Brother and sister Alex and Alison Sokol Blosser are both vice presidents in the family business, with Alex managing the vineyard and Alison in charge of marketing.
Going organic was quite a challenge for one of Oregon’s oldest and most highly acclaimed wineries.
Sokol Blosser began organic operations on its 72-acre estate in the celebrated Red Hills of Dundee in 2001.
Unfortunately, that first attempt was not all that –successful, said vineyard manager Alex Sokol Blosser.
"Basically, I had to learn how to ride a bike again. We hired a number of consultants. We read a lot of books, talked to a lot of growers."
One of the initial problems was spray efficacy. "Basically, you try some sprays, and they just don’t work," Sokol Blosser said.
A powdery mildew outbreak "got out of control" and forced the winery to go back to conventional farming until the next year.
In 2002, Sokol Blosser fine-tuned its organic management practices and went on to become certified organic by Oregon Tilth in 2005.
Today, Sokol Blosser, which won Sunset magazine’s Green Award in 2007 for its sustainable approach to growing and making wines, is one of the few wineries in the state whose estate fruit is all grown organically.
"Our biggest challenge was weed control and definitely mildew and botrytis control," Sokol Blosser said. After experimenting with various implements, Sokol Blosser has settled on an in-the-row cultivator that sits on the side of a tractor and cultivates under the vines.
"Timing is everything on using that tool," Sokol Blosser said. "Use it at the wrong time, and you have to use it a lot more. In the spring, two passes is usually good enough."
The cultivator works to a depth of around an inch.
With 30 to 40 inches of rain a year and hilly ground, one of Sokol Blosser’s biggest concerns is erosion control.
Erosion is kept in check with a certified organic ryegrass propagated in Italy that is fall planted in the rows and cultivated out in the spring. For high-use areas of the vineyard needing more erosion control, certified organic straw is used.
"We experimented with a number of things to get on top of mildew (which strikes between May and August) and botrytis (a problem from August through harvest)," Sokol Blosser said.
To combat powdery mildew, he uses sulfur, the biofungicides Sonata (Bacillus pumilus) and Serenade (Bacillus subtilis), and Kaligreen and Milstop (both potassium bicarbonates).
But the treatments themselves are only part of the picture.
Spray coverage key
"The thing with spraying is not just the chemicals you’re using but the coverage," Sokol Blosser said. "It’s how fast is your tractor going, is your sprayer calibrated, how many gallons of water you’re using per acre?"
Instead of spraying every two weeks, the cycle is now every ten days. In addition, the tractor applying the treatments has been slowed down. "We’re using more water per acre. If we were using 50 to 60 [gallons] before, we’re using 75 now to really soak the vines."
With the growing popularity of organic production, new materials approved by the Organic Materials Review Institute are coming out every year, Sokol Blosser said. An example for 2007 is Actinovate, a broad spectrum, beneficial Streptomyces bacterium that is used in its spore form to treat both powdery mildew and botrytis.
"One of the big challenges of organic farming is treating diseases once they become established," Sokol Blosser said. "Most of what you’re doing is preventive. Once you get mildew in your vineyard, there are no [approved] eradicators."
One of the companies Sokol Blosser turned to for help in establishing his organic operation was Oregon Vineyard Supply in McMinnville, Oregon. OVS also supplies Sokol Blosser and other Oregon vineyards with organic inputs, from fertilizers to foliar sprays.
OVS crop consultant Mark Gibbs estimates that around 15 to 20 percent of Oregon wine grape acreage in the Willamette Valley is under certified organic production today. Gibbs said that Sokol Blosser is representative of other organic wine grape growers in terms of the challenges they face.
"They certainly face issues with disease control, particularly powdery mildew, as well as botrytis some years," Gibbs said.
Several fertilizers are approved for organics, Gibbs explained, including fishmeal and different formulations of chicken and beef byproducts. Gibbs pointed out that livestock byproducts, such as manure and bone meal, don’t have to originate on certified farms to be approved by OMRI. "The animal itself does not have to be certified organic."
In addition to soil-applied fertilizers, there are also several foliar-applied nutrients on the market: amino acid chelates that help make nutrients available, Acadian kelp, whey, fish, and humates, the latter a derivative of decayed plant material.
Biocontrols, in addition to those Sokol Blosser mentioned, include parasitic mites that prey on their tissue-consuming cousins.
Gibbs said that another important ingredient in a certified organic operation is organic-approved limes and dolomite limes.
Pure Spray, a highly refined mineral oil, is also used to treat for powdery mildew.
Sokol Blosser said that at first it was more expensive to farm organically than conventionally, but that as he adapted to the new system, the two management practices reached parity. "It doesn’t cost more to farm organically, it’s just the transition is what costs more."
Since Sokol Blosser blends off-estate, conventionally grown grapes with its estate wines, it has not been able to declare on the label that its wines are totally organically grown. That will change with the 2006 Pinot Noir vintage, which is due to be 100 percent estate bottled and will be released in the fall of 2008.