Low-impact buzz

At Durham’s Gale Vineyards, everything from the construction of the winery to the growing of the grapes keeps sustainability in mind

Steve and Creasia Gale in their head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard. Netting keeps the birds from the grapes, which are almost ready for harvest.

Steve and Creasia Gale in their head-pruned, dry-farmed vineyard. Netting keeps the birds from the grapes, which are almost ready for harvest.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

Get there:
Gale Vineyards, 9345 Stanford Lane, Durham, 891-1264. For more information on where to buy Gale Vineyards wines, tastings (by appointment only) and/or holding a wedding on the winery’s beautiful, secluded grounds, see www.galevineyards.com. Gale Vineyards is one of the many venues that will take part in the sixth annual Sierra Oro Farm Trail Passport Weekend, Oct. 9-10.

Gale Vineyards co-owner Steve Gale originally wanted to build a “wine cave” on the Durham property he shares with his wife and fellow vintner, Creasia. Wine caves—often built into hillsides and used for energy-efficient, cool storage of wine—are common to the wine industry worldwide, but “there were too many unknowns for the county,” he said, about approaching Butte County officials with his idea.

“Butte Creek is right across the street,” offered Creasia, who also co-owns local business Bidwell Consulting Services. “They were afraid that [the wine cave] might pop up and float away if we ever had a big storm.”

Instead, after researching their options and finding that straw-bale-built wineries are becoming increasingly popular—most of all for their energy-efficient temperature control—the Gales decided to hire Willows straw-bale building specialist Rick Green, owner of Benchmark Development. They opened their boutique, straw-bale winery in May 2008 on their bucolic, six-acre Stanford Lane property.

On a recent near-100-degree early-September day, the winery’s tasting room was in the low 60s without the use of air conditioning.

“It holds temperature,” Steve said of the straw-bale construction. “You’re not running air conditioning all the time.”

Steve opened the small door to the “truth window” in the thick, stucco-covered, wire-mesh- and rebar-reinforced walls, revealing the locally procured rice-straw packed inside. Truth windows—reminiscent of the tiny doors in church confessionals—are common to many straw-bale buildings to show that the walls really are made with straw bales.

The “truth window” is a common feature in straw-bale buildings made to show that the walls are actually made of straw bales.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

“It seems like it would be just a perfect thing for this area, instead of burning all that straw,” offered Creasia of straw-bale building, which is still met with a rather lengthy permitting process in Butte County, compared to “normal” wooden-frame construction.

The Gales didn’t stop their eco-friendly building approach with straw bales. They also made use of warm-brown sycamore beams milled from a downed Durham tree in the construction of the winery’s lovely, timber-framed ceiling.

And their Italian-varietal vineyard—from which they harvest the grapes that go into Gale Vineyards’ sangiovese, primitivo, European-style, dry rosé di primitivo, tempranillo, cabernet sauvignon and mélange wines—is organic.

“We do all the organic practices, but we’re not [yet] certified,” said Creasia, referring to California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) certification, a process that takes several years. The Gales do not spray any chemicals on their grapes, they say.

“All vineyards use fungicides,” said Steve, ”but we use an organic fungicide.” For weed control, the Gales “mow the rows” of grapes. “Head-pruning” each vine—as opposed to trellising the grapevines along rows of wire—makes it easy to move between them. Also, head-pruning protects the fruit from the sometimes-harsh Sacramento Valley sun, said Steve.

Steve and Creasia Gale pour a glass of wine in the natural coolness of their straw-bale winery.

Photo by Christine G.K. LaPado

The vineyard also uses a “dry-farming” water-saving method of crop production long-used in the Mediterranean by grape and olive growers, which makes use of the moisture in the soil stored up from the rainy season. (In some areas of Europe, it is illegal to water wine grapes during the growing season, so as not to dilute the grapes’ flavor.)

“I haven’t watered [the grapes] in probably 2 1/2 years,” said Steve of the grapes he first planted in 2003. “Part of the thing here is that we have such a high water table. …You want the roots to go down in the soil and get the nutrients. It pushes the grapes a little bit, and you get more intensity in the fruit.”

Perhaps the most touching sustainable practice the Gales engage in is what they do with what’s left of the grapes after they harvest and make wine.

“When we crush or press, our stems and skins are fed to the sheep across the street,” said Creasia.

The Gales are nearing harvest time, which is sure to make the neighbor’s sheep happy.

“I just saw their owner at the gym,” Steve added. “She told me, ‘They’re ready for their candy!’”

“They get so excited,” Creasia said of when she and Steve deliver the piles of grape skins and stems to the sheep. “They just ‘whoosh’—they’re just all over it.”