management this year,” Pederson said, “For example, we’ve been able to mow and disk early, which helps prepare us for frost season.” By mowing and disking cover crop now, soils can hold the necessary heat to keep frost from damaging delicate buds, it also allows for air flow – both of which support a healthy growing season for Napa’s vineyards.
With sustainable practices top-of-mind, many grape growers are also welcoming sheep into their vineyards. As herds graze freely on hearty cover crop, their nutrient-rich manure provides a quick way for grape growers to feed their soils, and an excellent way to reduce the usage of mowers throughout the vineyard.
By Sam Jones
Grape growers in Napa County are constantly looking for innovative ways to decrease waste while increasing productivity in their vineyards, but not all of these methods are high-tech or brand-new. For many, the act of accumulating, turning and spreading compost is a basic but key part of their vineyard management strategy, and has been practiced since ancient civilizations first prioritized agriculture.
“Composting has always been considered key to better farming and is a key practice employed in Napa Valley vineyards,” said Michael Silacci, winemaker for Opus One and president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “When composting is done properly using good management techniques and temperature monitoring, the result is a fine source of nutrients for plants and it has a positive impact on preventing soil erosion by rebuilding soil structure and supporting plant growth.”
By increasing microbial activity in these waste materials – think oak leaves, grape stems, manure – pulled from their property, vintners are able to not only benefit soil health, but also keep as much of its waste on-site as possible.
By Sam Jones
When the winter rains come to Napa Valley, soil erosion is at the top of many viticulturists’ minds. Terracing and other structural changes to the terroir are largely a mitigation method of the past, with many vineyards planting the grassy patches between their rows with mustards, legumes, and grasses as cover crops.
And while the blooming yellows of mustard certainly brighten up Napa’s landscape each year, these widespread plants have important ecological benefits as well.
“It’s all about watershed protection,” said Molly Moran Williams, Industry and Community Relations Director for the Napa Valley Grapegrowers. “Cover crops on hillsides prevent erosion, which, in return, protects our river and watershed.”
“On top of that, in vineyards all over the valley, cover crops add nutrients back into the soil, increase microbiome diversity, and are used widely as a climate-smart farming practice.”
Each year, growers follow standards mandated by Napa County's Conservation Regulations and Erosion Control Plans (ECP) that prevent erosion and promote water security, protecting public health and preserving natural resources. The following is a reminder of the annual requirements for Napa County grape growers:
The County conducts annual randomized inspections to ensure winterization practices are enforced. Individual Erosion Control Plans may be subject to other deadlines and extensions based on individual ECPs.
Since the 2017 fires, Napa County has allowed property owners to delay the application of straw mulch beyond the winterization deadline by submitting a formal winterization extension request for review and approval.
The Napa County Groundwater Sustainability Agency (GSA) is currently developing a Groundwater Sustainability Plan (GSP) for the Napa Valley subbasin with help from a Groundwater Sustainability Plan Advisory Committee (GSPAC), professional technical consultants, a facilitation team, and Agency staff. NVG members are represented on this Advisory Committee by NVG Director, Garrett Buckland.
The GSPAC is hosting two in-person Groundwater Public Meetings to share information about how the plan will affect the community and hear input, especially with future actions the GSA could take to maintain the health and sustainability of the groundwater subbasin.
They encourage the public to participate in one or both of the scheduled times:
First Meeting: Napa Valley College, NVC Little Theater
September 22 | 6pm - 7:30pm
Second Meeting: Napa Valley College, Upper Valley Campus
September 29 | 6pm - 7:30pm
For additional information, visit the GSP website
The Forrestel lab in the Department of Viticulture & Enology at UC Davis is working on a project to update the Winkler Index to include cultivar-specific growth models and site-specific environmental data to create a tool that growers can use to better understand the most important environmental drivers of berry development and chemistry. Recognizing that growers across California continue to reference the Winkler Index, these revisions will improve its usefulness as a tool in viticultural decision-making and may provide guidance for long-term planning in the face of climate change.
The initial focus is on Cabernet Sauvignon in different Napa Valley AVAs. Napa Valley Grapegrowers who are willing to share their weather station data and records related to their Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard sites are invited to participate.
Dr. Patty Skinkis, Oregon State University, and Dr. Markus Keller, Washington State University, along with a multi-institutional research team have launched the High Resolution Vineyard Nutrition Project, which aims to develop methods and tools for vineyard nutrient management. As they start this 4-year project, the first step is to benchmark and understand how grape producers decide to fertilize vineyards and what procedures are being used in vineyard nutrient management.
Napa Valley grape growers, consultants, and vineyard management companies are all invited and encouraged to participate in the survey to ensure that Napa Valley is represented. The survey will gather input on what, how, and why nutrient practices are used in vineyards. Learn more about the project.