Down to Earth: A Seasonal Tour of Sustainable Winegrowing in California pulls off quite a feat, managing to be part coffee table book full of gorgeous photography, part guide to the ever-growing world of environmentally-aware grape growing and winemaking, part cookbook with seasonal recipes. Just released by the Wine Institute (so, yes, it's truly a trade book in that sense), it still makes the case that California, as it so often does in so many fields, is leading the way in wine sustainability.
Despite all the wine writing she's done, the book's author Janet Fletcher, a James Beard winner, admitted in an email interview, "I had no idea California wineries were doing so much to reduce energy use, water use, packaging and other resources, and I had no idea of how many were engaged in this effort to self-assess and make annual progress toward sustainability." Thousands have done some work in these areas, even if not every winery goes so far as to get certified as organic or biodynamic or sustainable (for a host of reasons, from being too small to deal with the paperwork to wanting to be able to, if things are really bad just once in a few years, break out a very directed shot of pesticide).
The book, like grape growing itself, is organized around the seasons, which also allows for a wider range of photos, too. (The paired summer and autumn shots of the same almost artistically curved cabernet vineyard are just two of the gems captured by photographer George Rose.) While it offers all sorts of "sustainability at a glance" tips that no doubt are already being recycled on websites, it focuses on several page profiles of 15 particularly green vineyards or wineries, from big old timers like Gallo and Robert Mondavi to smaller operations like Navarro in Mendocino and Ampelos in the Sta. Rita Hills. These mini-chapters help illustrate ideas about solar use, mobile chicken coops for pest control and fertilization, GPS to help zoom in on particular plant issues and limit the need for response, and so on.
Fletcher also does a fine job explaining issues that might seem perplexing or even wasteful. In the Sangiacomo Family Vineyards section she writes about the process of night harvesting under lights. "The grapes arrive cool at the winery, so the juice doesn't require much chilling. (Most winemakers aim for about fifty-five degrees for white wine fermentation.) The generator for the light machines consumes far less energy then it takes to chill big tanks of juice, and the cool night temperatures are more comfortable for vineyard workers." (And yes, worker quality of life is one big part of the framework of sustainability.)
Ultimately Fletcher admitted, "I think the public is largely unaware of what wineries and growers are doing to conserve resources and operate more sustainably. There's no rolling back this tide. Wineries and growers see the bottom-line benefit of these changes, and they know consumers value these efforts." Down to Earth helps chronicle that change as it's happening. Plus it helps you make a lovely California mussels in basil-saffron white wine broth and roasted garlic with sage and rosemary.