Tinhorn Creek moves on sustainable winemaking

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      On a particularly chilly day at the end of March, I find myself navigating an uneven patch of earth between two rows of Gewürztraminer vines at Tinhorn Creek Vineyards. Spring has come late to the small town of Oliver, B.C., and the dirt below my feet on the Golden Mile bench is soft from rain, but viticulturist and vineyard manager Andrew Moon doesn’t seem to mind. He bounces ahead energetically before stopping short at the edge of a small grassy cliff.

      “I wanted to show you our compost piles,” he says with a huge grin on his face, gesturing at two rectangular mounds—one covered in soil, the other in dry grass—past the drop-off.

      The Australian expat, who moved his family of five to the South Okanagan in 2009, is obviously proud. Composting is just one of the many sustainability initiatives that Tinhorn Creek—Canada’s first carbon-neutral winery since 2009—has been ramping up over the past few years.

      “I’d say it was really in the last 10 years when we were in contact with the South Okanagan [Similkameen] Stewardship Program more frequently. I was becoming more aware of the impact we were making,” Sandra Oldfield, president, CEO, and winemaker at Tinhorn Creek, told the Georgia Straight during a telephone interview a month later. “We [Oldfield and her family] live on our property, so you really start to understand how what you’re doing is impacting elsewhere.”

      Oldfield—who grew up in California and received her master’s in enology (the science and study of winemaking) from UC Davis before arriving at Tinhorn Creek in 1995, two years after the winery was established—said that Tinhorn’s two-year compost piles are similar to those at most wineries in the area.

      “The difference here is that we’re more actively farming, we’re more actively working the rows by adding to them the chippings that we get…from landscape waste. So that carbon source gets added to the piles that are already pretty high in nitrogen to give us a much more balanced carbon-nitrogen ratio for putting back on our vineyard land,” she said.

      Tinhorn has designated a new area in its compost lot this year for waste produced at Miradoro, the winery’s year-old Mediterranean-inspired restaurant headed by executive chef Jeff Van Geest and proprietor Manuel Ferreira of Le Gavroche. The restaurant will soon be using the Bokashi composting system to ferment its food waste, including meat and bread.

      “We get wildlife as an attractant, and that’s why we can’t just throw our food into our compost piles,” Oldfield said. “We’re hoping to have that system in place, which we’ve already kind of designed, for the month of May.”

      Planning for a new compost pile is just one of the many projects Tinhorn has going on these days.

      “We’ve taken some circuitous routes, but I ultimately see it fall under big areas of carbon, water, and labour, and not just the whole carbon-neutral thing,” Oldfield said of her views on what it means to be sustainable.

      The winery is beginning its second year of a four-year project to convert about 50 hectares of vineyard land, which includes grapes on both the Black Sage and Golden Mile benches, from overhead irrigation to a drip system. Tinhorn isn’t the first winery to use this type of irrigation, which involves releasing a controlled and focused water supply to vines, as opposed to spraying water from overhead. Neighbouring winery Burrowing Owl Estate and Kelowna’s Mission Hill Winery have both converted.

      “If we were new, it would be kind of a no-brainer at this phase, but…drip really wasn’t done back then, so the conversion over is quite a task,” Oldfield explained.

      The results, however, are certainly worth it. From a conservation perspective, drip irrigation uses about 30 percent of the amount of water overhead irrigation does, and it also reduces pumping and electricity costs to the vineyard.

      “The other big difference for us is that it directly leads to less spraying,” Oldfield said, referring to sulphur spraying, which protects the vines from disease and infection. “When you’re not wetting down the entire canopy, you have less disease pressure from mould, and so that really, for sure, is the big prize.”

      According to vineyard manager Moon, Tinhorn only requires sulphur spraying two to three times a year, due to Oliver’s drier climate. He says that in wetter climates, such as Ontario, vineyard managers spray grapes up to 16 times a year.

      Oldfield said the only downside to drip irrigation is that the grass between each vineyard row stops growing and erosion starts to occur. On the Black Sage bench, which is sandier due to greater sun exposure during the summer months, erosion can wreak havoc on neighbouring streams, so Tinhorn will have both overhead and drip systems. The overhead one will be turned on twice a year to stabilize the land.

      “You can be as sustainable as you want, but when you go out of business, what does the next person do with your land?” Oldfield asked. “So from a sustainability standpoint, you have to be running it really efficiently.”

      It’s clear that environmental efforts at Tinhorn will evolve beyond composting and water conservation.

      “A few years ago I would’ve said yes, we’re going to be carbon neutral, we’re going to do this, we’re going to go to drip, but now I feel it’s more of just a moving target,” Oldfield said. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve never put it into our self-guided tours, because as soon as I put something on a placard, it’s old.”

      As the weather warms up, Tinhorn will be starting its annual summer concert series, which hosts five different Canadian bands in the winery’s 500-person outdoor amphitheatre. Opening this year’s series on May 26 are the Boom Booms, a “six-piece Latin-soul-funk-rock-reggae” band from East Vancouver. Other bands that will be making an appearance during the summer include Acres of Lions, Redeye Empire, and Said the Whale, before the series closes with Canadian alt-rock group Sloan in September.

      “For me, the concerts were always meant to link us to the locals, because once you establish an amphitheatre and a series of concerts, what you’re really saying is, ‘We’re in this for the long haul,’ ” Oldfield said.