Steve McIntyre and his team at Monterey Pacific, Inc., manage more than 12,000 acres of vineyard in Monterey County. Thanks to his diverse roster of clients, McIntyre is well-versed in biodynamic, organic, sustainable and conventional approaches to farming and prides himself on adopting the best ideas from each. Now in its 25th year, Monterey Pacific recently received the 2017 California Green Medal Business Award.
Has your understanding of sustainability evolved over time?
I was one of the founders of the Central Coast Vineyard Team, and when we got together in 1994, we had no idea what sustainability was or what it would become. Ours was basically a “best practices” forum that morphed into a self-correcting grower workbook. It’s not a competition among growers; it’s a competition with yourself. You are basically trying to improve your efficiency while considering the unintended consequences of your decisions. For instance, it feels really good to buy a Prius that gets a zillion miles per gallon, but what about the battery? There’s often a lot more to these decisions than meets the eye.
You’re a fan of deficit irrigation. What does that entail and how much water does it save?
With red grape varietals, it saves maybe 30 to 40 percent compared to the water you would normally apply. With white varieties, maybe 20 to 30 percent. And it improves wine quality. When you hold water back, the vine goes into survival mode and concentrates on the progeny—the seeds and fruit—rather than the vegetative growth. It’s trying to make that fruit more attractive to mammals, so the flavors increase and the skin becomes more palatable, which translates into wine quality.
You’ve been using biochar in your vineyards for the past few years. What is biochar and what benefits are you seeing?
It’s like compost on steroids. It works really well in sandy soils to boost organic matter. Basically, it’s charcoal, a super carbon source, and an extremely efficient way to utilize material like old orchards that are taken down. Every ton of biochar can replace five tons or more of compost, so you have lower trucking costs and lower energy usage. It’s expensive now, but we hope it won’t be in the future.
You’re a believer in permanent cover crops. Don’t they compete with the vine for water and nutrients?
Originally, we did it for erosion control, but the benefits are numerous. The roots prevent compaction and they provide a home for mycorrhizal fungi and bacteria. They’re a trap crop for beneficial insects, and they provide wind protection for young vines. On the Central Coast, our native cover crops are drought tolerant and daylight obligate. That means their seeds will not germinate until the days are shorter. If we let our cover crop go to seed, it stops using water until that seed germinates. So there’s no competition.
You’ve been converting your fleet to EcoDiesel. What is it and does it make business sense?
EcoDiesel is diesel fuel combined with waste products like cooking oil from restaurants. We can’t use it on all our fleet because we can’t get enough. It does cost more, but if the market takes off, it would be good for the environment. It would definitely stretch our oil supplies in this country.
You’ve been working on an incentive program for employee wellness. How’s that going?
We had a health fair and pre-screened some employees, voluntarily, and we found cases of terribly high blood sugar and blood pressure. The nurses told us that a few people needed to go to the doctor immediately. So we decided to provide individual screening for all of our employees. Nurses came to our site, and we had an 85 percent participation rate. Now we are trying to come up with rewards for bringing blood sugar down or losing weight—whatever your personal goal might be—but that penalizes people who already take care of themselves. We haven’t solved this dilemma.
You provide $1,000 scholarships to the children of employees who want to attend college. How do you justify this expense?
We award four to six a year and we have done it for 10 years. It just feels right. But I have an ulterior motive. We’re in the boonies, and it’s tough to hire people for administrative positions. So this is an investment in our future workforce.
All these benefits—you must have low turnover.
We have maybe two voluntary quits a year out of 200 employees. I’ve learned that retention is not so much about wages. It’s about communication. I have an open-door policy. People know they can come bug me at any time, and I try to be a good listener.
Are sustainable practices easier or harder at your size?
Size has nothing to do with it. Sustainability is about metrics, being able to measure progress, like fuel savings or efficiency. Everybody can do it.