An organization formed nearly 15 years ago as a way to find ways to better treat the soil in the Walla Walla Valley is morphing into a system that is better suited to the environment of this region.
Vinea: The Winegrowers’ Sustainable Trust began in 2002 as a way for grape growers and winemakers to sustainably produce wine with the environment in mind.
“We’d already started farming sustainably, so we decided to get a group together to seek certification,” said Jean-François Pellet, winemaker and partner in Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars in the southern Walla Walla Valley. Pellet also co-owns Octave Vineyard near Milton-Freewater.
Among Vinea’s early stakeholders were Rick Small of Woodward Canyon Winery in Lowden; Norm McKibben of Pepper Bridge Winery and Amavi Cellars; Tom Waliser of Beresan Winery; and Rick Trumbull of Sustainable Soil Solutions.
Many of these wine-industry leaders already were using compost and other methods to help keep the soils beneath their all-important vineyards safe and healthy, but they also wanted direction from an organization that already was working with vineyards in the Northwest. So they turned to Low Input Viticulture and Enology (LIVE), an organization based in Salem, Ore., that has certified more than 300 vineyards and nearly 50 wineries since it launched in 1999.
Today, 10 Walla Walla Valley vineyards are LIVE certified, as are three wineries (Amavi, Pepper Bridge and Northstar).
But one drawback of LIVE is it’s based in the heart of the Oregon wine industry, and its standards and certifications are geared toward a cooler, wetter climate. While this is not difficult to overcome, the Vinea group sees it as a bit of a barrier to broader participation by the Walla Walla Valley’s 100-plus wineries and 2,836 acres of wine grapes.
“Our intent is to take the soil and turn it into something better than when we arrived,” said Pellet, a Swiss-born winemaker who worked in the German, Swiss and Spanish wine industries before coming to the United States. After working in California, he was lured to the Walla Walla Valley in 1999 to help launch Pepper Bridge. He has since become a partner in Artifex, a multi-winery winemaking facility in Walla Walla.
Today, Pellet and his group are working to establish a new set of guidelines for sustainable grape growing and winemaking for the Walla Walla Valley in particular, and Eastern Washington in general. It will be called Walla Walla Certified Sustainable. He is working closely with Kevin Scribner, Vinea’s business manager.
“LIVE is great in the Willamette Valley, which has a different climate than Eastern Washington,” Pellet said. “Our intent is for LIVE certified to become Walla Walla Sustainable Certified. LIVE was a great start for us.”
Pellet said the new certification will remain closely allied with LIVE. He pointed out he stopped using herbicides many years ago and works a lot with composting, compost teas and worm castings.
“We are working to introduce microbes into the soil to make it healthier,” he said. “It’s not all perfect, but we’re going in the right direction.”
It is difficult to measure exactly how beneficial the changes are in the short term, but Pellet said he already is noticing differences in the estate vineyards he works with in the southern Walla Walla Valley.
“Our vineyards seem to be able to handle warm and cool events a little better,” he said.
Pellet said the soil also holds water more effectively now than it did just a few years ago.
“We feel the soils are better now,” he said. “It’s a little hard to judge, but we see the soils as more alive. Hopefully, it will translate to be a better place for the grapes and wines.”
The effort to transition to Walla Walla Certified Sustainable began last year, and it has been a big undertaking to come up with guidelines that make sense to grape growers and also have enough teeth to benefit the environment. One of the difficulties is making the guidelines work for multi-crop farmers.
“When you enroll, you have to have your whole farm in it,” Pellet said. “Multi-crop farmers just can’t always do that. It’s a pretty big commitment.”
So for now, the focus is on wine grapes, but Pellet and the Vinea group have a long-term vision of other crops having similar certifications.
Pellet also sees Walla Walla Certified Sustainable being easily transferrable to other wine regions in Washington. It isn’t difficult for him to imagine Yakima Valley Certified Sustainable, Red Mountain Certified Sustainable or Horse Heaven Hills Certified Sustainable — all areas where Walla Walla Valley winemakers also source grapes.
“We’ve talked about it within our group already,” he said. “More people using it is good. We want other areas to use it.”
While Walla Walla Certified Sustainable will initially apply to vineyards only, Pellet and McKibben are pushing ahead to make other areas of their winemaking operation environmentally friendly. In March, they installed 370 solar panels at their production facility. The 100-kilowatt system should be able to handle 65 percent to 70 percent of Pepper Bridge Winery’s electrical needs.
“We try to improve a little every year,” Pellet said.