Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 15, 2017
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How green is my valley

Wineries and hotels in Sonoma and Napa boast about sustainability. But is it just hot air?

It's not immediately obvious to me what filling a ram's horn with manure and burying it in the corner of a vineyard does for wine quality. But California's vintners are a strange bunch. That particular ritual, I soon discovered, is just one of the practices undertaken in the Sonoma and Napa valleys in the quest to work with the laws of nature rather than against them -- and in the greenest of the states, that's the way the laws are leaning these days.

Spend a few days zipping around the region in a hybrid car, stopping in at organic vineyards and staying at eco-friendly hotels, and it doesn't take long to get familiar with talk of moon cycles and solar tubes.

When we set out on our green vacation, we knew we wanted to go haute, not hippy. Forget camping out, we were looking for luxe -- and, quite frankly, some good wine to go with it. California was a no-brainer as a destination: not only does it have miles of vineyards, but it's also got the edge on travel facilities catering to the burgeoning green-collar sector. If environmentally correct travel is the next wave of tourism, it will happen in California first.

And it is happening. We found EV Rental Cars (435 South Airport Boulevard, San Francisco; tel: 877-EV-RENTAL; www.evrental.com), which specializes in low-emission vehicles. We booked a room at a new environmentally responsible resort in wine country where copies of An Inconvenient Truth grace the rooms along with the bible.

We encountered friendly winemakers who'd abandoned chemicals in favour of biodynamics. But the real question for travellers like us was whether Birkenstocks and boutique really could go hand in hand. After all, it's easy to slap the word green on a commodity in order to sell it, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good, does it?


Sipping Green
Sitting at a picnic table on a hillside at the Michel-Schlumberger Winery (4155 Wine Creek Road, Healdsburg; tel: 800-447-3060; www.michelschlumberger.com), nibbling on Point Reyes blue cheese and sipping Deux Terres cabernet overlooking the very vines that the grapes were culled from, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. This upscale vineyard is located on the western edge of Dry Creek Valley, a part of the Sonoma Valley that could be seen as the hotbed of eco-conscious winemaking.

The term picturesque doesn't quite do the site justice; it's an oasis within a landscape of oases. The ocean is closer to these rolling hills than it seems and there's a faint sea breeze in air that's otherwise hot enough to boil wine right in the bottle. In temperatures like these, it's easy to understand why the workers pick at night.

As we trudge up a hillside, there are blue skies overhead and two different colours of earth beneath our feet: dark and volcanic on one hand, rusty red from the river on the other. If there was ever a place to talk about terroir this is it, as the connection to the land couldn't be made any clearer -- nor could the market response to it, where hard work has paid off in hard-earned price points. In a huge change from the agriculture scene of 50 years ago, 20 percent of the county is either working organically, certified organic or working towards certification. And the numbers are increasing with each season, according to Schlumberger winemaker Mike Brunson.

"One of the things about being organic is that we have to be prepared to lose a little something every year, be it due to mildew or deer pressure," he tells us. "So you have to develop the ability to step back and say that's the way it is." Deer aren't the only animals lurking around, there are bobcats, raccoons, turkeys, boar and the occasional mountain lion (nice to know they're out there, but you don't want to be getting too close, to hear him tell it).

Gophers may be smaller, but they've been a bigger problem at Schlumberger, digging holes and diverting irrigation until the situation was artfully resolved by installing perches for birds of prey. It's simple solutions like this one that impress me the most, the kind of thing the old folks call common sense. Similarly, they call the chicken the perfect machine: it eats insects and gives a little something back.

"The idea is that you're trying to close the cycle on your ranch, so that you put back into the soil what you take out of it," Brunson says. Even with decreased yields, it costs less to run the outfit than it did when they were spraying, he notes. And that mantra is the same at each eco-vineyard we visited.

In Napa Valley, Robert Sinskey Vineyards (6320 Silverado Trail, Napa; tel: 800-869-2030; www.robertsinskey.com) is also a proponent of biodynamic growing. Based on the holistic approach of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner, the agricultural methodology is deeply connected to natural cycles. In the valleys of the grapes, this seems to be a new religion among young entrepreneurs.

While some aspects of the concept are snicker-worthy -- burying a ram's horn and playing music for plants aren't your everyday harvest tactics -- what's undeniable is that it encourages thinking outside the box when cultivating in sometimes uncooperative conditions. Some techniques to steer away from chemical intervention can only be described as cute.

Take the rent-a-sheep services employed by Sinskey: the herd, a short-legged variety that can't reach the low-hanging fruit, is brought in to keep the ground cover down it's basically a living mowing service. Sure, they eat a few grapes from the lowest branches, but that's the price you pay. Similarly, though the ground cover does suck its own nutrients, the service it provides in retaining moisture is invaluable in these climes.

Organic growing also requires a larger work force and more diversification in planting. Nearby Frog's Leap (8825 Conn Creek Road, Napa; tel: 707-963-4704; www.frogsleap.com) , a winery with a sense of humour and a solid reputation, is able to feed their workers, or at least supplement many meals, with the onsite produce garden. Even visitors can get a taste -- a sign saying, "Take one" sits on a pile of squash near the exit.

It's driving between vineyards that brings out California's contradictions, though. Witnessing the bumper-to-bumper scene in Napa Valley on a Saturday afternoon, it's easy to see why people refer to the county as Wine World theme park. Most properties seem to be the 3D embodiment of someone's Old World dream, in the form of a nouveau chateau surrounded by vines. At least, we said to ourselves, the New World nouveau riche do have a conscience, and customers are willing to pay for it.


Sweet Dreams
If organic wines are finding their niche, environmentally sound hotels haven't fully carved out an identity for themselves. That the hospitality industry has realized that the "Please don't wash my towels or linens" sign doesn't cut it anymore has the old guard pulling up its bootstraps and new constructions opting for the ecological approach.

In the town of Sonoma, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa (100 Boyes Boulevard, Sonoma; tel: 866-540-4499; www.fairmont.com/sonoma) is a suitable start for our survey of eco-lodgings. First of all, the little patio outside our suite at this elegant resort is a good place to unwind with a bottle.

Secondly, the chain was an early adherent proponent of environmental management, introducing a Green Partnership program almost 20 years ago, with the goal of minimizing its impact on the planet.

It gets points for finding creative ways to adapt to changing conditions, but it balances these initiatives against maintaining pre-existing structures from grandiose eras and ensuring the level of Fairmont luxury its guests expect.

Erected as an R&R spot for soldiers, the water tower behind the Sonoma Mission swimming plaza is definitely a reminder of where we are -- there is a short supply of H2O in the state. As much as we liked the eco-combustible log in front of our fireplace, the "lifestyle cuisine" at the onsite restaurant and the free parking for hybrid vehicles, other advances were harder to discern.

The company has begun purchasing wind power to offset the usage at the front desk, for instance. And the hotel recently switched its 4440 incandescent bulbs to energy-efficient fluorescent lighting -- this will save $61,000 in energy costs. The figures sound impressive, but they also give an idea of the scale of consumption at the big hotel complexes and beg the question of how green they can ever really go.

The following night, we experienced the other end of the spectrum at the opposite end of the valley. Surrounded by the scent of the redwoods along the Russian River, Creekside Inn & Resort (16180 Neeley Road, Guerneville; tel: 800-776-6586; www.creeksideinn.com) has a sense of a European retreat. It is a smaller, family-run operation that's more representative of grassroots than grand style.

Owner Lynn Crescione grew up with parents who lived through the Depression, when recycling was a way of life. The spot was an RV park when she took it over 26 years ago. "I couldn't understand why anyone would want an RV, with gas prices so high and nobody making your bed for you," she shrugs.

If Creekside is old-school in attitude, the materials are all new, from the stone-imitation hardyboard to the on-demand water heaters to the prefab structures that make up the rooms of the new addition. "Less cost, less waste," Crescione says matter of factly. And she can afford to be matter of fact as she's selling energy back to the power company.


Green Seal
Some eco-hoteliers are seeking public recognition by getting certification from LEED (Leading in Energy and Environmental Design), an organization that sets standards for green projects. A short drive from Napa itself, the new Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa (3600 Broadway Street, American Canyon; tel: 888-798-3777; www. gaianapavalleyhotel.com) is the first -- in the world, it claims -- to earn LEED Gold status for its efforts.

That means the lumber was responsibly forested and the stone, granite and carpet fibres all recycled materials. It has low-flow showers and low-flush toilets, solar panels that serve 12 percent of the building's needs and Al Gore's manifesto in the bedrooms.

If it feels like a showcase, owner Wen-I Chang might agree. "Six years ago there was no precedent," he says. "Shifting the mindset of humanity is my goal, and I am using my hotel as a medium. I want to bring people in to show them the possibilities. They can see how much water they can save, they can use a dispenser for the soap, they can notice how we use solar tubes in the lighting, vinegar to clean, non-toxic sealants, all these little things. They will say, 'I have to do this, too.'"

A drive from nearby attractions, Gaia appears to be banking on its green appeal, as the back-to-basic bathrooms won't earn it boutique billing, even if there's a swan pond in the courtyard. The place feels almost futuristic, all the more so due to screens in the lobby that display the hotel's energy usage up to the minute, for those who want to know.

Back in San Francisco, the Orchard Garden Hotel (466 Bush Street, San Francisco; tel: 888-717-2881; www.theorchardgardenhotel.com) was perhaps most emblematic of how to do sustainability without sacrificing style: while the green was pretty much invisible, we knew it was there.

The cement in the floors integrates fly ash, a byproduct of burnt coal. The carpet uses recycled materials and a motif specially suited to the property. The lobby shares its space with a restaurant specializing in regional and seasonal ingredients. A plaque notes that the owner was inspired to open the hotel after losing a number of members of her family to cancer. The spacious rooms and rooftop patio look out over the city and seems to beckon a new class of consumer, one that cares about esthetics and the environment.

If California's tourism industry seems unsure about how green to go in terms of marketing, it's not clear either how green travellers themselves want to go. They want to lack for nothing yet feel they are doing a little something when choosing an organic wine or an eco-friendly hotel. As consumers and entrepreneurs come to agreement about what the nature of this little something will be, our trip showed us that the choice, in the meantime, is clearly expanding.

 

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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