By: Nan McCreary, Sr. Staff Writer, The Grapevine Magazine
When Paul Vandenberg was 10-years-old, he would wait eagerly for his mother’s copy of “Organic Gardening and Farming” to arrive so he could read it cover to cover. When he was 13, he made his first wine out of blackberries. It’s no surprise then that Vandenberg, after studying ecology in college, found his life’s work in an organic vineyard in Washington State.
“I started working in the wine industry in 1983, just as the vineyard explosion was happening in the state,” Vandenberg told The Grapevine Magazine. “I had always been an organic gardener, but everyone thought I was ‘hippy dippy’ at the time.” Yet several years later, Vandenberg was at Badger Mountain Vineyard when the owner, Bill Powers, was having problems with herbicide drift from wheat fields that were 10 to 20 miles away. Out of frustration, Powers implemented organic farming techniques to help mitigate the problem. And that was Vandenberg’s entrée for his true passion: he was with Badger Mountain when it became Washington’s first certified organic vineyard, and later, was winemaker at Worden’s Winery when he produced the first organic wine in the state, which took Worden’s into the worldwide marketplace.
Fast forward to 2004 and Vandenberg established his own playground, Paradisos del Sol Winery in Zillah, WA, in the Rattlesnake Hills sub-AVA of the Yakima Valley AVA. For the past 20 years, he has taken organic viticulture to new heights by growing grapes in a pesticide-free environment and producing wines that are pure expressions of the earth. In choosing land for his farm, Vandenberg went to great lengths to locate a property that would meet specific farming requirements. “I did not start growing grapes because I owned the land; I found land where I thought I could grow grapes with the least use of pesticides. It’s one of the sweetest spots on the planet. It has a fine, deep loam soil deposited by the great Missoula floods and is on a ridgetop where the leaves are bathed in high intensity sunlight.” It is this sunlight, Vandenberg said, that acts as a natural deterrent to powdery mildew, a potentially devastating grapevine disease.
To assure ample sunlight in his vineyards, Vandenberg uses a Divided Canopy Quadrilateral Cordon System (Lyre) developed by UC-Davis research viticulturist Mark Kliewer. In this system, instead of using a single wire to support the cordon and maybe one or two wires to support some of the canopy, the grape grower uses a cross arm to create two cordons, separated horizontally by a meter. “The idea is to have two curtains rising from a cordon wire with an open space in between,” Vandenberg explained. “With more openness in the fruit zone, the fruit is well-exposed to light, which adds to color and flavor in the grapes, and deters powdery mildew.”
Vandenberg describes his trellising system as a “low-vigor canopy,” defined by international viticulturist Richard Smart as a canopy with no more than 15 shoots per meter of cordon and a shoot length no greater than a meter. A low-vigor canopy on a single-wire system will yield a maximum of four tons per acre; by having a double trellis, the yield is double. “The key is balancing the sun and the shade,” Vandenberg said. “Pruning depends on the variety, and the size of its leaves and berries. But essentially all varieties have the same sort of canopy density, the same openness, and the same ability for light to come in for every leaf and every grape.”
Vandenberg’s pest control strategies in his vineyard are not just in the canopy; they’re also on the vineyard floor. Here on the surface, cover crops grow year ‘round to support a lively complex of predatory insects in the dirt below. For example, dozens of blooming plants provide pollen and nectar for wasps, which prey on leafhoppers. Also, over 16 identified species of mushroom caps on the surface indicates mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) web below, which receives sugar from the grapevine roots and in exchange gives nutrients. The objective, said Vandenberg, is to create an environment of well-fed plants so they are able to use their own natural defenses to avoid predators like powdery mildew and leafhoppers. “Biodiversity creates stability and avoids the eruption of populations of pests,” Vandenberg told the Grapevine Magazine. “My soil is not just dirt; it’s a live complex of organisms. That’s what organic gardening is all about.
The biggest pest problem at Paradisos del Sol, said Vandenberg, is pocket gophers. He is trying to manage this naturally, of course, by building boxes for barn owls, who are the number one predator for gophers. Vandenberg has installed an “owl cam,” so he can watch the owlets grow.
Like his practices in the vineyard, Vandenberg employs as many natural processes as possible when making wines. “Great wine is grown, not made,” he said. “As a terroirist, I let the wine be what it is. I don’t adjust pH and acidity to some textbook standard.” Paradisos del Sol produces wines from 15 varieties of grapes. Reds include Tempranillo, Sangiovese, Zinfandel, Malbec, Pinot Meunier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and two oddballs: Lemberger, a grape widely grown in Austria and Hungary, and Teroldego, a grape from northwest Italy. White wines include Chenin Blanc, Semillon, Riesling, Orange Muscat, White Muscat, and yet another oddball, Xarel·lo, one of the three grapes used in Cava. Vandenberg is the only person in the U.S. to commercially plant Xarel·lo. “Somebody’s got to plant these things and try them out,” he said.
While Vandenberg grows multiple varieties of grapes, he releases only two varietal wines: a Sangiovese and a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged Chenin Blanc. He uses his red grapes to produce three wines, including a barrel-fermented and barrel-aged Rosé. He also creates blends with his white wines. Vandenberg eschews the use of new barrels, as he wants no heavy oak influences in his wines. “I grow grapes, not oak trees,” he said. “I believe you can get oak flavors in a 12-year-old barrel; my barrels are over 20 years old.
Vandenberg does use fining and filtering techniques but puts minimal additives in his wine. Typically, ingredients listed on the label of a white wine are: 100% hand-picked sustainably grown organic grapes, yeast, bentonite clay, minimum effective so2 (potassium metabisulfite). Ingredients listed on the label of a red wine are: 100% hand-picked sustainably grown organic grapes, yeast, malolactic culture, minimum effective so2 (potassium metabisulfite). Vandenberg describes his winemaking practices as “old methods.” The wine goes in the barrel as grape juice, with no racking until it is pulled out of the barrel. “I try to provide the vine a perfect environment so that it is healthy and happy and produces fabulous tasting fruit,” he explained. “I don’t mess with it: I just let it do its thing. A barrel in a cool, dark room is a wonderful place to make wine. That’s why it’s been done that way for 2000 years.”
Vandenberg describes Paradisos del Sol as a “small family estate winery.” He produces less than 2000 cases per year, and all is sold direct-to-consumer. Wine prices range from $7 to $48. Vandenberg runs the operation with his wife, Barbara Sherman (who manages the office), and only hires part-time employees during harvest and shoot thinning and leaf pulling. The vineyard is Certified Organic by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.
Compared to other wineries, Paradisos del Sol is also an integrated farm, with chickens, turkeys, cattle, pigs, and sheep, who help mow the vineyard during the winter when grapevines are dormant. The tasting room, with views of Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier, is open daily, and offers visitors an opportunity to taste not just wine, but food paired with the specific wines. The destination is very popular with families, as children can feed chickens and play with the cats and dogs that live on premises. Paradisos del Sol provides picnic facilities and free overnight camping for tents and self-contained RVs. Horses are welcome, with water available for them.
Indeed, Vandenberg has created an organic paradise in the heart of the Yakima Valley. There, in this garden in the desert, he offers tours and talks to visitors who want to understand more about how he grows his grapes and produces his wines. “People don’t understand what organic means,” he told The Grapevine Magazine. “Organic means a systemic, all-embracing approach to gardening and farming. It’s about manipulating the environment in a way that is favorable to something we want to do.” As an enologist with over 36 years of experience, Vandenberg’s knowledge is vast, but his mantra is simple: “We are a traditional small wine estate dedicated to growing grapes without the use of pesticides and trying to make the best pure and wholesome wines we can.” For more information on Paradisos del Sol visit their website: https://paradisosdelsol.com/Home.htm