The vineyard as laboratory

Harvesting organic wine grapes at the Butte College Vineyard

Butte College student David Kahn (back) and Phillip La Rocca, environmental instructor and owner of La Rocca Vineyard & Winery, load La Rocca’s truck for his organic winery in Forest Ranch.

Butte College student David Kahn (back) and Phillip La Rocca, environmental instructor and owner of La Rocca Vineyard & Winery, load La Rocca’s truck for his organic winery in Forest Ranch.

Photo By Nick Dobis

It’s impossible not to surrender your everyday worries while walking down the lush aisles of grapevines at the Butte College Vineyard, especially with the early morning sun warming your skin and the birds trilling an avian symphony.

What makes this soothing scene complete is knowing the dark, plump grapes that hang from the vines have been grown 100 percent organically, free from any harmful pesticides.

It’s Saturday, Sept. 26, and students, faculty and others from nearby communities have come to the vineyard—located on six acres on the south end of the 928-acre campus and wildlife refuge—to harvest an estimated 12 to 15 tons of organic wine grapes. Most will be sold to La Rocca Winery in Forest Ranch, the rest donated to the Shasta College wine-making program.

Tip Wilmarth, an environmental-horticulture instructor at Butte College, is orchestrating the harvest of the syrah and nebbiolo grapes, which were planted in 2003.

“The vines usually break bud in late February and flower in the middle of March,” Wilmarth says. “This is the second harvest of our certified organic wine grapes, the first being in 2006.”

Wilmarth explains it takes the vines about three years to come to fruition, and if they are taken care of, they can produce grapes for many generations. Some premium vines have been known to produce grapes for 75 to 90 years, Wilmarth says.

Growing the grapes organically is more healthful for the crop and the consumer, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Wilmarth admits growing the grapes organically is much more labor intensive. Every day is a battle with the persistent birds and the thick Dallas grass that can sometimes strangle the blades of the in-row mowers.

But, smiling behind his abundant white beard, Wilmarth says he’s happy to give students a good educational experience.

Drew French finds a plump grape cluster while helping her mother, Amber French, pick the organic wine-grape harvest.

Photo By Nick Dobis

Among the grape harvesters is Carrie Monlux, a plant and soil science professor at Chico State University. While sharing laughs with some of her students, Monlux takes time to discuss the key aspects of growing a successful organic vineyard.

“It is important to back off nitrogen fertilizers that can burn all the nutrients in the soil and to have proper irrigation,” Monlux says.

The Sacramento Valley sun can be relentless, but Monlux explains that the varieties of grapes grown at Butte College perform well in the harsh heat. It’s all about growing the right plant in the right place, she explains.

What Monlux enjoys most about the vineyard isn’t the harvest, however, but the time she spends with her students.

“I love working beside and hands-on with the students,” she says. “It helps them understand why we do what we do in our field. It’s also fun working with them outside the classroom.”

The harvest isn’t only a chance for students and teachers to interact personally. Others who are attending, like Amber French, her children, Drew and Orion and her boyfriend, Michael Spinolla, are using the harvest as an opportunity for the children to enjoy the outdoors. The kids enthusiastically scramble after grape clusters as if they were Easter eggs, instead of watching Saturday-morning cartoons at home.

“We brought them out here so they can experience something new,” Spinolla explains. “They get a chance to see where food really comes from.”

Even as the temperature rises with the sun’s ascent into the pale-blue sky, the harvesters maintain their carefree mood, and time seems to slow down. Though smiles are almost as abundant as the grapes, the biggest smile can be found on the face of Phillip La Rocca.

He’s the owner of La Rocca Vineyards & Winery and is more than happy to buy the majority of the organic grapes. As well as making and selling organic wine, La Rocca is also an environmental-horticulture instructor at Butte College.

“I love making alcohol, and of course I love working with the kids,” La Rocca says. “I’ve always had a passion for wine grapes, and my parents were a big part of that passion.”

La Rocca has been making wine for 25 years, and loves to use the grapes from the Butte College Vineyard to make his organic wine. La Rocca Vineyards & Winery won the 2003 Eco Fest Peoples Choice Award for chardonnay, and the gold award in the 2005 Indy International Wine Competition for zinfandel.

La Rocca says his inspiration to grow wine grapes stemmed from his parents, who were household farmers in Sicily. He is proud that they never once used chemicals on their vines.

“My mom definitely passed that aspect on to me,” La Rocca says. “She always told me, ‘If you can grow without chemicals, then do it.’ ”