Robust compost system and recycling cuts landfill-bound trash
By STEVE BROWN
Jeff Pipes has been growing grapes for 15 years, all the while working to make the vineyard as sustainable as possible.
His Pipestone Vineyards, near Paso Robles, Calif., uses solar power, horse-drawn plows and natural pest control to reduce, re-use and recycle whenever possible.
"A couple of years ago, we decided to attempt to be zero-landfill," Pipes said. "And we're managing to do that, with the exception of some supplier packaging."
A big part of Jeff and Florence Pipes' sustainable practices revolves around composting the leftovers from wine making: tank bottoms and barrel sediment, pomace -- grape skins, seeds and stems -- and the rinse water.
"It's just the natural thing to do," Pipes said. "And all that dead yeast in the tank bottoms -- it's just great to put it all back into the soil."
The pomace and other waste is highly acidic, but his two Percheron-Morgan cross horses produce plenty of manure to bring the pH back into balance. Straw from the stable allows air into the mix, too.
"It's dry in this part of California, so the moisture content drops pretty quickly, so I add supplemental water, including water from cleaning the barrels," he said.
Most compost material is produced during the fall crush, and Pipes regularly mixes the compost pile with a tractor blade.
"Pomace used to be just piled up and sent off to a solid-waste landfill, or else it was spread without being composted. That leads to fungal problems and degrades the nitrogen level in the soil."
With microorganisms from the compost along with predatory insects working on his behalf, Pipes said, he's creating a balance in his vineyard. "We allow the system to regulate itself."
The compost is applied to the shallow, rocky, calcareous soil in the fall or late winter. Pipes uses a horse-drawn cultivator to mix it in.
He and his wife do all the work, and their 10 acres of grapes keeps them both busy.
"We use organic practices," he said. "We're not certified organic, but since we're virtually 100 percent direct sales, people who come here see our operation and can see how we grow the grapes sustainably."
Those sustainable practices include a 7.4-kilowatt photovoltaic solar system to supply power to the winery for cooling and to the vineyard for pumping irrigation water.
"Most years, all of our power will be supplied by this system," he said. Excess power generation goes back onto the electrical grid.
"We are reducing our carbon footprint by about 1,000 pounds per month," he said.
Using draft animals instead of tractors to till the soil is another form of solar power. "The horses eat hay, which is the ultimate in solar fuel. The sun grows the hay, and the hay directly powers our vineyard work."
By planting food sources in and around the vineyard, the Pipeses feed not only their family but surrounding wildlife, including birds and deer. Only the vines are fenced to keep out the deer.
The National Wildlife Federation has declared the vineyard as Certified Wildlife Habitat. The federation bases its certification on an applicant's providing food sources, water sources, places for cover, places to raise young and sustainable gardening. Pipestone is among 125,000 such certified habitats.
Picnickers and other visitors to the vineyard are asked to pack out any non-recyclable materials. And Pipes accepts back any packaging the vineyards sends out to its wine club or mail-order shipments.
"If they return the Styrofoam shipping container and the cardboard box, we send them a $5 certificate for their next purchase," he said. "We get close to 40 percent of the boxes back."
Pipestone Vineyards won the 2008 Central Coast Viticulture Green Award in recognition of its sustainable and green practices.
In the winery, Pipes and his wife create Rhône-style wines from several varieties of grapes: Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Viognier and a dry-farmed Zinfandel.
"We're a small, family farm," he said. "We turn out about 2,000 cases a year. About half of that goes to the wine club."