When it comes to organic farming, perhaps the classic image is of a farmer in a straw hat and overalls with lots of dirt under his fingernails, sweat on his brow, and chewing on a sprig of wheat. While the picture might be nostalgic, farming organically has come a long way. I meet Rich Schaefers of Beckstoffer Vineyards late on a Friday morning, just before the day’s temperature starts really rising, underneath an old shady tree on a quiet street corner in Ukiah. There’s no straw hat or overalls. Jeans and a collared shirt are his attire. They’re appropriate. Rich doesn’t have to get his fingernails dirty, at least, not too often. 

Chardonnay Vines at Beckstoffer Vineyards



As odd as it may sound, organic farming, when it comes to a large scale grower like Beckstoffer Vineyards, has become quite mechanized. With as many acres of grapes as Rich tends to, machines are key for keeping the costs of weed control and harvesting down. Smaller growers have to manage their vineyards by hand, so there’s extra expense for the labor it takes. At a yield of about 4,000 tons of fruit, man-power is not really a viable option. However, as Rich puts it, “If you can afford good equipment, it’s quite effective.” In fact, for producers that are in a position to put 20,000 hours on a machine and wear it out in four years so that they can buy a new and improved model, organic farming is actually easier to do. Most years, Rich says, the cost of farming organically is actually comparable to more conventional methods. The extra expense of organic farming comes during years with increased mildew and disease pressure. 

That’s where the human element becomes key. To be successful, “…you need a lot of footsteps in the vineyards,” Rich explains. The use of what Rich calls “softer chemistry,” like sulfur dust, is only effective if the farmer’s timing is perfect. That means good people with good memories and experience are invaluable. Learning lessons from years past, being aware of problem spots, and monitoring those areas carefully can greatly reduce crop loss. Tools like remote temperature monitors and Google Earth have been valued assets for curtailing the risks of farming without chemicals. 

A cluster of Chardonnay at Beckstoffer Vineyards



In the eleven years Rich has been with Beckstoffer Vineyards, even with all the hard work they put into maintaining their organic farming practices, he hasn’t seen a premium placed on organic grapes or an inherent value from a branding stand point. As he explains, “I think people have the perception that because we’re a big operation we can’t do it as well, and it’s a challenge for us.” The reality is that because of efficiency of scale, the extra costs that small producers face when farming organically don’t apply in the same fashion. It’s the difference between one man farming 10 acres by hand and one man farming 100 acres with the help of machinery. At Beckstoffer Vineyards, they’re committed to organic methods because they feel it’s the right thing to do, but not every large producer has the same line of thought. More of them would switch to organic practices if consumers changed their buying habits and favored wines produced in that fashion. Of course, for that to happen perceptions have to change. Just like the organic farmer isn’t a guy in a straw hat and overalls anymore, the organic grape grower of the future doesn’t have to just be a small operation. Thanks to people like Rich and growers like Beckstoffer Vineyards, the movement is already underway. 

The entrance to Barra's tasting room.


Sometimes, however, to get a sense of the future, the best place to look is past experience. Just north of Ukiah in the Redwood Valley, you’ll find Barra of Mendocino. Charlie Barra grows grapes there, and he’s got a little bit of experience. This year he’ll complete his 65th harvest. As he will tell you, he’s been farming organically for 50 years–he just didn’t know it the first 30. Charlie’s folks came from Italy at the turn of the century where they were grape growers. Of course, they never used chemicals, and when Charlie settled in Mendocino county, he saw no reason to change. “We have an exceptional climate here. It helps with mildew, mold, and bugs.” In growing regions with more consistent rain, farming organically would be much more challenging, but in Mendocino chemicals just aren’t needed. As Charlie phrases it, “If I couldn’t [grow grapes organically], then I’d use chemicals.” In fact, the main reason people use chemicals is that the “chemical companies want to sell chemicals. They could come out and see me and if I listened to them, I’d spend thousands of dollars,” he quips. 

Read Reviews of Barra wine here. 

Charlie may be whimsical with a phrase, but his commitment to protecting the environment is deep-seeded. The amount of damage that’s been done to the planet worries him greatly, and in Mendocino county, he’s not alone in this thinking. As his wife Martha explains to me, “It all started way back in the 60’s when back-to-the-land’ers came to Mendocino County. Residents were tolerant of those ‘different’ from themselves. These people brought with them a counter-culture that continues to this day.” That counter-culture has resisted corporate pressures to engage in off-shore drilling, clear-cutting of redwood trees, or weed spraying along the highways. The same philosophies drive many of the county’s vintners, and they’ve made sure to do their part in protecting the environment.  

So why have green farming practices been so popularized in Mendocino and still have room for expansion in other wine-growing regions? Well, partly, as Martha puts it, “Mendocino County is just different.” That’s a simple answer, though. It’s true that because much of the county is rural, there’s a particular vibe, a true love for the land that resonates throughout the region. For me, however, it’s a common value of how wineries conduct their business that really sets Mendocino apart. Everyone I spoke to had found a way to run a successful business and keep their operations in harmony with the environment. Maybe having such a mindset costs a few extra dollars here and there, but when one considers monetary gain against preserving our planet, there’s really not a contest. Charlie Barra made it through over sixty successful harvests using the organic methods he learned from his father, and the people of Beckstoffer Vineyards continue to find new and improved ways to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of organic farming. With great wine and great people, the region’s future looks very bright and, of course, very green. Let’s just hope the same commitment and mindset that gives Mendocino such a special character find their way into people’s hearts outside the county. After my visit, I’m certainly a believer. Visit for yourself and you’ll probably be one, too.  

Read wine reviews from Boutique produces in the Ukiah and Redwood Valley here.


Taste them all at the Tierra art garden in Ukiah.