The Ingenuity of the Farm Winery

Homemade “chicken tractors” built by owner Lou Preston house the birds in what is essentially a movable chicken coop lacking a floor.
Poke your head into any one of the many outbuildings that pepper Preston of Dry Creek on the northern outskirts of Healdsburg, and you’re likely to find something intriguing going on. An ancient storage shed, for instance, has become a gas station of sorts, filled to the brim with oversized white tanks and a filtration system for used cooking oil that runs the Preston tractors. Behind the winery, next to what is referred to as the “boneyard” of farm equipment parts, rise magnificent mountains of compost – manure, wood chips, and grape seeds, skins, and stems – in various stages of decomposition.
Preston may have begun as just a vineyard in 1973, where grapes were planted “fencerow to fencerow,” but it has since evolved into a full-fledged diversified farm and a cutting-edge environmental laboratory, where farm operations (crops and livestock) are integrated with the vineyard in creative ways that benefit the health of one another. For example, chickens aren’t just there to lay eggs to sell at the market. They are brought into vineyards to play the role of pest managers and enhance the soil through free-foraging. At Medlock Ames winery, on the opposite edge of Healdsburg, wild owls are taken advantage of for similar pest management.
The two wineries are part of a small but growing group of winemakers here in Sonoma County who have changed the ways they manage their land, eschewing conventional agricultural techniques because they believe winemaking should be understood as part of a larger sustainable ecosystem.
Flowers, like these dahlias, also create an ideal habitat for Front Porch Farm’s honeybees
“The conventional approach had scorched the earth,” says Farm Manager Johnny Wilson of Front Porch Farm, located along a wild stretch of the Russian River, due east of Healdsburg. When owners Peter and Mimi Buckley founded the idyllic 110-acre property nestled in a pocket valley along the banks of the Russian River, it was planted out with chardonnay. “There was no diversity and no life, and many of the vines in the bottomlands were not thriving,” Wilson says. The result: a vineyard dependent upon fossil fuels, heavy water usage, fertilizers, and other chemical inputs to increase yield and protect crops from blight and pests.
So they ripped out the vines and planted heirloom grains, in addition to new Central and Southern Rhone varietals. The beauty of these heirloom Italian grains is that they further increase the genetic diversity on the farm, making the larger food shed less susceptible to any given hardship, such as drought or blight. Meanwhile, these unique grains favored by locally renowned chefs are easy to sell, increasing overall farm profit.
But oftentimes, the plants have additional functions in the ground. Before they are sold for wedding and restaurant arrangements, Front Porch’s two acres of bouquet flowers – everything from roses to wild grasses and wildflowers, like lupine – attract “beneficial” insects to pollinate nearby orchards and food crops and to eat destructive “bad bugs.” Similarly, at Preston, the use of hedgerows that consist of native plants, like California Lilac and Coyote Bush, border fields and vineyards for wind protection and act as an alternative food source for creatures that may otherwise help themselves to the crops. This approach of “integrated pest management” helps the farms produce more without the use of chemicals. And the prevention of chemical runoff was one of Front Porch Farm owners’ main concerns as the Russian River borders the northern edge of the farm.
Sheep are invited to graze on vineyard weeds. It’s a natural symbiotic relationship, where the animals receive fresh air, exercise, and food, while the land thrives.
Just east of Front Porch on Bell Mountain in the southeast end of Alexander Valley, Medlock Ames has become a paragon on ecological health, reserving a full 80 percent of the land for wild flora and fauna, while the remaining 20 percent support olives, vegetables, and cabernet, merlot, and sauvignon blanc vines. “The vast majority of our 338-acre property has been kept in its natural state of oak woodlands, grasslands, and chaparral,” says Ames Morison, who co-founded the winery with his college best friend, Chris James, after working with the Peace Corps on a community agriculture project in Guatemala. “Those woods create a resiliency on our property, maintaining aquifers and soils, and attracting good predators,” adds Morison, who speaks like a wildlife biologist (as he has worked closely with many since founding his winery) but just happens to be a winemaker.
For example, Morison and James have placed 60 owl boxes on the property, and each and every one is inhabited. “They are one meter by one meter, and they are all full of pellets, the remains of digested voles and gophers.” Owls, Morison explains, exit their box and always turn right, so he has positioned the boxes to the left of a wooded area with the opening oriented east, which encourages the nocturnal predators to wake up with the rising moon and get to work protecting the vines from hungry critters.
Back at Preston, another kind of bird is hard at work among the vines. Homemade “chicken tractors” built by owner Lou Preston house the birds in what is essentially a movable chicken coop lacking a floor. The contraptions provide shelter, as well as allow free-ranging, where chickens can forage for grass, weeds, and bugs, churn up the soil – all the functions of a modern farm tractor, minus the maintenance and fuel – and provide nitrogen-rich manure wherever they are moved. Sheep are also invited to graze on vineyard weeds, at least until the tender first buds appear, at which point the sometimes overzealous grazers are shuttled to a vine-free meadow. It’s a natural symbiotic relationship, where the animals receive fresh air, exercise, and food, while the land benefits.
So how’s the resulting wine? After all, these are wineries, first and foremost – well, at least that’s how they originally started out. “It is a more complicated, difficult dance,” Preston winemaker Matt Norelli says. “But our wines have more typicity. The zin tastes more like what a zin should taste like from our land. The syrah more like syrah.” Like everything else here, you could say the wine is touched with an interest in earthiness.