Lodi Growers Create A High Standard For Sustainability And Better Market For Their Grapes

Bruce Fry, left, and father Jerry in a vineyard of truly “Old Vine Zin.” The Zinfandel block was planted in 1901. (Photo credit: David Eddy)
Bruce Fry, left, and father Jerry in a vineyard of truly “Old Vine Zin.” The Zinfandel block was planted in 1901. (Photo credit: David Eddy)

If you want to pick up a few tips about sustainability from California winegrape growers, Mohr-Fry Ranches isn’t 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, Mohr’s great-grandson Jerry Fry and his son Bruce — who represents the fifth generation — 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, “We’ve got all the wines from A to Z.”

It’s the latter variety, Zinfandel, for which the region is best known, producing 40% of the nation’s total. The Frys are justifiably proud of their Zinfandel, especially the “Old-Vine Zin,” of which one block of vines were planted in 1901, and another 70 years ago or more. Actually, they don’t produce a drop of wine themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t familiar to the oenophiles who descend on the region’s wineries. “It’s not unheard of for wine tasters to ask, not for a given wine, but for a Mohr-Fry Zin,” 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 — plus Sangiovese, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Sauvignon Blanc — about 40% of their total, has been certified sustainable under a Lodi Winegrape Commission program, the Lodi Rules. Launched in 2005 — the Frys were one of the original six growers — 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 “E”: Economic, Environmental and Equitable.

There are 24,000 acres “Certified Green” 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.

“The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.” - Bruce Fry (Photo credit: David Eddy)
“The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.” – Bruce Fry (Photo credit: David Eddy)

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 “From The Workbook.”)

And while the program is based on self-evaluation, it’s 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 week’s monitoring sheet detailing practices regarding insects, mildew, vertebrates, etc.

If it seems intrusive, Fry says none of the growers involved mind because it’s grower-based.

“A group of growers, a very diverse group of growers, debated about this for a lot of time,” he says. “It’s not the third-party certifier that’s telling us what to do; it’s kind of like a research project that’s peer-reviewed.”

Scoring A Bonus
Following the Lodi Rules isn’t 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. It’s not a huge amount, perhaps $25 to $50 per ton, but it’s worth it, he says. That’s why all of the Frys’ acreage isn’t enrolled, because it only pays to be in the program for those grapes that command premium prices.

There’s nothing wrong with that, Fry says, because it’s important to remember that the first leg of the sustainability stool is Economic.

“You can’t 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,” he says. “The economic consideration is number one because if it’s not economical you can’t help the environment, or provide social equity either.”

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 “essential crop protection” products are used.

“Farmers use pesticides only when needed because they are very expensive to use and apply,” Fry says. “When a grower sprays it’s not because he wants to spend money; it’s because he has to protect his crop.”

Fry says he likes the public relations aspect of the program, but he’s a practical man and that’s certainly not his primary consideration.

“It’s partly there for the consumer, to show how Lodi growers farm,” he says. “But farmers need clean water to irrigate, and good soil. Farmers are going to protect those things because if he doesn’t protect them he will hurt his crop, and that will hurt him economically.”

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