Avondale owner and winemaker Johnathan Grieve is not an accountant. Although he has been making wines for over twelve years, he received his training in fine arts, and this has made all the difference to his business.
Grieve approaches viniculture with a holistic vision, and while he is no doubt a savvy entrepreneur who is in business to make money, he has broken away from conventional methods and refuses to grow his bottom line by treating the process of winemaking as a profit-at-all-costs venture.
He says modern wine-making has in many ways become purely chemical-driven, with huge amounts of fertilizers, soil conditioners, pesticides and commercial yeasts involved in creating the product. When he joined Avondale in 1999, it was a “chemical abuse” farm suffering from years of commercially-accepted agricultural practices.
He set about turning the farm into a truly green operation using USDA and European Union quality standards, which are based on measurable attributes that describe the value and utility of the product. “This is not just about replacing each chemical practice with an organic one, it is redesigning the agricultural process in its entirety,” says Grieve, noting that he views the development of the farm as an ongoing process.
Avondale covers about 100 hectares and has been broken down into 1-hectare plots that are each managed separately. Moisture sensors and drip systems mete out just the right amount of irrigation for each plot. Habitats for natural predators of vine pests are located on some of the plots, at the same time forming green barriers that keep the soil, flora and fauna healthy.
Trained ducks keep the vines free of snails, which form part of their natural diet. They spend part of their time in a ‘bunkhouse’ located near the vineyard and happily waddle aboard a large tractor-driven trailer that transports them to the vineyard, where they spend part of the day pruning the gastropods from the plants.
“Once the ducklings recognize that the sound of the tractor means food, they quickly and happily will board the trailer. It takes only about two to three days to teach them to walk the ramp into the trailer,” says Grieve.
Grieve says he soon realized that spraying pesticides and herbicides was a continuous battle, one that did not bring many victories. “Nothing is completely eliminated from the farm,” he says, adding that all the processes on the farm focus on natural control of the environment.
Under this system weeds replace fertilizers and supplements. Grieve says these cover crops help fine tune the soil for each plot and have a symbiotic relationship with the vines. The vines feed the weeds, which in turn create nutrients for the soil and vines.
The process continues after the grapes are harvested, where bag presses replace steel screws and gravity fed systems eliminate powered pumps. Avondale’s wine-maker, Corne Marais, employs only natural yeast fermentation and does not add enzymes, catalysing agents or softeners in the production process. The wines are matured slowly – months more than on the majority of commercial wine farms – before finally being presented to customers.
What makes Grieve’s approach so exceptional is that he treats the entire wine-making business – from the land, to the grapes, to the wine – as an interconnected and interdependent network. It clearly explains Avondale’s guiding principle of “Terra est vita”(“Soil is life”).
Grieve is building a highly sustainable business model with his holistic ‘green’ approach, a system which he is more than willing to share with other producers. The results of his labour can be found in his wines. Avondale’s range of seven new wines is exceptionally delicious, with flavours and fragrances that linger long after the wine is gone. They are in sharp, and pleasant, contrast to the winery’s ‘old’ collection, which shows many of the harsher tones and short-lived flavours found in contemporary wines.
Grieves has listened carefully to the Earth and his diligence is being handsomely rewarded. Avondale is proof that a business can be both socially and environmentally responsible to a high degree while still producing a quality product and creating a sustainable revenue model.