Woollaston Estate (BioGro No.5089)
The wine industry has emerged as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of organics. Woollaston Estate outside Nelson is one of many BioGro converts. CEO Philip Woollaston is a former Minister of Conservation and has always had a strong interest in producing wine that’s sympathetic to and an expression of the environment. The vineyards were established in 2001 and they were certified as Sustainable by Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand in 2004. Under vineyard manager Julian Coakley’s guidance, the company has certified 3 vineyards in one hit. However BioGro certification has become such an accepted norm, that Julian says he didn't think he was doing anything unusual.
Prior to converting our vineyards, I [Julian] had been dabbling in the corner of one vineyard with some trial blocks for interest. It didn’t seem to be any harder to manage, and delivered fruit of a similar quality and volume to the areas where we were growing conventionally.
CEO, Philip Woollaston, asked if I thought we could replicate this success over a larger area and that is how the decision was made. I didn't realize that certifying three vineyards as organic at once was anything unusual until speaking with our auditor from BioGro.
It was a natural transition to move to producing organically. We've got 2 vineyards with 51 producing hectares.We were moving further and further away from what would be considered the standard management system to the point where the actual step to organics wasn't that frightening. Over the years of growing under the conventional system we had grown more relaxed and more confident in the vine's ability to cope with seasonal influences.
I'd seen organics and biodynamics working well when I worked in Gisborne, with vineyards producing good looking fruit. However, there has certainly been a steep learning curve for us in tackling all three vineyards at once. The main thing I've found with organics is that we have to be so much more proactive about vineyard management and more involved with the land, vineyards and vines.
With a conventional system there is always a silver bullet for adverse climatic or disease events. With organics, we have to know what's here, know what's coming, and deal with it immediately. You can't just wait till it arrives and then deal with it.
Certainly from a marketing perspective producing organically is an attractive proposition to our customers. I don't think our yield will be reduced or increased compared to what I would have expected being conventional at this point. We have quite a large staff and they all feel really proud and good when they're out there – they like the feel of the place.
I chose BioGro because I felt they provided much better support and seemed much more involved in the process rather than being an auditing body. BioGro was much more encouraging about the process and about being organic, rather than ticking boxes.
The transition to organics is exciting and incredibly interesting. Having grown conventionally for over ten years I am now looking at the vineyards in quite a different way. The change has made me feel differently about the growing process and the job I’m doing, and I can see that others look at us differently too.
At this stage we haven’t seen an increase in the cost of production by moving to organics – more that we've swapped one set of costs for another.
Although we do the same things, with organics we have to time them better. We have to be much more on top of the timing of those jobs because there's no real leeway for backing it up with a chemical if you're a bit behind for this or that.
We’ve chosen to convert to organics primarily because philosophically we think it’s the right thing to do, rather than being completely market led.
There will be a commercial benefit in terms of point of difference and an increase in market share as the whole world is looking for more and more organic produce and less use of synthetic products. However, you do have to be aware that your risks are greater, because you're still more open to climactic events and things than the conventional grower.
The main thing we've noticed since we've stopped using herbicides is that things are growing again under our vines and the soil looks better and there seems to be much more life there. A lot of people think the plant life under the vines looks messy but I think it looks good. It makes everything look healthier and I can only assume it looks healthier because it is.