Steve McIntyre is blazing new trails in Monterey County’s wine grape industry by engaging sustainable practices to rip new ground for vineyard development and for cover crop management. McIntyre is also designing a “green” winery and visitor’s center scheduled for construction in 2009 if the economy improves.

“We are not early pioneers of sustainability because pioneers usually go broke. We’re early adapters,” said McIntyre, president, Monterey Pacific, a vineyard, orchard, and development management company in Soledad, Calif. The company is an “A to Z” vineyard service provider with services ranging from growing grapes for 30 wineries to transportation and even tax preparation.

Today the road to sustainability is measured from many perspectives. The perfect vision for sustainability at Monterey Pacific embraces three core principles — environmental, social, and economic benefits. This embodies Monterey Pacific’s vineyard and winery blueprint for the future.

Monterey Pacific includes 7,300 acres of 22 wine grape varieties in vineyards located from Chualar to Kings City in the Salinas Valley in Monterey County. The company’s 2007 wine grape production totaled about 38,000 tons.

On average, 99 percent of the grapes are sold to mostly large wineries. Wine grapes sold on a smaller scale are destined for: Morgan Winery, Salinas; Joseph Phelps Winery for their Le Mistral label, St. Helena; MacRostie Winery, Sonoma; Byron Kosuge, Santa Rosa; and Miura Vineyards, San Francisco.

McIntyre grows mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Sauvignon Blanc, plus some less popular varietals including Tannat, Albarino, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc, and Grenache Noir.

McIntyre is among many Central Coast wine grape growers rapidly expanding acreage to meet the increasing demand from winery customers. Monterey Pacific’s clients purchased 750 acres last year, almost a 9 percent increase in total acreage.

Ripping vineyards

For over half a century California wine grape growers have brought new vineyard ground into production by first ripping the soil in the fall of the year when the ground is driest. A slip plow unearths the dirt 3 to 6 feet deep followed by the application of soil amendments. Ensuing rains during the winter months leach amendments deeper into the soil.

In late winter to early spring the ground is typically disked several times to break down dirt clods. Then field leveling in several different directions rids fields of ripping undulations. A final disking prepares fields for marking.

Monterey Pacific and several other growers have thought long and hard about this process in what McIntyre calls a serendipity moment. The growers asked critical questions based on today’s knowledge and state-of-the-art technology — why and what if?

The growers questioned if ripping new ground in the spring versus the fall could be more effective and efficient; in other words ripping last instead of first. McIntyre opted to rip last on some new ground purchased last year in Greenfield.

In February McIntyre got his hands on new ripping equipment from Soilworks California. Under the leadership of Monterey Pacific’s soil scientist Doug Beck, McIntyre’s crew took the new equipment for a test spin.

The site was disked several times to get rid of weeds, then followed by field leveling, plus two more rounds of disking, McIntyre explained. A tractor guided and steered by global positioning satellite (GPS) pulled the ripper across the ground delving a V shape in the soil for precise vine row placement of compost and gypsum soil amendments.

The ripper was run utilizing its vibration function to better nudge soil amendments directly into the future root zone. Attached to the ripper was a seed bed preparation harrow.

The success of the new ripping technique dramatically changed McIntyre’s concept of ripping ground. In fact he ripped the entire 240-acre Greenfield parcel.

“The new ripper combined with springtime use does a much better job than traditional fall ripping,” McIntyre said. “The ability to change the vibrating ripper’s depth of use plus vibration frequency and movement better fractures the soil. Since soil moisture content is higher in the spring, ground shattering and bed preparation is greatly improved.”

Another benefit is reduced soil compaction. McIntyre compared it to a nursery setting. The vine has the opportunity to travel to the depth ripped in the first year.

The new method improves vine growth the first year, reduces costs by ripping the vine row only, lowers soil compaction, and places soil amendments directly where needed. The process eliminates dirt clods above and below the soil line. If an employee is paid 25 cents to install each stake under the typical method, McIntyre said the new system reduces staking costs to about 12 cents each.

“This ripping process is revolutionary in terms of future vineyard development,” McIntyre stated. “This has turned the paradigm upside down on orchard and vineyard development.”

The soil was so fluffed up and easily penetrable that McIntyre was concerned that stakes placed into the ground might actually fall down. A heavy-duty ring roller straddled the rows after the ripper to add minimal compaction.

“Our employees barely pounded the stakes at all; they could almost put them in by hand.”

McIntyre credits John Crossland for bringing the technology to California. Crossland is a partner in Soilworks and has formed the company Soilworks California. Crossland is also president of Vineyard Professional Services Inc., Paso Robles, Calif.

McIntyre is not the first to try the Soilworks product. “We may be the first in terms of turning this full paradigm upside down and ripping last. Other growers ripped the ground in the fall followed by regular preparation work.”

Cover crops

Cover crops can play an integral role in wine grape production providing reduced soil erosion, a host for beneficial insects, less dust on the fruit, improved soil porosity, and a warmer microclimate for wine grape growth.

In typical wine grape production cover crops in vineyards are mowed three to four times a year. Earlier mowing increases mowing frequency, McIntyre said. Herbicides control most weeds that grow in the cover crop.

McIntyre, who has 26 years in the wine grape industry in the Santa Lucia Highlands, now opts to mow cover crops just once a year in mid-summer.

“Reduced mowing provides a host of benefits to our vineyards including reduced compaction plus fewer dollars spent on mowing equipment, labor, and fuel,” McIntyre said. “The only downside is the vineyards don’t look as clean.”

Reduced mowing also protects newly planted vineyards especially in Monterey County where high winds blow daily from Salinas to Soledad. In one instance McIntyre’s crew mowed half a vineyard but then moved the tractor to another vineyard for timely spraying. When the crew returned to mow the other vineyard half, grape vine shoots had heightened 3 to 4 inches in the un-mowed area.

“A taller cover crop slows the wind velocity which creates a warmer microclimate,” McIntyre said.

McIntyre’s interest in mowing cover crops began when he worked at the Smith & Hook Winery where permanent cover crops covered the hillsides. He consulted Harry Agamalian, Monterey County farm advisor, now retired, on the “who, what, and whys” of cover crops and how factors including daylight and moisture obligation impact cover crop growth.

“Some wine grape growers are hesitant to use cover crops due to the potential competition with the vines for moisture. That’s true only if the cover crop is mowed often. That’s moisture obligation,” McIntyre explained. “To reduce the competition, the answer is mowing less frequently.”

Agamalian shared with McIntyre that native cover crops are daylight obligate; as summer days get longer the native grass seeds don’t germinate. Grasses grow faster in the fall with shorter days and increased moisture.

For land never row cropped before and converted into vineyards, the ideal cover crops are fescue and brome grasses, McIntyre said.

“If we’re planting wine grapes where row crops were once grown, we plant annuals including triticale and rye which grow tall and die after the first year,” McIntyre said. “Then the native cover crops come roaring back in three to four years due in part to the large number of seeds delivered by the high winds. Not mowing shades out broadleaf weeds and reduces herbicide needs.”

Eliminating herbicides all together in cover crops is the next generation of management that McIntyre is now practicing. A customer, Bonny Doon Winery, doesn’t allow weed control in their vineyard blocks, a practice McIntyre referred to as biodynamics.

“We just let the cover crop grow underneath the vine which shades out broadleaf weeds,” McIntyre said. “We move the drip hose from under the vine to the row center where we will be mowing. We irrigate in the row center and mow over the top of the drip hose. Utilizing cover crops without herbicides is the next generation.”

Green winery

Monterey Pacific is designing a “green” winery and visitor’s center utilizing solar plus horizontal turbine-powered energy components to be constructed west of Gonzales on Sanchez Road in the San Lucia Highlands.

The winery would produce about 25,000 cases of wine at full build-out from about 300 tons of grapes to build the McIntyre family’s own wine line from the varietals Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot. Currently 1 percent of McIntyre’s wine grape production is bottled as McIntyre Vineyard branded wine.

“We’re at the use permit process with the county waiting for a hearing date,” McIntyre said. “If the economy improves, we hope to start construction in late 2009.”

Achieving LEED building certification is the goal at the gold, silver, or platinum level; the higher the better. LEED is an assessment protocol used to determine a building’s environmental friendliness. Initial plans call for green building materials including bamboo and straw.

McIntyre estimates green construction costs would tally 10 percent to 15 percent more than conventional construction costs. The visitor center’s 12,000-square-foot solar-paneled roof would face to the southwest to gain maximum sun exposure and be out of sight to visitors.

“The goal is make the McIntyre Vineyard wine line profitable,” he said. “We’re not doing it for the ego; it has to make some money eventually. I don’t want to achieve the ultimate green winery; just what’s responsible.”

McIntyre earned a bachelor’s degree in viticulture and a master’s in enology from California State University, Fresno. Last year he purchased 750 acres of new vineyard including 340 acres east of Gonzales, 140 acres west of Gonzales, and 270 acres in Greenfield on Central Avenue.

New plantings will include mainly Chardonnay with some Pinot, Riesling, and Albarino varietals.

“Monterey County still has a comparative economic advantage to grow wine grapes than any other coastal region in California,” McIntyre said. “The county has a captive labor force that’s not migrant, lower costs for bare ground, and remains a very agriculture-centric growing area. We don’t have the urban interface so our risks are fewer. We have great water, plentiful land, and the infrastructure to support the industry.”

McIntyre said sustainability has to be economically affordable from the get-go.

“We’ll never totally achieve sustainability, but we should utilize self-assessment tools to gauge our progress,” he said. “When we work on the ripping protocol or cover crops, we are assessing ourselves; are we saving money and is it better for the environment?”

e-mail: cblake@farmpress.com