Viticulturist Prudy Foxx spreads the word on holistic vineyard management throughout the Santa Cruz Mountains
Viticulture consultant Prudy Foxx has a dirty little secret. In fact, it’s all about dirt. While the French term terroir is indelibly more romantic, it all comes down to the soil and all the life that is teeming inside of it. If the soil isn’t healthy, nothing that grows in it can be optimally beneficial for those who consume it. The food chain, wine included, depends on healthy soils.
“In farming, at least what has become regarded as ‘conventional’ farming, it’s all about inputs to maximize yield,” says Foxx. “This is exactly the opposite of the goals of ultra-premium wine production.”
Foxx has a deep love of all things earth (she’s even married to a geologist) and puts it to work daily as a viticulturist in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where she is widely known as the vine whisperer. A graduate of Western Washington University in environmental science, she fell in love with grape vines while working at Mount Baker Vineyards in Washington. The chance to work with winemaker Randall Grahm called her to Bonny Doon in 1983 and since then she’s become one of the most highly sought after grape growing consultants in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA.
She is on a mission to spread the word, and the joy, of holistic vineyard management: methods that are proven to deliver the best possible wine with the least impact on the environment. Ditching Roundup is the first step. Don’t even get her started on that topic.
“I want to put the ‘culture’ back into viticulture by bringing back a sensitivity to the whole environment that is the vineyard, a holistic view, if you will,” she says. “The soil below the vines is just as important as what is above. There is an amazing living community of precious micro-organisms thriving in healthy soils that have been shown to impact grape and wine flavor.
“In addition, the areas surrounding the vineyards, and even what grows on the vineyard floor, all influence the quality of the fruit by providing habitat for beneficial insects and promoting natural soil amendments through biological degradation of vegetative material.”
Foxx works with some of the best-known vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, including Storrs, Beauregard, Lester, Christie, Bargetto, Regan, Saveria and Zayante. Most are sustainably farmed and have adapted organic practices, but have not gone through the organic certification process. Storrs is the only one that is currently certified organic by California Certified Organic Farmers.
In the Corralitos area, Lester Vineyards, planted in 1998 by Dan Lester with assistance from Prudy and her husband Mark, and Saveria Vineyards, planted in 2001 by George and Carol Saveria, are practically across the street from one another on Pleasant Valley Road. Saveria is on an ancient alluvial plain with lots of sandy loam, and a high mineral content.
Foxx directly equates this to the big structural complexity of the wines, “They are clear and clean and precisely structured.” Lester, meanwhile, is on colluvial soils that have washed downslope, and contain more organic matter. “The wines tend to be much earthier, with a velvety texture and complexity. They reflect the earth beneath them,” says Foxx.
She pauses to relate a story about being in Burgundy, tasting wines from vineyards that have never used herbicides. “The soils are teeming with life, smells and texture. The French say what is alive in the soil leads to the unique flavors of the wine. We noticed that the cheeses and the wines from any given town in France would have similar flavors, which makes sense, because the vineyards use the manure from local cows!” Right from the start, Foxx insisted that vineyards she helped establish in Corralitos must never use Roundup.
“Lester and Saveria have never used herbicides. They are not registered or certified organic, though they use compost and cover crops and all kinds of organic practices in addition to conventional sprays,” says Foxx. “Christie has just converted away from herbicides. If you look at the vines at Lester, it looks brown under all the rows because the ground cover is naturally dying back. This is a different weed community because we’ve never used Roundup.”
“Weeds are carbon, and will feed the soil,” says Foxx. “But some are leachy and fibrous and take nutrients away from the vines. Others are good, and add air and water around the vine roots, which increases drainage. Have you noticed orchards that are sprayed with herbicides have standing water all over when it rains? That’s because there are no weed roots to break through the soil and create natural inlets of drainage.”
Cover crops help rainwater better penetrate the soil. Foxx’s favorite choices for a simple effective nutrient rich cover crop are bell beans and fava beans, which are both legumes and help fix nitrogen in the soil. The two biggest threats that vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains have to deal with besides weeds are the fungus Botrytis and powdery mildew. Organic sprays can be used to control the inevitable mildew that results from fog pressure, but they have to be applied precisely at the right time.
“Timing is everything,” says Foxx. “You have to understand what is going on in the vineyard. Canopy management is critical to controlling Botrytis. By opening it up and allowing it to dry out, you can cut sprays by 80%.
At nearby Hidden Springs Vineyard, Pamela and Steven Storrs have dedicated themselves to growing organically and obtaining CCOF certification. Sheep play a key role as they naturally turn cover crop into fertilizer. But the sheep will pretty much eat anything within reach. Says Pamela, “We closely monitor them to make sure that they do not reach up and grab even one of the tasty leaves. So far so good, but as the shoots grow longer, the sheep will need to leave!”
Asked to comment on how Foxx has helped them over the years, Pamela says: “Wow…Prudy has been such a large part of our viticulture program both here at Storrs and at a number of vineyards that are so important to us, like Christie and Saveria. Her support for organic and open-mindedness about biodynamic practices has been profound as we have moved forward, especially with our estate vineyard, Hidden Springs. Having Prudy on our side, helping us to find ever better organic solutions to the challenges that we face everyday in the Santa Cruz Mountains, has been a huge part of our success.”
Says Ryan Beauregard of Beauregard Vineyards, who stopped using Roundup years ago at her insistence, “She is the best of the best. We value our relationship beyond words and we are thankful to be working with her. I relate the consultation and labor services she provides to the high quality wines we produce.”
And then, there’s Regan Vineyards, Bargetto Winery’s 40-acre estate vineyard in Watsonville, that has been certified sustainable by the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance. Foxx introduced practices that literally changed the life of Bargetto’s vineyard manager. “You can take time off in August now, because by then the vineyard will more be able to take care of itself. We will stop disease pressure before it starts,” Foxx told him.
Says owner John Bargetto, “Prudy has been a very valued vineyard consultant for Regan Vineyards for over 10 years, and has helped us maximize the quality of wines. She has been part of the reason Bargetto Winery has been winning these wonderful awards for Regan Estate wines, especially over the last four or five years. I’m very appreciative of her grapevine whispering abilities.”
Asked if there was a point of resistance to Foxx’s recommendations, Bargetto says, “I resisted ending traditional sulfur sprays, but moved to organic Stylet Oil…worked out fine.”
Foxx has a real soft spot for Zayante Vineyard, planted in the late 1980s by Greg Nolton and Kathleen Starkey, who sold the property about four years ago. Pesticides have never been used here, and it was always dry farmed. Says Foxx, “Zayante is abundance. The own-rooted vines are thick, rich and beautiful. The soils are deep, black and well-drained. You can feel how thriving with life the soil is, earthworms everywhere.”
And the wines are abundantly alive.