"All of nature begins to whisper its secrets to us through its sounds. Sounds that were previously incomprehensible to our soul now become the meaningful language of nature."
- Rudolf Steiner, founder of the biodynamic agricultural movement
- Elliott Doss, Fish Habitat Specialist with the California Department of Fish and Game (DFG)
The sound made my fly fisherman’s heart beat faster—it was the sound of fish. It’s the sound of broken water, riffles and runs – the still note in the middle where a deep hole provides a resting place – the quirky lapping of water against a gravelly bank where close by there are perfect nesting spots for salmon to create a redd (nest) together as they couple and lay their eggs. Standing beside Sonoma’s Dry Creek in the soft, steady rain, I caught hints of the rich grapey smell from the crush. Guiltily I dreamed of grilled wild salmon and a glass of Petite Sirah. I knew that people like Elliott Doss and numerous landowners in Dry Creek Valley were dedicated to giving that salmon a place to spawn.
In 2008, Trout Unlimited (TU) formalized the type of work they had already been doing for years in Dry Creek Valley in partnership with wineries like Quivira and Michel-Schlumberger by announcing their Water and Wine program. Another group, the Fish Friendly Farming ™ (FFF) certification program, was also assisting wineries and owners like Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards in his restoration of Pena Creek and the installation of impressive riparian zones where the land and that stream interface. Streams like Dry Creek and its tributaries including Pena Creek and Wine Creek which runs through Quivira and Michel-Schlumberger’s properties are crucial to the life cycles of salmon and steelhead. These anadromous fish are born upstream in fresh water, then migrate to the sea where they mature until they return to their birth stream to spawn. Standing there, I could sense that this valley was at the heart of a movement. An admirer of Rudolf Steiner and the biodynamic method of farming (a biodynamic farm is managed as a living organism), it made perfect sense to me that fishermen and farmers would see that doing the right thing is mutually beneficial.
As I walked the section of Dry Creek near the Don Clausen Fish Hatchery that Elliott has been restoring, I saw many examples of the bioengineering techniques being used by the wineries. Elliott notes that Evan Engber, founder of Mendocino County’s Bioengineering Associates, Inc., is the “grandfather” of most of these restoration techniques and has shown that, using excavators, enormous boulders, living willow mats and fallen trees, and guided by the physics of fluid dynamics, engineering and fish biology, the natural architecture of a waterway can be recreated. Elliott’s goal is that this part of the creek serves as an accessible demonstration site for the public and other owners of creek front property. Dry Creek Valley is a piece of a large puzzle and one that Elliott and others hope will serve as a model.
Quivira Vineyards and Winery sits at the confluence of Wine and Dry Creeks. Wine Creek was an historical spawning ground for the salmon once crowding the Russian River. Former Quivira owner Henry Wendt met Bob Coey, then a senior biologist for the DFG, at a seminar on restoration in 1996. Coey visited Quivira, identified the rare presence of Coho salmon, and a restoration project was born. Inspired by the discovery, the DFG began to approach other property owners about a multi-phase plan to clean up Wine Creek. Quivira provided a good example for their neighbors. They put up their own money to begin the project and actually pulled out healthy vines to allow for stream bank restoration.
Quivira had another powerful partner in TU, which came onboard early providing assistance in acquiring grants and funding. David Katz, California Director of TU at the time, wanted to use Quivira as an example to show that raising grapes could co-exist with creek restoration.
In 2006, Pete Kight purchased Quivira from the Wendts. An avid fly fisherman and TU member, the Wine Creek restoration project affirmed Pete’s decision. Under Kight’s ownership, Quivira has continued the restoration and is actively participating in the three elements of TU’s Water and Wine program water supply solutions, stream restoration and public awareness. Quivira’s owners’ longstanding dedication to treating the streams they steward in a biodynamic and sacred way is inspirational and contagious. Since they began, numerous wineries in Dry Creek Valley have joined the effort to restore the creeks and to bring the Coho home. Science tells us that Coho are the most sensitive to habitat degradation of the three salmonides (Coho, Chinook/King and Steelhead) that come up from the Russian River to spawn in tributaries like Wine Creek. If a healthy environment for Coho is provided, Steelhead and Chinook will thrive.
Michel-Schlumberger is the last winery at the top of Wine Creek. The creek enters their property after meandering through redwoods and private homes in a fairly untouched state – the headwaters are only a few miles above the winery. I join Judd Wallenbrock, VP and GM of Michel-Schlumberger, and Michael Brunson, Winemaker/Vineyard Manager, in an exploration of the section of Wine Creek which runs through their property. In 2005-06, a restoration project engineered by Elliott Doss and the DFG was completed with Michael overseeing. TU helped with the grant process and donated time, public relations and great expertise. The California Conservation Corps donated crew and equipment and the winery contributed the rest of the necessary funds and a crew to assist.
Michael is also a fisherman and is vigilant about what enters the creek from the winery. Both he and Judd discuss their commitment to ensuring that the creek water is as clean as when it arrived when it moves onto the next property. I ask them about why they do this – they reply simultaneously that it’s the right thing to do. They say that owner Jacques Schlumberger has always been willing to lose some vines and spend money to make Wine Creek as pristine as possible. They show me how the use of cover crops and straw in muddy areas prevents run-off into the creek. Minimizing mowing, avoiding tilling and using goats for weed control also help prevent soil erosion. “Roads are always an issue,” Michael says, and points to a nearby dirt work road and then to the straw “chorizo” rolls that they strategically place to control and filter run-off into the creek. It’s been raining pretty hard for two days and yet the creek is clear – a testament to the work they are doing.
I also met with Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards to see his work on the restoration of Pena Creek a few miles north of Quivira. Lou is a landowner at the forefront of water restoration techniques and has been working with FFF and other agencies for years. Lou has worked in depth with riparian zone plantings, cover crops and hedgerows. His 37-year history with the land and his biodynamic farming techniques have created a deeply intimate relationship between him and his property and the Dry Creek Valley. Lou talks about his connection to “the old timers” and how they taught him to respect the rhythms of the land and to frugally use one’s resources. We shake our heads remembering how tires and junked cars were once used to shore up eroding banks in both Dry Creek Valley and my favorite childhood fishing spots back in Alabama. We spend a few hours walking the property from creek beds to creek banks to riparian zones and hedgerows. Having spent time on a farm in England I developed a hedgerow obsession and I’m drawn to the “California version” Lou has planted with the help of Rose Roberts of Healdsburg’s Farm Stewards. More diverse and less manicured, they act as barriers and prevent runoff. The wide riparian zones they’ve planted along the creek banks remind me of places I’ve tried to fish where it appears that no man has gone before.
Walking next to Wine Creek, Judd from Michel-Schlumberger talked to me about the importance of human terroir and his belief that the spirit and energy of the people that work on this land is as evident in the wine as the amount of minerality in the soil. I thought of the human terroir of the community of “restorers” I had met while researching this story and how we sometimes forget that as humans we are part of the flora and fauna - and sometimes we’re a good part.
Support the wineries whose practices support the salmon! If a winery is a member of Trout Unlimited’s Wine and Water program (www.tu.org), or if they are certified as a Fish Friendly Farmer (www.fishfriendlyfarming.org), or if they are formally certified as a Demeter Biodynamic Farm (www.demeter-usa.org), you know that their practices and their philosophy are water and fish friendly. When you visit a winery, ask them about their water practices—they might not be certified yet, but they might be in the process of getting there. Your interest and encouragement are part of the process! To view some Incredible images of the engineering work being done in these creeks visit www.bioengineers.com.
Robin Carpenter grew up in Ragg Swamp, Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with tall tales and wellmarbled alligators. She now keeps an eye on the food chain from her home in Northern California. You can hear her at KWMR.org on the Monday morning Farm Report and keep up with her at www.huntandgathergirl.com.