Ξ June 21st, 2010 | → 2 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, Interviews, Technology, Wine History, Wine News |
“My name is Tim Thornhill. I grew up in Houston. Some 35 years ago we all took off and went to work or went to college. The family only got back together once or twice a year sorta’ only when somebody died or got married. About ten years ago my brother [Tom] and I started thinking about what we should be doing, and what we would regret not doing; and that was trying to get as much of our family back together in one location, if possible. So I looked around the country, Tom already lived in the San Francisco Bay area; we settled on Northern California as being the region. We spent three years looking through Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino counties. While Napa and Sonoma have the geography and the climate, they really didn’t have the community that we were looking for. When your gathering family together to put down really deep roots, you have to look forward 40 or 50 years as to where you’re leaving them and how are they going to feel about it.
“What Napa had to offer, as far as all the commercialism and tourism, it just really didn’t fit for us. Also, this community is a very, very green community. There is 5 times as much organic acreage in Mendocino county as their is in Napa or Sonoma counties. So it really worked for us. When we purchased the first property [La Ribera Vineyard], it had 150 acres of vines on it. We ended up in the vineyard business. But it was really the landscape for the family estate. My parents were here right away. One of my older children has come back. In fact, I just became a grandfather three days ago [6/15]. My daughter [Kate], who runs the export and does all of our contract grower negotiations, married one of the winemakers here, and has now thrown off the next generation, probably a biodynamic baby, to be honest. Then we partnered up with Paul Dolan.”
All of this was said within the first few minutes of my revealing vineyard tour at Parducci Wine Cellars. I knew then and there I was in luck. Tim Thornhill is a rarity, in my experience. He needs no prompting to get to the heart of the matter. And he thinks big. But this has nothing to do with any Texas cliché. For he is a man of the world.
As you read what I will call a ‘lesson’, perhaps you might think money was an overwhelming factor. Not all wineries, after all, may believe they have the resources to accomplish what has been done at Parducci. But Mr. Thornhill turns the question around. Aligning yourself with the natural forces of Nature (with a big ‘N’) will save you money. And perhaps the world. After all, how much is spent on pesticides, municipal water, and electricity? How great are the monies spent resisting the natural world? Biodiversity, plant and insect succession, water filtration, oxygenation, gravity– these are biological and physical processes to be harnessed. The idea is to align your project with how the natural world expresses itself, how it goes about its business.
Life loves to live, I tell my kids. Even the lowly weed sprouting in the median along I-5 is an act of grace. Caltrans may knock it down, but there is no denying the weed’s determination to live. There is a beauty even there.
We now join a conversation already in progress.
“We take a row, I think it’s one every 14 of 16 rows, and we put in an additional drip line, sub-surface, and then we plant around 30 to 40 different plant species in our mix. We have flowers year-round. You’ll note this row [pictured] runs all the way through the block. So we get good distribution of insects all the way through. I want all the insects I can get! They will balance themselves. There’re almost 3000 species of predatory insects in Northern California. It’s really about habitat. We do the same thing time after time after time, whether it’s the insects or the owls.”
I am shown a video, recently taken by Mr. Thornhill, of the interior of one of their many owl boxes around the property. Barn owl eggs are clearly visible. In another box fledglings hiss behind a partition. A third video shows a mother owl starring at the camera.
“People ask me, ‘So, do you put owls in the box?’. I tell them no more than I put insects in that insectary. ‘Where did you get your owls?’ Well, the owls are indigenous. They just need habitat. An average owl consumes 53 pounds of rodents in a year. So I don’t need poison in my vineyard. I don’t need traps. They will balance themselves. The owls wouldn’t be here if there wasn’t food. They just need the habitat.”
Reduce The Use
“The first thing I want to do with all of my energy consumption is ‘reduce the use’. And what we find is that if you measure there is an almost immediate reduction just because people know you’re measuring. Of course, there is a push-back in the beginning for most people when you say you want to measure everything. So, in the vineyard we installed what’re called tensiometers. They measure available moisture in the soil. We used to make our decisions based more on schedule, what was convenient, or maybe what was historical, which usually was not based on data; it was based on feeling, emotion. ‘In god we trust; all others bring data’.
So we put all these tensiometers and started measuring available moisture in the ground. We found we did not need to necessarily water on a Monday, Wednesday, or Friday, like we were doing. We might not even water at all that week. We’ve reduced our water use by 25% in our worst case, and 37% in our best case. And we end up with better balanced vines, better fruit, and better wines in the end.
“We’ve reduced the amount of water we pull from the aquifer, the water we pull from the rivers, the amount of biodiesel burned to run the pumps, the number of hours run the pumps… yet the quality of our product has been improved. A lot of people will say being environmental is too expensive, that they can’t afford it. Being environmental means being efficient. When you’re efficient, things drop to the bottom line. So first we reduce the use. Then we get into recycling.
“Here in the winery to reduce the use, I went through and divided it up into 22 different sections. Each section has its own water meter. So when walking through the winery right after I put the meter in, the gentleman running the barrel room for 17 years said he’d seen that I had put one there in his spot. He was a little concerned that I would now how much water he was wasting. I said, no. I want to know how much water you’re saving. Well, guess what? He’s done nothing but save water. And so have all of his other guys, basically in competition. They’ve got the scoreboard right there, the water meter!”
“All of our utilities have been coming down. Our electric consumption, for example, between ‘06 and ‘08 went down by 15%, but our production actually increased by between 100-200%. So, while we’ve grown the production operation tremendously, we’ve reduced our electrical use. And you see our water use in the vineyard also declined. The period from ‘05 through ‘09 was one of the worst droughts in California history. But even while we had a tremendous drought, this means far less ambient moisture, we were still able to reduce the amount of irrigation we did, and ended up with better fruit and better balanced vines.”
Reuse and Recycling
“I try to use the water that rinses the tanks to also, at the end of the day, rinse the floors. We’re using it twice, if at all possible. Then the water is to be recycled. At that point the water is BOD. Here is a picture of what it use to look like when we first got here. It was basically purple. All designers told me back then that I needed to put four 10 hp motors in my pond, basically agitators like any sewer plant uses. But signing up for 25 years for four 10 horse motors was not in my game plan. I kept going through consultants until I found one willing to think completely outside the box. We went out and maximized existing resources.
“Here’s how we did it. In the winery I gave everyone dust pans and brooms so that they could sweep up all the debris of winemaking first before they tried to wash down the floors. It all use to just go down the drain. That use to be ok, and legally it was ok, too. But it also meant that the water was basically ruined. It had no oxygen. It’s called BOD, biological oxygen demand. It’s created mostly by sugars and solids. The sugars, in our case, comes from the fruit. So my job is to get the solids out and remove the sugars, and put the oxygen back in the water.
“So when the waste water leaves the winery (after years of bringing all the plumbing into one place), it goes up to the tanks way up on top of the hill. Up there we have repurposed old fire tanks. They now serve as anaerobic digesters. The water spends between 20 and 30 days to go through those tanks. Then, via gravity, it comes down through a series of trickle towers. The first one is near the tanks. Here’s another one [pic]. The water comes up through a pipe and runs down the trickle tower.
Now, the consultants I went to designed a trickle tower for me, but it was going to be $100,000. It was all stainless steel and plastic. Instead, what I did was take some old grape trailers. These things were in the weeds. Nobody even knew they were here. They do hold water. So I then took barrel racks, old steel barrel racks, stacked them up; welded them together; stuck it full of wood slats to act as a media; I then jammed a bunch of willows between. You’ll note what most people would call black slime coating the sides. It’s actually called filamentous fungi. What it does is consume compounds, sugar being my main compound. And as the water trickles down through here it also gets aeration. So, my settling goes on in the tanks on the hill. My de-sugaring goes on in these trickle towers.
“This one [pictured above] was built about three or four months ago. The efficiency is quite measurable. It’s an amazing thing. It has a whole lot of surface area; and the filamentous fungi, if you take it in your hand, feels kind of like wet cotton. You can squeeze it. It has texture. But lay it out on the flat rock in the sun, and by the next day it is like a piece of paper. It’s almost nothing but structure.
So the water passes through the trickle towers, the last one sitting just before the water goes into the pond. So that’s the delivery of the water from the winery to the pond. Now, in the pond is where they wanted me to put these four agitators. They would have just consumed the power of three or four houses. Instead, we built a water falls.
“Think about the two main processes in this world with respect to water. The giant water filters are the Everglades of the world. The oxygenators are all the streams and rocky creeks. That’s where the trout live because that is where is found the highest oxygen level. So we figured out that with one five hp pump all we had to do was lift the water in this pond twelve feet. That takes very little psi, very little power to move a lot of water. So I raise about 400 gallons a minute twelve feet. From that point it is gravity again. The water is raised above the pond level to the road height. From there gravity takes the water through a series of water falls. Those are my aerators. All gravity. No moving parts. Rocks. Plants. No service! And were operating at 20% of the power of the four aerators originally proposed, and we achieve a water quality 3 to 4 times what they would have ever had as a goal. We’re pretty pleased.”
We pass by a portable chicken coop with a solar door which opens at dawn and closes at dusk. It must be moved every six months when the predators in the area catch on. Guinea hens pass through. Hawks, a couple species of duck, egret, black, green, and great blue heron, common snipe, geese, sandpipers, killdeer, turkeys, bluebirds, a kingfisher, even the occasional troublesome otter, all make use of the pond, one way or another. There are muskrats.
“This pond use to be purple four or five years ago. It had a smell that people on the freeway would call and complain about. There is now no smell. Again, when the water comes out of the winery it has a BOD of about 2,500. Before I can use it on land it has to have a measurement of 80 ppm. I am now somewhere below 10 ppm. We can’t even get a reading. So I have virtually no BOD. When the water comes out of the winery there is zero oxygen. I’ll measure the oxygen down where it comes out of the wetland. We’ll probably find it is over 4 ppm. Trout require about 5 ppm.
“My minimum requirement for oxygen is 1 ppm before I can land-apply it. The BOD minimum is 80 ppm before I can land-apply it. So this water in the pond can be used anytime.” [To clarify, there are two measurements in play here. One, for BOD, is a measurement of organic material: the lower the number, the better. The second is for oxygen saturation: the higher, the better. The 'minimums' Mr. Thornhill refers to are establish either at either the state or federal level, or both. Admin]
“The water has to go back and forth, back and forth, and back and forth. It comes in via gravity, passes through the water falls, is pumped back up the twelve feet and starts all over. The plants in the pond do all kinds of things. They suck out all the excess nutrients left in the winery water; all the phosphorous, the nitrogen. They will also remove heavy metals. They also introduce oxygen. Aquatic plants pull oxygen out of the atmosphere and introduce it back into the water through their roots.
I had a neighbor call me to ask if I was interested in some concrete. He was taking out a big patio. I went and looked. There were forty of these slabs [pictured]. I said I would be right back with my truck! So I am going to put a path of these all through the wetlands so that people can see what is going on.
“So here’s our dissolved oxygen level. And I would venture to say that we are probably close to 6 or 7 ppm. We’re over 5, that’s for sure. When they first gave me an oxygen set to test, it went from zero to one, in tenths. Right? I would measure and tell them that I was getting 1. They would ask if I was getting a full 1 or a point 1 [.1]? No, I was getting a 1! And if you went to the bottom of the water fall it would be 12 ppm, off the charts. Saturated. So I got a new set. I come out to check the oxygen levels once a week, usually when I’m doing a tour, just out of curiosity. But I do have a guy who checks it in three different places every single Monday. We can see a difference from end to end of the pond and wetland.
“We check BOD once a month. That’s kind of an expensive thing or I would do it all the time. But we don’t see huge changes once we get out of harvest. There just begins this very steady decline. In fact, BOD removal is much faster now because of our trickle towers. We can go right to a trickle tower and measure the BOD in the water as it comes out of the tank. At the bottom of the tower BOD is cut in half. That is just at the first tower; and I’m going to have four.
“We recycle 100% of the winery water. After we’ve ‘reduced our use’, we reuse it more than once. It’s kind of like a wine glass. When people ask me what is the difference between ‘recycle’ and ‘reuse’, I tell them that a wine glass is reused. When it is broken, it’s recycled. So with the water, we try to use it more than once. But it does get ‘broken’. Then we have to recycle it. So this entire process here saved me about 5 million gallons of water last year that I was then able to use for irrigation. It’s high-quality water. I would have otherwise had to buy it.”
“So, number one, we recycle 100% of the water. Number two, we do it in a way that consumes very little energy, with no chemical applications. Number three, we’ve ended up with a bird sanctuary out of it; more habitat, more biodiversity, a greater contribution to the biodynamics of this property. And number four, I get to share the knowledge with people and try to teach others.
“When you want to talk about sustainability, what is true sustainability, well, first of all it means living your life and running your business so that it doesn’t adversely impact future generations. I didn’t come up with that. But I also think that it means sharing information. If you are not passing the information along, that is not sustainable. The sooner we pass it on right now, the better. It needs to be viral.
“My partners and I came to the conclusion, when we created our partnership, that if we waited for the governments around the globe to address environmental concerns, then it wouldn’t happen fast enough. However, industry can turn on a dime, with incentives. They are now incentified. They weren’t five years ago.
It’s been a struggle all my life to be an environmental person. Other people sort of laugh at it, and don’t pay any attention. It’s the same thing with organics. I remember when I kept thinking, well, there getting it now. That was 10 years ago. Maybe they’re getting it now. That was 5 years ago. Now they’re getting it. I mean, now there is a big push. A big wave. There is incentive.
“You take Walmart and Clorox. I’ve sat on boards with the environmental guys and that is the number one thing they are focused on is turning their company green. They know that if they don’t, they’re out. That company will not be around five to ten years from now. I’m convinced.
“The generation coming into play now, my kids, basically, the twenty and thirty year-olds, they are distrusting. They see what is happening. They want third-party certification. So, that’s where ‘certified organic’ or ‘certified biodynamic’ comes in. A lot of people don’t want to be measured. I do. It’s kind of like running in a race. If I’m going to run, let’s make it a race. If it’s going to be a race, then I really prefer the front. It’s just a lot more fun.” (laughs)
We then drove to the winery’s tasting room where I enjoyed a healthy lunch. I turned off my recorder. Both my intellectual and corporeal appetites were satisfied.