It’s for good reason Mark Greenspan, Ph.D., CPAg, CCA, frequently is seen on panels of vineyard experts and is published in industry trade journals and publication.
With more than a quarter century of scientific, technical and field experience in wine grape irrigation, he’s considered one of the world’s go-to consultants. He earned a doctorate in agricultural engineering from University of California, Davis, and designations from the American Society of Agronomy as a certified crop advisor (CCA) and certified professional agronomist (CPAg).
Greenspan started Advanced Viticulture in 2005 and is its president and viticulturist. It’s small for a North Coast vineyard management company, farming about 180 acres for 20 clients. Yet the company has a much wider impact, consulting on hundreds more acres. The firm provides technical services for more than 30 regular clients and custom work for a number of others.
How large is your team?
MARK GREENSPAN: Our vineyard management team consists of between 14-20 people. We have a stable leadership team, while some of our labor force fluctuates. That said, we have a core group of field workers who have been with Alec Roser, our vineyard manager, for many years. In addition to the vineyard management team, our technical team consists of four specialists, including myself.
What has been major news for your company recently?
GREENSPAN: We recently became certified under California Sustainable Winegrowing (CCSW-Certified). All the vineyards we farm are certified under these guidelines. As someone who has helped refine some of the guidelines, I am proud to be certified under that program. As I always say, sustainable viticulture is the only true viticulture.
We also started producing compost tea for our vineyards and are selling the product to growers in Sonoma County, working with Growing Solutions, Inc. to produce Syntrophy compost extract under license from them. We’re really excited to have started this program, as we’re sure it will benefit the health and sustainability of our vineyards and our customer’s vineyards. We hope to ramp up production of the compost tea product next year for the 2017 growing season and beyond.
I recently completed my term as president of the American Society of Enology and Viticulture (ASEV). It was thoroughly enjoyable to support an organization that serves as a conduit to the industry for technical and scientific information. I continue to promote the organization to growers, because I don’t believe enough of them are enjoying the benefits of ASEV. Not long ago, I received the Business Water Conservation Award from the Russian Riverkeeper organization for my vineyard irrigation work, which I am delighted to have received.
How much has your company grown in recent years?
GREENSPAN: We’ve grown tremendously. I started the company in 2005, with just myself. I started having summer interns help me during the growing season, and that was the model we had for about five years. In 2011, I was introduced to Alec (Roser)through a mutual friend. Alec had years and years of experience planting and managing vineyards. While seemingly risky, I hired him as a vineyard technician with hopes we would grow from purely technical services into vineyard management as well. Alec was my first year-round employee.
We found some early opportunities managing some small vineyards, started purchasing equipment and from there our vineyard management business began. Initially, we used farm labor contractors, so we operated very thinly as a management company.
In 2015, we hired crews and a supervisor, which was our first big move into becoming a self-contained management company. The new hires were not strangers. Alec and our company had been working with most of them for a long time already. We hired a second supervisor in 2016 and have bolstered the crew a bit more.
Alec Roser deserves the attention for our success in vineyard management. He is extremely talented in what he does, has strong intuition about viticulture and has extreme attention to detail. I think the region should look at Alec as one of the up and coming vineyard managers. Many wineries have already found that out and we’ve been making more quality relationships every year.
On the technical side of our business, we’ve been adding personnel since 2013, now having two soil scientists and one PCA/GIS specialist. And we still employ interns every year — mostly local people associated with Santa Rosa Junior College. I’ve felt that building a business like this is not only enjoyable, but a chance for me to employ some high-quality people to provide services that are second to none. There is always room to improve and expand.
What impact have you and your company had on how winegrapes are grown in the North Coast?
GREENSPAN: On the farming side, we are truly perfectionists. Alec and his team have built several vineyards and we are very proud of them, especially with one shining star 24-plus acre vineyard in the heart of the Russian River that is already commanding serious attention from high-end wineries. I think we will set a great example for high-end vineyards. I would humbly submit that our erosion control practices could serve as a reference for other vineyards.
As many others know, we have been working very much around irrigation and fertilization practices. I have been working in grapevine water relations for over 25 years and I am excited to see that many growers are finding they can apply less water to their vineyards without loss in productivity and with an improvement in wine quality.
Our fertilization practices have also shown that “less is more” and that we can save money on fertilizer inputs while actually balancing out the nutrition of our vines. To me, these are all foundations for true sustainability. Of course, many also know that I have been writing a monthly viticulture column in Wine Business Monthly for over 11 years now, and I think that is having impact in all fine wine growing regions of the state, especially the North Coast for those that take the time to read my column.
How far has the North Coast come in viticultural practices? Where does the grape growing in the region need to go next?
GREENSPAN: I’ve seen tremendous improvement in North Coast viticulture over the last couple of decades I’ve been involved with it. As I mentioned, better irrigation management, better fertilizer management have led to more balanced vineyards. Floor management has gotten better, with growers identifying suitable cover crop blends that grow well around here and contribute the right amount of nitrogen to supply the vines.
I’ve seen more use of mechanization, but we are still mostly using hand labor. With recent and pending changes in labor availability and compensation, the old ways of doing things will not be economically viable. We will need to move towards mechanization in more and more of our practices, not just harvest. This will happen slowly at first, but now more than ever this is crucial to our industry — no matter what quality tier we are growing for.
More and more growers are moving to sustainable practices, which is exciting. Not all are going to purely organic practices, but I’m seeing more vineyards go towards organic, such as using fewer or less toxic herbicides (or no herbicides at all), as well as organic fungicides and fertilizers.
Amid all of this, wine quality is very important to wineries. There has been a movement away from overly-ripe fruit that creates wines with high alcohols, low acidity, and one-dimensional fruit flavors towards wines that are more balanced on the palate.
It takes special viticultural practices to get fruit at optimal flavor ripeness and at lower sugar content, which is something we have been promoting using controlled stress-inducing irrigation practices. And we have not seen any yield losses as a result, which is something growers always fear. If anything, we see more stable yields from year to year.
Mechanization will see a steep increase in usage. Labor will be less available and more expensive. While parts of Napa will be able to hold off for a while due to their high-valued fruit, other regions of the north coast will soon suffer tremendous economic difficulty with hand labor. Technology for vineyard mechanization is already available and is getting better all the time. Growers and wineries will just need to get on-board. This will be challenging for smaller growers, as the cost of equipment needs to be borne across all of their acreage, which makes sense for medium to larger-scale growers, but not for tiny ones. Companies such as ours will need to start using this machinery more and more in places where we relied solely on hand labor.
What are growers and wineries most concerned about these days in the vineyards?
GREENSPAN: Cost of farming is and always has been an issue. We find that all the time with our clients. Even though it’s largely a seller’s market for many varieties grown in the North Coast, the grower still gets squeezed as cost of farming rises faster than the price of grapes.
On top of all that, regulations keep piling up, making compliance with all of them very difficult. All growers want to be compliant and provide a safe work environment for everyone. But it is getting more and more difficult for them to keep up with all of the regulations.
Besides labor and cost issues, vine disease is a big threat. Red blotch disease is showing up everywhere, making it difficult to fully ripen grapes. All new plantings are being carefully scrutinized as to the health of the planting material. Pierce’s disease is showing up in a big way in recent years and it is really causing economic damage to vineyards. Invasive pests are always an issue. Thanks to some great efforts, the region finally eradicated the European Grapevine Moth, but it was not easy and it was costly.
How are science and technology addressing these issues?
We use aerial imagery routinely to identify patterns in the vineyard that are not easily identified on the ground. That helps us to diagnose problems in the soil, pests and disease presence, or to modify our irrigation to better suit whole vineyard blocks.
Data systems are commonplace in viticulture now and we have used several of them ourselves, as well as customizing them for our viticultural practices and using them to track labor, equipment and materials. Growing grapes can’t be done on a clipboard anymore. Everything needs to be tracked for compliance, reporting, payroll, billing and to identify ways to streamline our practices.
For water management, we make heavy use of soil moisture profile sensors and we have hundreds of monitoring sites in the north coast now. These soil moisture devices are a big part of our business and are the tools we ourselves use day-to-day. We also use portable devices to measure plant stress, some of which are new and others that have been around for decades.
We are getting much of this information through data telemetry systems, so we and our clients can view weather, soil moisture and irrigation system information in real-time.