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Making wine in harmony with nature

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By Carol Bogart, Sacramento Nature Examiner

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A visit to Heringer Estates Family Vineyards and Winery in Clarksburg, the first community south of West Sacramento in the Sacramento River Delta, makes it immediately clear why Heringer wines qualify as Certified Sustainable.

Steve Heringer, present patriarch of the hard-working Heringer winemaking/grape growing clan, explains that to earn the coveted ‘sustainable’ designation means a grower must be

  • Environmentally Friendly
  • Socially Responsible
  • Economically Sustainable

And the grower can’t just claim to be. A third party, “Protected Harvest,” audits growers annually. The Protected Harvest audit looks at several hundred operational practices, Heringer says. They include:

  • Fertilizer and pesticide use and monitoring
  • Soil leaf and tissue analysis
  • Employee training and certification in First Aid
  • Heat stress
  • Tractor and implement safety
  • Pest and disease monitoring
  • Irrigation and drainage water monitoring and application

Heringer adds, “It is more a frame of mind on how you are going to operate your farm over the long run than any one particular practice. I have told our winery clients that we couldn’t possibly still be farming in Clarksburg more than 140 years after our great-great-grandfather settled here if we weren’t farming sustainable long before it became a new buzz word in the industry.” Heringer’s ancestor, a dairy farmer, saved up for seven years to emigrate from the Netherlands in 1868. It was his father’s generation that hand-planted the first grape vines in 1972. His parents, in their 90s, live next to the vineyards in the house where Steve grew up.

Since the first grape vines were planted in Clarksburg the late ‘60s (Bogle) and early ‘70s (Heringer’s), Heringer says Clarksburg vineyards have been producing fine wines noted for their character and content. So much so that those vineyards are now part of what’s known in wine circles as the “Clarksburg Appellation.” An Appellation, he explains, is a grape-growing region specifically identified for the characteristics unique to its grapes and wines.

The richness of the Delta soil and the Delta breeze are also factors. Warm days and cool nights allow the grape to ripen slowly. Very rarely does the Delta experience a killing frost, an advantage Delta-grown grapes have over, say, Bay Area and Sonoma vineyards. Steve says such frosts are common in Sonoma in the spring, and both spring and fall along the coast.

Producing a superior wine starts with superior grapes and is, like all farming, a weather-dependent 24/7/365 business. The Heringer family business includes son, Mike, 34, who makes the wines, including very special blends kept in what Mike calls his ‘wine library.’ A graduate of Fresno State, Mike Heringer studied viticulture (grape growing) and enology (wine making).

As Steve gave me a driving tour of the vineyards (37375 Netherlands Rd. Clarksburg, 95612), he pointed out how grape leaves change from one variety to the next. He also showed me an owl box that attracts mostly barn owls. Owls consume ground squirrels, voles, and other rodent grape eaters. The owl box is an example of eco-friendly natural pest control.

Retaining a ‘green’ designation is but one of the challenges faced by grape growers. Heringer thinks about how ground- and surface water in the Delta will be impacted if giant tunnels divert Sacramento River water to Southern California. On April 22, the Sacramento Bee reported: “The East Bay Municipal Utility District this month will begin diverting water from the Sacramento River for the first time ever, a clear sign that the drought is literally causing ripples across the state.” Steve calls the East Bay siphon, “a very small straw compared to the tunnels project.”

For now, the prolonged drought and recently announced state ordered water use restrictions are not an immediate concern for Heringer’s. He says, “As a pre-1914 and riparian water right holder in the upper Delta and also covered by the North Delta Water Agency contract with the State of California, we have the most senior water rights in the state and expect to be the last growers affected on any curtailment of water orders issued by the State Water Resources Control Board.”

Heringer vineyards are protected, too, by that certified sustainable grower designation. “We invested major capital in drip irrigation for all of our vineyards more than a decade ago,” Steve says. “Thus we are able to farm with a minimum amount of irrigation water annually and apply that water extremely judiciously.

“As a certified sustainable premium wine grape grower we practice moderate deficit irrigation during the spring and early summer months and as such we expect very limited impacts on production and no negative impacts on grape quality.”

If you are interested in sampling certified sustainable wines made from grapes grown in nature-friendly vineyards, plan a visit to Clarksburg, quaintly nestled alongside the Sacramento River in the Delta. At Clarksburg’s Old Sugar Mill, what once was a sugar beet processing facility now offers wine tasting rooms for assorted wineries, including Heringer’s Estate Family Wines. If you go, be sure to try Heringer’s Barbera.

GETTING THERE:

To get to the Old Sugar Mill, travel south on Jefferson Boulevard through West Sacramento and continue south to Gregory (just after a fire station on your left). Turn left onto Gregory and follow it around bearing right. It will take you under an old railroad trestle and put you on Old River Road along the Sacramento River. Continue heading south into the Delta. Keep going until you see the green Freeport Bridge and look for the Old Sugar Mill on your right. Turn right on the road just before it – Willow Point – then left on Willow Avenue. Park anywhere in front of the Old Sugar Mill. Heringer’s has a sign above the door and it’s the fourth one on your left.

Sacramento Nature Examiner Carol Bogart is a published author and career journalist. Read more of her work at www.westsacweb.com and on Facebook at Bogart Communications. For more information about Heringer Estates wines and vineyard festivities, go to www.HeringerEstates.com or call (916) 744-1919.

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