Brookfield winery turns to organic growing
Organic grape farming, while common on the West Coast, poses so many challenges on the East Coast that vineyards using such natural processes are few and far between.
Steamy summers, bitterly cold winters, multiple rainy seasons and the proliferation of weeds and insects all conspire against grape farmers wishing to grow their vineyards organically. For Mark Langford, business manager of DiGrazia Vineyards, the extra work is worth the effort.
“There’s not a rush to go out and grow organically because it’s expensive and labor intensive and works on only a few varieties,” Langford said during an interview in the tasting room at his family’s Tower Road winery. “There’s always new threats with invasive weeds and insects and weather. There’s definitely a learning curve.”
Langford has been using organic farming methods at the winery’s one-third-acre vineyard at the Brookfield site for two years. DiGrazia Vineyards has a 40-acre vineyard in Amenia, N.Y., as well. Langford is converting the smaller plot first because any failures will not affect the bottom line drastically.
The results have been positive so far, Langford said. Heavy and frequent rains made for less-than-ideal growing conditions in 2017, he said, but the yield and quality of the harvest was excellent.
“It can be daunting, but the whole idea is to use natural methods instead of just spraying something on it,” Langford said. “After two years, it’s definitely promising and worth the effort. There has always been a healthy aspect to the wines made here.”
The Brookfield vineyard produces Elvira grapes for the winery’s Anastasia’s Blush rose wine.
Dr. Paul DiGrazia, who founded the vineyard in 1978, sees the organic conversion as a logical next step to meet the demand of today’s consumer.
“People want something that’s not contaminated with chemicals,” said DiGrazia, who is still a practicing physician at Danbury Hospital. “Down the road, I hope they have better labeling on wine so people know what they are drinking. When that happens, we’ll be at the forefront of organic wine making.”
An organic vineyard
Applying an organic growing method here or there is not enough for Langford. He is shooting for the strict USDA certification and hopes to someday display that designation on DiGrazia Vineyards wine labels.
Growing organically includes using no synthetic ingredients for fertilizer or weed control. Natural compost must be used to feed the plants, and weeds must be controlled by pulling or whacking them. Cover crops, such as oats or rye, are fast-growing annuals that protect and enrich the soil as well as control weeds. When the cover crops die, they become compost for the soil. Langford has experimented with six cover crop varieties so far.
Returning soil to its natural state without tilling, or turning over, the soil is a main component of organic farming.
“My feeling is if you are going to go organic, you may as well go all the way,” Langford said. “The fertilizer is more expensive and there’s a lot more labor involved, which is also expensive. But there is definitely a demand for organic products. Making better wine will help the bottom line eventually so the extra work will pay off in the long run.”
Jeff Cordulak, director of the Connecticut chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association, said organic farming and landscaping is growing in popularity throughout the state. Connecticut NOFA will hold its annual Organicon event in March at Western Connecticut State University in Danbury.
“We are excited to hear about their efforts to practice organic farming at their Connecticut winery,” he said. “They are joining a few other pioneers in our region that have realized synthetic chemicals are not needed to grow great crops. I look forward to following his progress in the coming year.”
A light bulb moment
It was during an intensive, four-day organic course held by NOFA that Langford got the idea to convert the Brookfield vineyard to an organic plot. Langford also owns a landscaping and plowing business and took the course to educate himself on organic land care. He said land and lawn care is another aspect of the organic movement that is growing in demand.
“I was halfway through the course when a light bulb went off. This could help the grapes. This is the way it should be,” Langford said. “I realized I could apply these principles to our vineyard to solve some of the problems we have.”
Invasive weeds had been an issue for the vineyard, as well as countless other farms, lawns and woods throughout New England. The proliferation of Japanese knotweed, kudzu, Oriental bittersweet and other introduced weeds poses major challenges for farmers and has altered the ecosystem of the region.
“The weeds move in and become harder to eradicate by traditional methods. Oriental bittersweet will take over your woods. It will do the same thing to vineyards,” he said. “Natural soil will control weeds. Weeds love a chaotic environment because they can prosper there. Just look at the sides of roads. Weeds are an indication of a problem. Grapes are like trees in that they like a structured system.”
Booming winery scene
Just like the craft beer scene in Connecticut, the business of small craft wine is burgeoning in the state, as well.
DiGrazia, now 85, started growing grapes in 1978 with the intent of selling his crops to other wineries. In 1984, he opened his own winery. DiGrazia Vineyards became one of the original six wineries on the Connecticut Wine Trail in the early 1990s.
There are now nearly 40 wineries in the state — 24 of which are included on the wine trail.
“There’s a strong interest in grape-growing now,” Langford said. “Wineries are big for tourism now.”
DiGrazia Vineyards has limited hours from January through April and is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. In the summer and fall, the winery is closed only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Wine tastings, which include six varieties, are $10. Tours of the winery are free.
DiGrazia wines are found in more than 150 retail stores in Connecticut.
It remains a family-owned and operated business and is now in its third generation with DiGrazia, Paul DiGrazia Jr., Langford, and Langford’s daughter Alexa all involved with the winery.
“It’s very much a family-run business, which is unusual these days,” Langford said.
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