Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars

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Flags marked the areas along the creek where native shubs and trees were to be planted.

The Chase Creek Restoration: Good for the Environment, Good for the Vineyards

Talk to any viticulturist or vineyard manager today, and you’re as likely to hear about ecosystems and wildlife habitats as you are about rootstocks and clones. In the last two decades there has been a sea change in the way California vineyards are farmed. Today, viticulturists focus not only on the grapevines and the crop, but on the environment around the vineyard and adjacent habitat as a whole. The effect has been two-fold: more vibrant, natural ecosystems, and healthier vineyards.

At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, our interest inagricultural preservation and a holistic approach to farming led us to a major habitat restoration project that began over five years ago. Chase Creek, a long and winding tributary of the Napa River, runs through our S.L.V. and FAY vineyards in the Stags Leap District. Over time, erosion had diverted the creek from its natural course, and invasive, non-native plants had insinuated themselves along the creek banks and vineyard borders.

Working with a Northern California bioengineering firm that specializes in restoring damaged terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, we used native plants as the basic building blocks of the restoration process. “Mattresses” of willow were laid down over the creek banks to prevent erosion, and hundreds of tons of rock (all from our own land) were placed, often by hand, to create protection for tree roots and to direct water flow to reduce silt runoff. We preserved old growth trees, removed non-native plants and replaced them with native species. We also brought students in from local schools to learn firsthand about the importance of the watershed and the complexity of Napa Valley’s ecosystem, and to help plant trees and shrubs along the creek bank.

Five years later, a walk down Chase Creek is a very different experience. Native plants thrive along the banks; raptors, hawks and owls nest in the new vegetation; and bobcats, fox and coyotes peacefully coexist in the gorgeous riparian corridor adjacent to our vineyards. The creek has returned to what Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Vineyard Manager Kirk Grace calls the ideal state of “runs and riffles,” flowing for a bit and then stair stepping — or riffling — downstream.

Most importantly, according to Kirk, is the effect this healthier watershed has had on the S.L.V. and FAY vineyards. “You can see it and feel it,” he says. “Healthy ecosystems radiate outwards; there is a direct correlation between the vibrancy of the watershed and the vitality of the vineyards.”

One crucial correlation is that native plants don’t act as “hosts” for unwanted insects such as the blue-green sharpshooter, a vector that carries Pierce’s disease. As a result, Kirk sees a lot less damage from this vine crippling ailment in our Napa Valley vineyards. In addition, he has noticed better water quality and a reduction in weeds, insects, and disease, that act as destructive drains on the system. The result— vineyards experience much less soil erosion, even after major winter storm events.

“Because of the creek restoration, the farm environment as a whole is in much better balance,” says Kirk. “The vineyard soils are stable and vibrant, and the vines reflect the health of a diverse ecosystem where native Napa Valley plants and wildlife thrive.”