A two-hour seminar on soil biology was a revelation to Chris Figgins, who promptly began transitioning his vineyards to a more biologically oriented viticulture system.

Figgins, viticulturist for Leonetti Cellars in Walla Walla, Washington, believes now that when people refer to conventional farming they’re really referring to chemical farming. Conventional farming is what his grandparents used to do many years ago before the introduction of chemical fertilizers. His goal is to be using no chemical fertilizer in his vineyards in ten years’ time, and to have the vineyard become a self-sustaining system with nutrient recycling.

Leonetti farms about 200 acres of wine grapes on three sites with rainfall ranging from 9 to 20 inches. Three years ago, before he heard a seminar by Dr. Elaine Ingham of Soil Foodweb, Inc., the soil was depleted and had poor structure. Even when it was moderately dry (with 75 percent moisture or below), he could not get a soil probe into it.

Now, before planting vineyards, he rips the soil deeply. His theory is that you have to create the right conditions before trying to improve the soil biology.

Since 2003, he’s been using compost tea combined with an intensive nutritional program. To make the tea, he puts a high quality vermicompost with water in a 200-gallon brewer, and feeds it with humic acid, folic acid, molasses, and algae. The tea is circulated to keep it oxygenated and brewed for 24 hours. It is then applied to the vineyard through the drip irrigation system.

If it is left to sit for 24 hours, it goes anaerobic and develops bad odors. “Tea should smell good, like compost, and smell sweet,” he said.

When planting new vineyards, he rips the soil deeply and applies tea and myccorhizae powders to the planting holes. This dramatically increases the active fungi and myccorhizal colonization. He tries to minimize herbicide use, applying only one Round-up (glyphosate) spray per year.

The real and perceived benefits have included:

—Metabolization of residual herbicides used in previous crops. Wine grapes are particularly sensitive to those residues, he said.

—Improved soil biology.

—More and larger earthworms.

—Improved aromatics of the grape crop.

—Better tolerance of water stress, much of which he attributes to myccorhizae colonization.

—Healthier vines with less disease and pest pressure.

—Less vine compaction. He tries to keep the tractor out of the vineyards when the soil is wet.

Figgins is hoping to see a reduction in weed pressure, also.

Impacts of the new, biological approach go beyond just improving the soil. Figgins said it has resulted in more floral tones in the aromatics of the wine.

He believes the new biological approach will add value to the wine.

“It’s all about quality,” he said, “and what we can put in the bottle, and making it economically feasible.”