Resources Soil

Turning Waste into Wine: A Pilgrimage to the Composted Land

Written by Sven Eberlein

It is said that Jesus was able to turn water into wine. While such truly miraculous skill to this day remains confined to the realm of saints and sages, I bring good news about a wine-making technique that is — especially in light of Pope Francis’ recent warning about the destructive consequences of unbridled consumerism on the planet — no less uplifting, and most importantly, attainable by any and all:

The composting of municipal food waste into organic fertilizer to provide the nutrients necessary for soils to support healthy vines and carbon-sequestering roots that produce the kind of grapes responsible for heavenly wines, from here to eternity.

The revelation occurred to me last Saturday, when I received a last minute invitation by my garbage guru to join a congregation of the compost curious on a pilgrimage to Chateau Montelena, a vineyard located in the heart of the promised wine valley about 80 miles north of the City of St. Francis.


Before we uncork the good stuff…

The Genesis

With the advent of an economic system in the mid-20th Century that demanded ever more rapidly increasing levels of consumption and inputs of natural resources, communities across the world were faced with the problem of what to do with the mounting heaps of discarded items that were no longer deemed valuable in a throw-away society.


Mountain of plastic trash found on a beach in Lima, Peru in one afternoon.

In countries with a lot of open space like the United States, the solution was to simply truck everything into designated open areas and create mountains of trash. Less spacious countries like France and most of Europe came up with what they thought to be a more elegant way to deal with the unwanted excess, by burning the whole steaming pile in high tech furnaces.

Countries unable to afford expensive waste disposal infrastructure largely relied on the resilience of their poorest citizens to deal with the mounting piles of consumer goods. However, with the rate of production and consumption increasing so dramatically over such a short period of time, the sheer volume of unwanted refuse overwhelmed the collective human capacity to deal with the excess in a sustainable fashion. There was so much stuff designed for one-time use only — thanks to artificially cheap oil enabling the proliferation of non-degradable plastics — that much of it began slipping through local retrieval systems and washing into the planet’s oceans.


Trash-bound food made into meals at “Feeding the 5K” event in Nantes, France

Moreover, one-third of the edible parts of food produced for human consumption in the world — about 1.3 billion tons per year — ended up in the trash, where it not only failed to feed the world’s 852 million people suffering from chronic undernourishment but emitted a whopping 3.3 billion tons of CO2. In the United States alone, 95% of uneaten food was being thrown away, accounting for more than 20 percent of all methane emissions in landfills. If food waste were a country, it would be the 3rd largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world.

In other words, humans were not only wasting a sinful amount of food, but the waste was speeding up climate chaos which led to disruptions of agriculture and global food security.

A vicious cycle if ever there was one.

The Pilgrimage

The last ones to arrive at the winery just outside Calistoga, we were greeted by Dave Vella, Chateau Montelena’s Vineyard/Grape Manager for the past 30 years. Along for the ride were representatives from the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives and the International Development Exchange, the Queen of Zero Waste Living, media crews from KCBS Radio and the French television station M6, and of course, members of the Church of Recology, spreading the gospel of compost.


Francois and Frederick of the M6 film crew interviewing Chateau Montelena Vineyard Manager Dave Vella, with GAIA India Co-ordinator Pratibha Sharma and IDEX Africa Regional Director Yeshica Weerasekera.

The French in particular, who long ago put their faith into burning unwanted resources, are having second thoughts about their incinerator worship. It no longer makes sense for an environmentally conscious, eminently creative and forward-thinking people to invest themselves into a dying technology that ignores an entire universe of benefits inherent in our planet’s offerings. In his groundsaving book, The Zero Waste Solution – Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time, author Paul Connett points out the fallacy of the linear, out-of-sight-out-of-mind, garbage way of thinking.

Every time a community builds a trash incineration it sets back the real solutions by 25 years – the time it takes to pay back the massive investment involved. Every time you burn something you have to go back to the beginning of the linear society (extraction-manufacture-consumption-waste). After 25 years you are no closer to sustainability. All you are left with is a pile of ash of approximately one quarter of the mass of the trash that was burned.

With San Francisco’s Zero Waste campaign so quantifiably successful in recent years, a growing number of government officials, journalists, civic groups, and farmers have visited to get a first-hand look at how the city is closing its resource and food cycle. “Zéro Déchet” is rapidly gaining ground in France, and the fact that there is an existing model of how it can be achieved has played a huge role in bringing the French public closer to understanding that this vision is far from a figment of the imagination. The fact that the Paris-based Francois, Frederick, and Anne-Sophie were sent “zero-wasting” across the globe despite significant events closer to home shows the determination by the French media to tell the story.

Most recently, ARTE TV took a trip to SF to show their viewers how it’s done.

It seems pretty obvious that recycling, reusing, and repurposing materials we no longer need makes a lot more sense than burning or burying them, not just from an environmental, but an economic perspective. Where it gets really interesting and downright sublime is the part where the most innovative solutions to our modern industrial problems are leading us back to a time and place we’ve been before.


The Chateau… older than chemical fertilizer

Composting organic waste for use as all-important soil nutrients in order to grow food goes as far back as agriculture itself, and was pretty much the only game in town before Fritz Haber introduced the world to chemical fertilizer about a hundred years ago. Hobby farmers and gardeners among us will attest to the power and necessity of compost as a nitrogen fixer, whether it’s from food scraps or horse manure, but the idea that you can compost leftovers, paper cups and pizza cartons on a large enough scale, using all our collective organic waste to grow all of our collective food, is only beginning to take root.


Dave Vella directing a Recology compost drop-off.

Speaking of horse manure, that’s what Vella — who grew up in the Central Valley and says he watched farmers screw up a lot of land using synthetic fertilizers — started to use when he first came to Chateau Montelena in 1985. He switched to compost when it became available in the mid-90s and has been using Recology’s San Francisco mix since 2000. While his wines are not noticeably different — exactly what you want, as consistency is your… um, bread and butter in the wine business — applying compost has had a dramatic effect on his soil, restoring its depleted minerals initially and keeping it healthy and full of important microbes since.

“Our most precious asset is our soil,” he says. “That’s what makes world class wine. It’s a huge part of what the French call “Terroir.”

My guess is that French wine growers aren’t big fans of incinerators.


Giving a smile to the pile…

The biggest concern for farmers like Vella who have made the transition to organic fertilizers is about overdoing it. “I don’t want big, vigorous plants,” he says. “Just look at the canes on these 40 year old plants — these are perfect and exactly what I want to see. I don’t want to see one that’s 10 feet long and this big around.” (He makes a big circle with his index finger and thumb.) “I want moderate growth, that’s what gives us great wine. And I want healthy plants. I’m just trying to keep my plants as healthy as I can. And that’s what balanced, healthy soils do.”


“Look at the canes on these 40 year old plants — these are perfect and exactly what I want to see.”

Vella typically spreads the compost right after harvest and before the winter rains, when he orders about 15-20 truck and trailer loads from Recology. He also uses the compost to grow his cover crops, which is not only great for feeding the all-important soil microbes, but represents one of the best kept secrets in the international efforts to fight climate change: the ability of grasses to sequester carbon from the atmosphere and fixing it into the soil.

For example, one recent study by the Rodale Institute shows that by using this kind of organic and regenerative agriculture on cropland more than 40% of annual emissions could potentially be captured. Another study, a seven-year composting experiment by the Marin Carbon Project shows that if compost from green waste — everything from household food scraps to dairy manure — were applied over just 5 percent of the state’s grazing lands, the soil could capture a year’s worth of greenhouse gas emissions from California’s farm and forestry industries. And that’s not even counting that by keeping organic waste out of landfills you are shrinking the 4th largest contributor to climate change.

Rumor has it that Jerry Brown is planning a visit to MCP. About time, Mr. Climate Change Governor!


Volunteer mustard and barley cover crops quietly feeding microbes and fixing carbon.

Though Vella says he’s glad that taking CO2 out of the atmosphere is a side benefit of his livelihood, he maintains that it’s not the primary reason he uses compost on his cover crops. “I’m a farmer, and using compost is cost effective. It’s about 100 bucks an acre. It’s cheap maintenance for us.” Walking along the rows of vineyards, he points to the Blando Brome barley mix. “It just looks fantastic. We’ll come through and mow this in the spring and incorporate the residues into the soil, which is like a green manure.”


“Look at the hill without compost, what a difference. Look at all the nitrogen fixing down here.”

Another huge benefit of keeping healthy cover crops: pest control. A few rows down, Vella calls our attention to “Insectary Row,” showcasing his natural method of repelling vine-eating bugs. Bustling with Queen Anne’s Lace & California Poppy, the bright flowers attract predator insects who call the soft bed of plants home and feast on anything that’s attacking the vines.


Nice place for a bug banquet!

It all really sounds too good to be true. If there’s really so much to gain — less waste, better soils, happier farmers, healthier food, CO2 reduction, a stable biosphere — without any drawbacks, why isn’t everyone doing it? As I’m pondering that question and trying to come up with a catch, the Grandmaster of Compost Gospel, Recology’s Recycling Reverend Robert Reed steps into the holy circle of dirt.

“Tell them about the importance of humus, Dave!”

Vella smiles and picks up a handful of dirt. “Humus is one of the most important bi-products of composting,” he says. “It’s the black stuff, right under these leaves. If it’s wet you can actually see it.” He squeezes the dirt. “The soil microbes flourish on humus. If you have soils low in organic matter and humus, you can tell just by the weeds that aren’t growing out there for whatever crop it might be on. Humus is an extremely important part of your soil makeup, and the food scrap thing is such a non-brainer, as it makes such great compost. Why isn’t every city doing this? That would be my question.”


“If they can do it in New York City, they can do it anywhere!”

This was the cue the Reverend Reed had been waiting for to launch into an impassioned Sermon on the Mud:

That’s why we’re trying to educate people on the importance of humus. In addition to the plant benefits and the microbe benefits, it’s natural sponge, so it absorbs water. It’s one of the things that can help California and other regions that are struck by droughts survive dry periods. They’re starting to do it in Iowa, Minnesota, Maine, Washington, and New York City! It’s happening in Cairo, France, Italy, Spain, and the Chinese are now interested in it. We’re hoping to see this movement of sending food back to farms grow. It’s really an old movement when people saw soil as having tremendous value, and needing to manage and care for those soils was recognized as essential. We can’t make enough of this compost for the marketplace even today, so it’s our hope that…

Right then, an earthworm shows up between his feet…


“That’s just fabulous! That’s life, life in the soil, an organism where the animal is eating the soil because there’s food in it on this beautiful vineyard!” – Recycling Reverend Reed

…a lot more cities start establishing food scrap compost collection programs. Food scraps and plant cuttings are resources, they ought not to be burned, they ought not be destroyed, they ought not to be buried. They ought to be made into compost that can give farmers like Dave a viable alternative to chemical or synthetic fertilizers.

Where do you go from there but straight to the tasting room!


Jade Lake, on the way back to the Chateau.

Inside the chateau, we are treated to samples of divine Chardonnays and Cabernets, as well as one more closing of a circle. Turns out that in 1976, a who’s-who of the French wine and food establishment helped put California at the forefront of the wine world when the judges mistook a 1973 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay as one of their own at a blind tasting in Paris, rating it above all other wines.


This time around, the wine is still great, and our French friends are still enjoying it. And who knows, maybe soon they will surpass us in the size and quality of their municipal compost.

For who could resist Dave Vella’s vision:

Here’s how I like to look at it: You’re in San Francisco at a nice restaurant. You order a bottle of Chateau Montelena wine, you have your dinner. The bottle gets recycled, the food scraps get composted, we buy it and spread it out on the very vines that made the bottle you had for dinner that night. It’s completing the circle. It doesn’t get better than that!


all photos by Sven Eberlein

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Sven Eberlein

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