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The VineBalance Program

Working toward sustainable viticulture in the Northeast
By J.F. Pirro


Barbara Shinn and David Page met in the San Francisco Bay area, perfect for a couple who would later become grape growers after relocating to the East Coast. First they moved to New York City, and then to Mattituck on Long Island, where their 20 acres of vines at Shinn Estate Vineyards (www.shinnestatevineyards.com) are not only defying the odds, but also raising the bar for the industry.
Barbara Shinn and David Page let
weeds grow as a cover crop under
trellises at Shinn Estate Vineyards.

Barbara Shinn and David Page let weeds grow as a cover crop under trellises at Shinn Estate Vineyards.
Photos courtesy of Shinn Estate Vineyards.

In 2000, the couple began converting a conventional farm into sustainable grape production and started planting vines. The Long Island location has specific environmental concerns and challenges. Since it is surrounded by water, all farms there have a high water table, so nutrient runoff gets into the flow much sooner.

"When we started, this region wasn't very sustainability-savvy," says Shinn. In 2010, they installed a solar and wind power system, making Shinn Estate Vineyards and Farmhouse the first East Coast winery and inn to be powered solely by alternative energy. Shinn adds, "There wasn't much faith that East Coast vineyards could be farmed sustainably. Many grape growers thought that was impossible."

By the middle of last decade, as the vines matured into their earliest harvests, the couple applied and adapted the principles behind VineBalance (www.vinebalance.com), a program involving the efforts of the wine and juice grape industry, Cornell Cooperative Extension, and the New York Department of Agriculture & Markets' Soil & Water Conservation Committee. Its purpose is to define and promote the use of sustainable growing practices on New York's 33,000 acres of vineyards.

The couple began experimenting with unconventional soil fertility practices, using seaweed and compost teas, among other early interventions. They immediately saw a difference in the soil and forged on, leaving herbicides, fertilizers and excessive nitrogen applications behind. They let weeds grow as a cover crop under trellises. They restored an ecosystem. Cornell conducted a two-year experiment and found that there wasn't a nutrient deficiency, despite the traditionally perceived competition under the vines.

Between 2006 and 2008, the most significant growth years of VineBalance, according to Tim Martinson, Cornell senior extension associate and VineBalance program leader, organizers zeroed in further on nitrogen use. VineBalance's questions inspired growers to try reduced rates and later application times. Subsequently, many growers effectively applied one-third the amount they previously did. "That's a real gain, especially for water quality, a real gain and a permanent gain," Martinson says.

It was never partial trial and error at Shinn Estate. Whatever the owner-operators did, they did throughout the vineyard. They learned to trust their instincts and belief in biodynamic farming practices. All of it is a continuum "on our path to make great wine here," Shinn says. "What we've seen on all 20 acres is huge change. To me, it was natural and rhythmical. Our vineyard has reacted."

Barbara Shinn and David Page met in the San Francisco Bay area, perfect for a couple who would later become grape growers after relocating to the East Coast. First they moved to New York City, and then to Mattituck on Long Island, where their 20 acres of vines at Shinn Estate Vineyards (www.shinnestatevineyards.com) are not only defying the odds, but also raising the bar for the industry.

Sustainability fever on Long Island

Together with neighboring Bedell Cellars, Martha Clara Vineyards and Channing Daughters, Shinn Estate began hashing out sustainability standards, adapting VineBalance's 134-question grower self-assessment workbook to their unique ecosystems. Now 10 others - a total of 14 vineyards within a 20-mile radius - have followed suit in Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing (LISW, www.lisustainablewine.org), a direct, nonprofit, education-certification offshoot of VineBalance.

All are in the process of having their first third-party inspections - conducted by Allan Connell, formerly of the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service - for certification and designation as "sustainable" vineyards. Two farm visits are planned, one in prime growing season, July or August, and another by the end of January for more of a sit-down meeting. While there are some sustainable certification programs among grape growers in California and Oregon, LISW is a first on the East Coast.

The movement has even promoted unity among otherwise would-be competitors: "I'm glad to say that here, we all share a desire to have a healthy, clean product," Shinn says. "We're all doing this because it's the right thing to do. There's a core curriculum [the agreed-upon standards], and you need to score an A-plus."

Cornell conducted surveys in tasting rooms and asked about sustainability in light of a popular question: Are you organic? "My interest," Martinson says, "is in figuring out how you could respond to that question."

Martinson developed a brochure to explain in simple scientific terms why sustainability is doable. Three or four pilot wineries are using the brochure.

Shinn expects that others from her region will join the sustainability movement, and she ponders the greater benefit of other East Coast regions following suit. Some neighbors are experimenting this year. "It's entirely doable," she says. "It was a year's work for the four of us, but we changed a region. This is the next step in [growing wine grapes]."

The one likely concern among nonparticipants is simple: Will they get left behind if they don't join in? "It's just a movement," Shinn says. "It's a seal we'll have on our bottles, and it will be great for our region. It provides an identity for our region."

Mowing at the 20-acre Shinn Estate Vineyards
in Mattituck on Long Island, N.Y.

Mowing at the 20-acre Shinn Estate Vineyards in Mattituck on Long Island, N.Y.

VineBalance digs in

The initial push that resulted in the VineBalance workbook came from the juice grape industry, the National Grape Cooperative and the wine grape industry, which had a collective interest in a more sustainable product and demonstrating and documenting it through marketing.

In New York, the challenge is that across the state, growers grow different grapes in different ecosystems: Long Island is characterized by sandy soils, mild winters and exclusively vinifera varieties; the Lake Erie region possesses gravelly loam and clay soils and primarily bulk juice and wine grapes; and the Finger Lakes region has a mix of native, hybrid and vinifera varieties grown predominantly in clay and gravel soils along the steep slopes of the lakes. So how do you create a program that interests and helps all growers?

While statewide agricultural environmental management (AEM) work has existed since 1997, Martinson says the AEM approach pioneered for dairy farms in the New York City reservoir watersheds needed to be adapted to vineyards, particularly around Keuka Lake. In 1997-1998, he developed AEM worksheets for vineyards. Meanwhile, Alice Wise, a viticulturist at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, started a sustainable practices workbook on Long Island. They melded the two together in 2004, when industry groups from throughout the state asked regional cooperative extension grape programs to develop an outreach and education program to promote sustainable viticultural practices in New York.

Throughout the winter of 2005-2006, a steering committee composed of extension, research, industry and grower representatives from the National Grape Cooperative, Centerra Wine Co., and Finger Lakes and Long Island vineyards reviewed and developed proactive questions that encompass the practices used in the varied growing regions of New York.

During the summer and fall of 2006, five growers from each of the three cooperative program areas volunteered to field-test the workbook and provide feedback. Final revisions were made, and in 2007, VineBalance's "New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices Grower Self-Assessment Workbook" was published.

"What we found was that New York growers have been using sustainable practices for years - mulching, cover crop rows in the middle of rows - but the workbook has helped growers look at their entire operation, make changes, and fix where fixing is necessary," Martinson says.

VineBalance aims to promote and document grape production practices that protect the environment, specifically water quality and soil health; protect the health of workers, neighbors and consumers; and increase or maintain the profitability of grape production.

Among the potential benefits for participating growers are eligibility for cost-sharing opportunities for farm improvements through state and federal conservation agencies; increased "sustainable" product marketability; economic and environmental savings through efficient use of fertilizers and agrichemicals; and improved neighbor relations and industry reputation.

Despite what now exists in Long Island, VineBalance itself is not an organic viticulture program with a defined set of allowable and unallowable inputs. In fact, Martinson says Cornell did not want to create dividing lines. "But there's movement within the industry to do this - to put a label on the product," he says.

Instead, VineBalance addresses how all potential production practices impact the environmental, economic and social outcomes on the farm, and how best to maximize the benefits associated with these outcomes through sound growing practices. VineBalance promotes the adoption of best management practices, including soil management to reduce erosion, runoff and leaching; integrated pest management techniques for insect, disease and weed control; nutrient management with a particular focus on nitrogen; pesticide storage and handling and modern spray technologies; vineyard floor management, including cover crops and water use; and canopy management techniques to enhance fruit quality and reduce disease pressure.

The VineBalance guidebook and Cornell's input have provided the up-front technical portion of the program, teaching the details behind sustainable practices and providing technical assistance. "But remember, the next step is an action plan," Martinson stresses. "What should change? What can you afford to change?"

Who else is involved?

As of early June 2008, 75 growers had completed the self-assessment workbook. The 75 growers managed a total of 6,560 acres. Twenty-three of them developed an action plan, which collectively detailed a total of 445 specific proposed practice modifications. Forty-eight of the proposed actions had been completed.

But that's the last Cornell kept track. Martinson says that what happens next is up to the industry. "We stand ready to help the industry, to rework the workbook when needed, to lend support, with the understanding that the industry has to take the lead and get its people to participate," he states.

Cornell once had funding to do outreach and did so with over 200 growers, Martinson estimates, and another 100 beyond 2008. "Growers are really busy people," Martinson says. "They're doing hundreds of things a year, so they don't always have time to step back and look at what they're doing, but our workbook has given them the opportunity to do that."

In the Finger Lakes region of New York, Peter Martini, vineyard manager for Martini Vineyards/Anthony Road Wine Co. in Penn Yan, oversees 70 acres of wine grapes, 26 on the home farm and 44 in the Nutt Road Vineyard on the west side of Seneca Lake (it's owned by the Robert Young family, based in California's Alexander Valley). He participated in VineBalance's initial outreach, completed the workbook and developed an action plan. Then, in 2008, after a presentation by Oregon's LIVE (Low Input Viticulture & Enology) sustainability program, he was among those suggesting that the industry take VineBalance to the next level by offering sustainability certification.

The New York wine grape growers seemed like the best fit to take the lead. Martini volunteered as point man, eventually securing a grant from the New York Farm Viability Institute to establish a certification program within two years. However, before they could get going, the state of New York cut the program's funding and didn't reinstate it for 15 months, and then only with a pared-down budget. Additional efforts to work with the New York Wine & Grape Foundation only revealed that regional views on how the program should look and work were divergent.

"The short time we had left with the grant wasn't enough to attempt a unification of the regions, and we had to end our grant period without making our goal," says Martini, who is still talking about moving forward on a more grassroots, self-policing and self-certifying level. He addressed the subject in February at Viticulture 2013, a conference in Rochester, N.Y., where Rich Olsen-Harbich, of Long Island's Bedell Cellars, also spoke.

"If my failure to get a statewide program running did anything positive, I would say that the development and deployment of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing program is very positive," Martini says. "The drive in that region to have something more like Oregon's [LIVE] program led them to establish just that."

Kick-starting a similar program in the Finger Lakes will move the region's growers down a similar responsible and sustainable path. Since the term "sustainable" is subject to interpretation, the program and its participants should view what Martini calls "the triple bottom line" - economic, environmental and social - as the prize.

The author has been published in national and regional magazines as well as daily and weekly alternative city newspapers. A gentleman farmer in Quakertown, Pa., he writes about people, social trends, historic preservation and 18th-century America, agrarian culture, land use, and sports and recreation topics.