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Mendocino County, Calif., grape growers and winery owners Martha and Charlie Barra say JIT – just-in-time – is a concept more premium wine grape growers must embrace to survive the rough-and-tumble world of wine globalization.
Organic grape growing
Charlie became organically fashionable before it was trendy. He converted to organic in the mid-1980s. Redwood Valley Cellars is also the largest California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) custom crush facility on the West Coast.
At least 35 percent of the grapes in Redwood Valley are organically certified. Twenty-five percent are organic in Mendocino County.
“We have ducks and geese everywhere,” he says. Wild turkeys are another thing. He tells the story of tricking the turkeys during one harvest season. He laid down a generous trail of corn leading away from the vineyard to a huge pile of corn. He figured they’d stay beside a plentiful supply of corn while the grapes were picked. It worked.
Barra admits insect pressure is not heavy and the dry climate minimizes diseases. He uses copper and sulfur, both organically certified, for powdery mildew control. He grows bell beans to turn under for nutrients and cover crops to harbor beneficial insects.
However, he learned a valuable lesson this season in the one area organic growers struggle, weed control. “It was a spring like I had never seen before and I have been dong this for 60 years. It stayed wet all spring, and we could not get into the vineyard. I had to hire 25 people to hoe the vineyards and the vines still look terrible,” he said. “We are still out hoeing weeds.”
“I have been farming grapes for more than 60 years and I learned a lot about weeds this year,” he said. He is looking for a way to mechanically cultivate between vines in the winter. He grew frustrated, but never reached for the Roundup.
The only thing Charlie Barra likes more than wine is to talk about grape growing and farming in general. However, you seldom hear criticism, unless it’s directed at himself — like the time he lobbied politicians for 100 percent varietal labeling.
“I was adamant about the 100 percent thing, but we were getting nowhere. Louie Martini came up to me one day and said ‘Charlie, you will never get 100 percent. Take 75 percent.’ He was right and I was wrong, and we won that battle.”
Age is not slowing down Charlie’s mind — but physically, 83 is. “I feel really good, except for my back.” Years in that old Mack, bouncing through the vineyards in a pickup and countless hours on a tractor have taken their toll on Charlie’s back.
“I have got to get that taken care of so I can keep on enjoying life and growing grapes, making wine and fishing,” Barra said.