If you want to pick up a few tips about sustainability from California winegrape growers, Mohr-Fry Ranches isnât a bad place to start. The agricultural history of the Mohrs and Frys extends back to the 1850s, when Cornelius Mohr left his job on a whaling ship in the port of San Francisco and began a farming operation on a Spanish land grant in an area south of a town that had just become incorporated, Oakland.
Urban encroachment eventually caused family members to look elsewhere to sustain the growing business. Today, Mohrâs great-grandson Jerry Fry and his son Bruce â who represents the fifth generation â farm nearly 600 acres of mostly winegrapes in the Lodi Appellation south of Sacramento.
There, they grow a dozen varieties of winegrapes, eight red and four white, everything from Alicante Bouschet to Zinfandel. Or, as Jerry puts it, âWeâve got all the wines from A to Z.â
Itâs the latter variety, Zinfandel, for which the region is best known, producing 40% of the nationâs total. The Frys are justifiably proud of their Zinfandel, especially the âOld-Vine Zin,â of which one block of vines were planted in 1901, and another 70 years ago or more. Actually, they donât produce a drop of wine themselves, but that doesnât mean they arenât familiar to the oenophiles who descend on the regionâs wineries. âItâs not unheard of for wine tasters to ask, not for a given wine, but for a Mohr-Fry Zin,â Bruce says, noting that a few of the wineries take advantage of the fact, adding a Mohr-Fry label to their own.
Playing By The Rules
All of that Zinfandel acreage â plus Sangiovese, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc â about 40% of their total, has been certified sustainable under a Lodi Winegrape Commission program, the Lodi Rules. Launched in 2005 â the Frys were one of the original six growers â the Lodi Rules is a strict program detailing many aspects of a farming enterprise. It is based on the three-legged stool concept of sustainability, each beginning with an âEâ: Economic, Environmental and Equitable.
There are 24,000 acres âCertified Greenâ in the Lodi Appellation, and an additional 6,000 acres have been certified in other regions throughout California. Approximately 20 wineries produce wines bearing the Lodi Rules seal.
Standards To Abide By
The Lodi Rules is not just a catchy slogan; it is a 128-page workbook of sustainable winegrowing standards. There are 101 standards, and to be certified you not only need to pass at least 70, you cannot fail any of the six chapters. (For an example of the standards, see âFrom The Workbook.â)
And while the program is based on self-evaluation, itâs not like growers can skate through with less-than-honest self-assessment, says Bruce Fry. There is random auditing by a third party, Protected Harvest, which is quite thorough. Protected Harvest representatives will ask for such details as information from a certain weekâs monitoring sheet detailing practices regarding insects, mildew, vertebrates, etc.
If it seems intrusive, Fry says none of the growers involved mind because itâs grower-based.
âA group of growers, a very diverse group of growers, debated about this for a lot of time,â he says. âItâs not the third-party certifier thatâs telling us what to do; itâs kind of like a research project thatâs peer-reviewed.â
Scoring A Bonus
Following the Lodi Rules isnât all about being an environmental do-gooder, Fry says. Besides making your grapes more sought after by many wineries, a few of them actually pay a bonus to growers enrolled in the program. Itâs not a huge amount, perhaps $25 to $50 per ton, but itâs worth it, he says. Thatâs why all of the Frysâ acreage isnât enrolled, because it only pays to be in the program for those grapes that command premium prices.
Thereâs nothing wrong with that, Fry says, because itâs important to remember that the first leg of the sustainability stool is Economic.
âYou canât do all these things unless they pencil out. At the end of the day you have to make money to stay in business and pay your employees,â he says. âThe economic consideration is number one because if itâs not economical you canât help the environment, or provide social equity either.â
Besides, what many people fail to realize is that economical and environmental considerations often go hand in hand, he says. For example, the Lodi Rules state that only âessential crop protectionâ products are used.
âFarmers use pesticides only when needed because they are very expensive to use and apply,â Fry says. âWhen a grower sprays itâs not because he wants to spend money; itâs because he has to protect his crop.â
Fry says he likes the public relations aspect of the program, but heâs a practical man and thatâs certainly not his primary consideration.
âItâs partly there for the consumer, to show how Lodi growers farm,â he says. âBut farmers need clean water to irrigate, and good soil. Farmers are going to protect those things because if he doesnât protect them he will hurt his crop, and that will hurt him economically.â