Farming for the Future.
Sustainability at Pisoni Vineyards

Mark and Jazmin tend to the plants in the insectary

Long-flowering California buckwheat; tall-stemmed Silver lupine, whose purple flowers entice bees; aromatic California sagebrush, which offers nesting materials for threatened bird species: these plants comprise only several of the plant species Pisoni’s Jazmin Lopez is cultivating on the family’s vineyard insectary. At one acre, the insectary is one of the largest of its kind in the state. Jazmin, who is currently a fellow in the California Agricultural Leadership Program (whose mission is to keep farming vibrant in the state) and vineyard manager Mark Pisoni have chosen to tend only native species in this garden. Moreover, they’ve selected a great many varieties specific to Monterey county and which thrive in the AVA of the Santa Lucia Highlands.

Some of these plants sport less than showy blooms. But their smallish flowers are very effective at attracting beneficial insects, Jazmin explains. Parasitic wasps help keep the populations of mealy bugs down, a particularly significant pest. Hoverflies–bee look-alikes which hover over flowers and feed on nectar–discourage aphids, and ladybugs feed on mites.

Hands working in the Pisoni insectary
Jazmin Lopez works in the Pisoni Vineyards insectary.

In choosing plants that attract hummingbirds, butterflies, and insect pollinators of all kinds, the Pisonis are practicing what is called integrated pest management, or IPM. IPM involves the use of beneficial insects and nutrient mixes for soil. It also means that the Pisonis set traps to monitor insects and closely monitor weather and pest pressures across the year. This holistic approach allows the family to avoid relying exclusively on a spraying program. Though time-intensive, IPM is far better, they feel, for the vines and the ranch.

The decisions the Pisonis have made with respect to their insectary garden look forward as they illustrate the family’s larger principles. They are deeply committed to sustainable farming. Indeed, they have earned a “Sustainability in Practice” certification for all three vineyard sites–Pisoni, Soberanes, and Garys’ Vineyards–from the Sustainability in Practice (SIP) program, having undergone a rigorous, third-party review from the central coast grower’s organization. “The SIP program assesses the big picture,” Mark notes. Its integrative “block-to-bottle” approach uses independent, measurable scientific standards to assess relationships between winemakers, workers, and the environment.

Sustainability is not merely a function of SIP certification, however–though the Pisonis are pleased to have been awarded this designation. Rather, it is a principle which, put into practice, involves hundreds and hundreds of decisions annually and an unceasing effort to gauge how the sum of small, daily choices affects the complex, vital relationship between the land and the people who live and work upon it. Determining how to make what Mark calls “good, long-term choices for our farm, our employees, and the environment,” means being flexible. Working sustainably, for the Pisonis, means adopting (and being ready to adapt) a host of best farming practices drawn from conventional, natural, organic, and biodynamic methods of working.

Green vines coexist with oak trees, which are part of the natural habitat in the Santa Lucia Highlands. Owl boxes are also installed to encourage certain birds of prey to take up residence.

“Every ranch and every vintage is different,” Mark clarifies. As Jeff, Pisoni’s winemaker, explains, each “unique vineyard site possesses its own ecosystem.” It’s crucial that farming decisions be made not simply with respect to region–the viticultural “macroclimate,” or AVA, that is–but also that they be fine-tuned to accord with the character of each vineyard’s acreage (its “mesoclimate,” that is), and even that they take into account the tiny, particular “microclimates” constituted by every single row of vines.

Taking a “best practices” approach to sustainability involves a wealth of activities and a range of technologies. It means adopting a long-term approach, Mark emphasizes, from “properly planting our cover crop, to building up our soil, to considering what rootstocks we plant and how we plant them,” all in order “to position our vines to live from fifty to one hundred years.”

Cover crops grow in the healthy soil between young vine rows. A cover crop can greatly benefit overall soil health and prevent erosion.

Sustainability, for the Pisonis, means using solar panels on the vegetable farm as well as in the winery, as well as variable speed pumps in wells in order to reduce the use of electric power. Sustainability also means using minimal tractor passes in the vineyards in order to reduce diesel vehicle emissions. And it means maintaining and improving soil health–not only by planting cover crops that protect and enrich the earth, but also by applying compost. At the moment, the Pisonis are moving toward hoeing weeds by hand and mechanically in new plantings as well as in a trial vineyard block. They expect to further this approach, which goes beyond what SIP certification requires, over the next several years. Maintaining healthy soil helps farmers minimize their yield losses in years with extreme weather. Soils that are healthy withstand erosion and make nutrients available to the vines. They also hold onto water for plant uptake better than do poorer soils and minimize loss.

Vineyard worker Mario Reyes planting a grapevine at Pisoni Vineyards. The soil is forever the foundation and must be greatly cared for.

The soil is the farmer’s foundation. But farming involves a great many more factors, and wise husbandry means coordinating decisions across them. Conserving water, especially in a state prone to drought, is clearly fundamental to sustainability in the Santa Lucia Highlands, as in other AVAs. To these ends, the Pisoni weather station tracks how much water is applied in the vineyards. In addition to walking the land daily to judge plant health and soil moisture, the family uses state-of-the-art equipment to ensure judicious water use, technologies that include a pressure chamber, a porometer, and soil probes that measure moisture as deep as the five-foot mark.

A Tule system measures plant evapotranspiration. Water evaporates from soil surfaces; transpiration also proceeds through the stomata in plants–tiny openings in the epidermis of plants that permit the absorption of carbon dioxide and the passage of oxygen and water out into the atmosphere. The Tule system uses a hardware device installed in the field above the vine canopy. This device communicates to Pisoni’s server using a cell connection, providing information about the actual amount of water lost in each vineyard. Essentially, it monitors the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum, providing forecasts of atmospheric demand and recommendations for the amount of water to apply each week based on the production goals the family inputs to the server. With the continuous stream of information provided by this cutting-edge technology, the Pisonis can use the drip irrigation method with absolute precision, applying not one drop more water than their vines require. “It would be a lot easier just to turn on a valve,” Mark comments. This kind of intense water conservation “takes a lot of time and demands us to be out in the fields constantly. But to us, this is what sustainability is all about.”

A tractor working the soil between the vine rows. Practices such as this can benefit and balance soil properties, vine growth and moisture levels.

Ultimately, growing sustainably means providing a healthy environment not just for the soil and the plants, but the people who work with both. It’s important to the Pisonis to providing competitive wages, health insurance, and excellent training to their team. “We have people who have worked here longer than Mark and I have been alive,” Jeff notes. A forty-year tenure with the Pisonis provides illustration of sustainability in and of itself.

For the Pisonis and their team, maintaining a healthy ecosystem is crucial to this process. “If the whole ecosystem’s healthy,” Mark notes, “the farm will be healthy.” To that end, only 35 acres of the 280 acres the Pisonis own is planted. A great deal of land is set aside to conserve biodiversity and habitat.

If you are fortunate enough to find yourself at Pisoni, walk in the wildlife corridor and sight turkey, deer, and perhaps a coyote or two, as well as owls and hawks. Watch Mark and his team at work in the apiary; or, if you prefer, stroll through the insectary Jazmin tends and watch the bees and hoverflies industrious at their own work while the California buckwheat turns a beautiful rust color, offering vibrant accents to this most vital of farms.

Mark in the vineyard with long-standing vineyard team member, Elias.