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Savoring the Taste of Environmental Success at Winery

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Twenty-two years ago, long before it was “in” to save the Earth, John Moramarco decided that working with nature, not against it, would produce the best grape.

As head viniculturist at Callaway Winery, Moramarco spent the next two decades turning the 720-acre Temecula vineyard into something of a testing ground for enviro-conscious farming and marketing.

Moramarco bred beneficial predator insects to attack common pests, eliminating the need for insecticides. He built perches to attract wild birds--red hawks, which hunt during the day, and nocturnal barn owls--to ensure round-the-clock protection from rodents. In 1986, the company began recycling glass and cardboard. And, last year, it began wrapping its bottles in recyclable tin foil, not toxic lead.

But, until Thursday, when the vineyard hosted about 40 San Diego Earth Day volunteers at a benefit to kick off this year’s harvest, Moramarco and his colleagues hadn’t bragged much about their unusual commitment to Mother Nature.

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“We’ve just started talking about it, but we’ve done it for years,” said Moramarco, 73, a fifth-generation California winemaker with a shock of white hair and a belt buckle shaped like a bunch of grapes.

“It would have been much easier to buy a sack of poisons,” he admitted, recalling that, because some of Callaway’s techniques have been unusual, he has often had no one to ask for advice. “But I felt I had the opportunity to do something different. So why not?”

According to Carolyn Chase, director of San Diego Earth Day, a similar urge prompted her to lure dozens of San Diego volunteers 60 miles north to Temecula Thursday, just over the Riverside County line.

This year’s harvest at Callaway will benefit the environmental group to the tune of $2,500. So it seemed a small thing, Chase said, to ask her heartiest volunteers to help pick the first pinot blanc grapes of the year.

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“I made sure when I talked to people I said, ‘No wimps. This isn’t just a free lunch in the vineyard,’ ” she said Thursday, wiping her forehead as she aimed her curved clippers at a cluster of grapes.

Like the other novices who accompanied her, Chase moved slowly at first. Even at 10 a.m., it was already hot and sticky between the rows of grapes. And the grapes weren’t always cooperative--bunched tightly against the vine, they made it was difficult to find which stem needed cutting.

“Finding the base of the bunch is kind of tough,” said Keith Shillington, a computer programmer who is the office manager for San Diego Earth Day. “It’s like--where is this attached?”

“All these guys that do it every day and bust their butts probably are getting a good laugh,” said Andrea Bonini, a secretary for a La Jolla civil engineering firm.

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Indeed, Bonini and the other volunteers looked doubly sluggish contrasted with 28 Latino laborers who sped up and down the rows. Within three hours, Moramarco said, the men would pick about 10 tons of grapes.

Jose, a 25-year-old seasonal grape picker who has harvested at Callaway for four years, smiled when asked about the visitors nearby who were picking fruit for free.

“They’re going a little slower than we are,” Jose said generously. Could he imagine picking grapes for nothing? “Not for very long,” he said.

Although the volunteers weren’t setting any records, however, many said they learned a lot from their hour in the fields. As they poked their way through the tangled grape leaves and obeyed Chase’s merry order to “embrace the vine,” many said they were relieved that there were no pesticides on the plants.

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“If I was working on vines that had been sprayed, I’d be wrapping my arms around it, breathing it in,” said Lori Saldana, another Earth Day staffer.

Moramarco said that protecting the health of Callaway’s workers is just one of the many benefits the company has reaped from its nontoxic approach. In some cases, he said, the company’s unconventional methods have actually made money.

“In the long-run, it’s less costly,” he said. “But you need to be patient. A big problem with most people is they want everything now.”

Moramarco’s beneficial insect breeding project, for example, has helped him beat the dreaded leaf skeletonizer--a worm that can reduce green leaves to brittle skeletons. In screened-in tanks, he has bred sterile flies and wasps that, with one sting, can make it impossible for the leaf skeletonizers to lay eggs.

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The materials the company uses to catch and breed the friendly insects are cheap--paper ice cream cartons and rolls of corrugated cardboard. But the benefits are invaluable.

The company has also planted 30 plum trees in the vineyard to provide a habitat for a species of wasp that eats leaf hoppers, another common pest. And the environmentally minded projects don’t stop there.

More than a decade ago, Callaway installed water-saving drip irrigation systems, saving enough water to supply 480 families each year. And, more recently, the winery changed from freon-based refrigeration to an ammonia system less damaging to the ozone-layer.

Chris Klein, a San Diego Earth Day co-director, said the winery’s long list of eco-friendly improvements is particularly remarkable because, unlike most businesses, Callaway seemed to be motivated by something other than the bottom line.

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“Quite frankly, you can sell wine without doing all that,” he said.

Moramarco said Callaway’s founder, Ely Callaway, and its current owner, Allied Lyons, have never argued with him about tactics.

“They’ve never said, ‘Don’t do it,’ ” he said, adding that he believes Callaway’s methods are both economically and environmentally shrewd.

“In Italian there’s an expression: He who goes slow, goes safe and goes far,” said the Los Angeles native whose family’s winery once sat where Chinatown is now. “I’ve seen what happened to Los Angeles and San Bernardino, and I don’t want to see that happen here.”

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