Thinking before and not after has been ingrained in us as children and an old Scandinavian proverb. As I have grown older with more experience with people and life, taking my childhood ideals into adulthood, little did I know these words would be the foundation of our lives in farming and living off the land. Sustainability has a broad range of meaning and what it is truly defined by is complicated yet also intrinsically simple.
Sustainability means meeting your own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Sustainability, the true sense of the word, is the ideals one must live by in all actions and movements in thought of nature, community and the future by the individual. As immigrants from the northern lands of Europe, our Swedish traditions in honoring clean waters, the health of land and animals with equality to all people is a part of us. It is not merely a contemplation but more so an inherent act, it is a part of our genealogy. We also learned as children the ideals of knowing your actions with positive words, gentle touch and voice of decent human rights, can change the world, one step at a time.
I write as a winegrower of a vineyard in northern California in Alexander Valley of Sonoma County. Our land was purchased by our family in 1963 and we are second generation farmers and winegrowers. My husband, Justin Warnelius-Miller studied and was inspired the ideals of Rudolf Steiner as an impassioned twenty-year-old alongside the foundation of sustainability in farming in his early years.
When you walk your land day each day every day as the sun rises and sets as we do, you become a part of its natural rhythm as if your own. For us, this has been our way for many decades of our lives. Witnessing the birds movement and song, insects prolific adherence above and under the earth, standing quietly under the majestic presence of California old growth black oaks, walking past the bay laurel trees on the creeks edge while being kissed with whiffs of their luscious oils, taking notice of the bright green water crest flourishing in our year round fresh water spring while walking slowly thru the vineyards feeling movements of warmth on your face and arms entirely driven by the heat held in the soil composition and rock, elevation variations and influence from mountains above; this is a mere glimpse into the intelligence of nature. There is not one element which is overbearing yet each in sync with each other. This too is the meaning of sustainability, natural sustainability.
Sustainability begins with a connectedness to your land as if it is your own body, and ultimately your living beating pulse. Your land breathes in fresh air where your vines are nourished by the health of the soils. We produce wines and sell our wine grapes to local winery partners who acknowledge the affects our hands have taken. Thirty-years ago and of the first in our region, we began an ambitious composting program to include the waste of winemaking. By taking the return waste of our wine grapes, the seeds, stems and skins were transported back to our property where we line our pastures with windrows up to nearly two meters high to allow the natural decomposition taking a full year into healthy organic matter to replenish those areas in our vineyards in most need.
With southwest-facing hillside land in Alexander Valley, we are blessed with million-year-old ancient soils of seven very distinct compositions. Once a farmer takes heed to their soils, the penetration of the sun’s rays, the micro-climates within the hillsides, their understanding becomes a bit more complicated, more elaborate, more stimulating all allowing the ability to craft more complex wines. It also opens your mind to what is possible and perhaps what you once thought was impossible.
Our winegrowing philosophy, and I say philosophy as it is much more than technique, it is driven by our innate understanding of our 50-year old vines and the soils which lie beneath and most times what your soul allows you to feel. Organic materials including fertilizers and herbicides has been our direction for decades. When first spoken of in the mid 1990s, our inspirations were questioned alongside limitations to sourcing. We had to create our own solutions and as young inspired winegrowers, this we did.
We live and work with our vineyard crew, the Gonzalez family who emigrated to the United States from their home in Morelia, Mexico. As a young man Fidal Gonzalez, the patriarch walked onto our property seeking employment in 1964 and now we are honored to say over five decades later, we employ his five sons and third generation grandson on our land. With sustainability, comes the human side. Without honoring this, sustainability is simply unattainable and impossible. As much as we are seeking balance within nature and plant, one cannot succeed unless the people on the land our as balanced, nurtured, safe, healthy and ultimately happy.
The Gonzalez family are as family to us and we care for them as such. Their lives include living on our property, minimizing transportation yet most importantly feeling a part of our dedication to our land. Decades old nopal cactus in their flourishing garden are witness to their years on our land. Harvesting the pads or nopalitos, bring their delectable Mexican culture home to California. We cannot accomplish our intricate hand work in our vineyards without the gnarled, wise hands of our dedicated family crew.
Sustainability is only accomplished with people a part of the place, living and finding peace in their life’s work. There is nothing better than their singing loudly in the fields all day long. A mutual relationship of leaning on each other thru good times and bad. When the same hands have touched your vines for decades, there is consistency in quality one cannot accomplish with unfamiliar hands.
We began our winery in 2001 with our indefatigable ideals of crafting wines with a truthful reflection of our land. I suppose it’s also a mirroring of our Scandinavian blood. Simplicity with dynamic depths and thought exposing themselves slowly over time. Wines are a relationship with a life-long friend. Our winery and entire property are operated by a solar system affixed to our winery rooftop. With our ever-long days of sunshine, our commitment to clean energy was our only solution and the right thing to do for our children’s future. In 2019, our property Garden Creek Ranch and Vineyards became one of the first vineyards to study its carbon footprint as a vineyard operation in Sonoma County. We are very proud of this, yet believe all should make this decision of clean power.
As we know, water is a scarce resource in the world and certainly California. Rather than collect grey wastewater and place in a holding pond, why not utilize it for a purpose. Proudly, we are the first winery in California to propose recycling our grey water to hydrate our compost pile and landscaping. Utilizing the reclaimed water went without question. A witness to a natural cycle.
Our local organization, the Sonoma County Winegrowers began a sustainability initiative in 2015 with the goal of 100% participation. A mere five years later, today we are 99% sustainable in Sonoma County as a community of winegrowers. This is an incredible accomplishment in a short time period. Our vineyard was named a landmark vineyards to the ideals of sustainability where we need to reach of which metrics have proved our soils cleanse the CO2 four times greater than non-organically tended land.
Sustainability also includes your community. By creating healthier soils on our land, we are giving back to those who live around us. This in itself is a powerful action and allegiance to who we are, who we all are as a piece of the whole.
Economically speaking, another factor is the money side. If the numbers do not equate, if you spend too much to reach your ideals, you have simply defeated the purpose. This is where the meaning of sustainability must be feasibly economical for all. If not, you must seek solutions which are.
To be sustainable is to live among mother nature’s intelligence. You cannot take without consequences. We are proud of who we are, what has evolved naturally from our intrepid aspirations and what our family stands for. Ultimately, our decisions are decided by the generations to come. This is what we believe.
Be thoughtful of your path and the ripples you leave behind.