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Island winery earns salmon-safe certification

Gerard Bentryn is in touch with the soil, and now the streams. - JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo
Gerard Bentryn is in touch with the soil, and now the streams.
— image credit: JESSE BEALS/Staff Photo

Minimal irrigation and use of locally grown grapes keep the impact on water low.

When matching a wine with your next salmon dinner, you might consider a bottle from Bainbridge Island Vineyards.

The salmon will thank you.

Recognized for a host of practices that lessen impacts on the island watershed, the Day Road business is the first winery in the state to garner the coveted “Salmon-Safe” certification.

“Bainbridge Vineyards really is a model operation for overall environmental stewardship,” said Dan Kent, managing director of Salmon-Safe, a Portland, Ore.-based nonprofit organization devoted to ecologically sustainable agricultural practices that protect water quality and native salmon.

Salmon-Safe has certified more than 30,000 acres in critical Northwest agricultural watersheds since 1995. Certified farms earn the right to use the Salmon-Safe logo on their products.

Vineyard owner Gerard Bentryn said the certification will help marketing and differentiate the island winery’s products from the products of other regional operations.

While the organization has already certified more than one-third of Oregon’s wine country, Washington’s fast-growing wine industry lagged until now.

“We’re so pleased,” said JoAnn Bentryn, who co-owns the vineyard and winery with her husband, Gerard. “It really gives us a boost to be recognized for something we’ve worked so hard at, that we believed would be a benefit to the community and to wildlife.”

The family-run business uses a pond to water young vines for just a season or two. After that, the grapes are on their own, fed only by natural rainfall.

Unlike the many thirsty vineyards in the dry plains of Eastern Washington, the Bainbridge operation taps no streams or groundwater for irrigation. Growing their own grapes rather than importing them from the far side of the Cascades means they have no impact on water and salmon runs there.

Not purely ecologically based, the Bentryns say they follow traditional wine-growing methods that adapt to local climates and soils.

“They simply don’t irrigate in Europe,” JoAnn Bentryn said. “They work with what’s there, from the ground and from the sky. They grow only what’s supported and that’s why they’ve developed over 400 grape varieties, each one for the climate they’re in.”

Gerard Bentryn said the vineyard’s methods sprouted from an earth-bound philosophy rather than a market-driven economy.

“Had we used (irrigated) grapes we would have effectively doubled our income, as it is far cheaper to buy grapes grown with subsidized irrigation than it is to grow them here sustainably,” he said. “We would have also been able to offer the more common red wines that are now fashionable and profitable.

“However, after years of working as a water resource planner for the National Park Service, I was all too familiar with the fact that there is simply not enough water in the Columbia River to both provide irrigation and to allow salmon to flourish.”

Pesticides weren’t just banished from the Bentryns’ vines out of concern for the environment – they just couldn’t find a use for them.

“We don’t need those chemicals,” JoAnn Bentryn said. “We keep a good, clean vineyard that has no bug problem. What do we need pesticides for?”

Weeds that grow in the pathways between vine rows are tilled or burned, enriching the soil and discouraging insect infestations, JoAnn Bentryn said.

Fisheries biologist Wayne Daley commended the Bentryns for their efforts.

“They’re doing a great job and it has to be applauded,” he said. “If they were to irrigate, they’d have to use well water, which drains the aquifers that recharge streams on the island. That’s a critical issue for salmon and I’m delighted the Bentryns are using the practices they use.”

Because the vineyard uses no pesticides, nearby Manzanita Creek flows cleaner and its population of coho salmon and cutthroat trout can breathe easier, Daley said.

The Bentryns plan to incorporate the Salmon-Safe logo on their wines sold at stores and the farmers market.

“We do not believe we can make a wine that is worth imperiling a race of salmon,” Gerard Bentryn said. “Being recognized by the Salmon-Safe program means to us that we can provide a clear choice to wine lovers who also are concerned about the survival of salmon as an icon of the Northwest.”

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