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Raisin' in the Sun Solar Winery (Washington, USA)

Credits: ©2017 Yakima Magazine / Robin Rogers

Vigneron (tender of the wine grapes in French) Gary Cox started Cox Canyon Vineyards in 1999 with a long-term goal of environmental sustainability. A vineyard, after all, can have a lifespan of 120 years; the oldest known vine was producing grapes in 17th century Slovenia. So Cox makes great effort to protect the ecosystems – habitat, soil, air, water - that keep his vineyards flourishing. In a perfect collision of innovation and nature, Cox’s efforts have been combined to establish the first sustainable vineyard and winery in Kittitas County. One of his biggest recent investments is in renewable energy. In a move towards self-sufficiency and greater sustainability, Cox had solar panels installed on his property last fall to provide energy for processing his Cabernet Franc, Riesling and Malbec wine grapes at his Ellensburg Canyon Winery. That means he captures the sunshine on his Yakima River Canyon farm twice: once through photosynthesis in his wine grapes to later be bottled as wine, and now through solar photovoltaics to power his winery operations.


Ellensburg Winery Seasons

Photographer Charles McGehee visited the Ellensburg Canyon Winery over the course of a year to capture the view of four distinct seasons at this sustainable winery. ©2017 Charles McGehee

His friends at Tieton Creamery had introduced him to the idea of solar after they installed a solar system last year to reduce or eliminate their power bills. “We have other compatibilities,” says Cox. “They like wine and we like cheese.” So when they told him about their foray into electricity from the sun, Cox not only listened but contacted system designers/installer at Ellensburg Solar to investigate solar opportunities on his own farm.

Energy and Solar Power

On his 17-acre property, Cox had some space that was unusable for vineyard. Ellensburg Solar confirmed that it was a great spot for a solar array, and it’s far enough away from the Yakima Canyon rim above the property that it won’t be shaded, for maximum sunlight. The solar field at Ellensburg Canyon Winery now comprises 85 270-watt solar panels that help operate winery equipment, irrigation pumps, lighting, and refrigeration. Ellensburg Solar completed the array in October 2016, so it hasn’t seen a full year of production yet but their predictions for Tieton Creamery have been fulfilled, so Cox is hopeful.

In just the past few years, approximately 1,500 Puget Sound Energy customers have installed their own solar-power systems. And the number of people going solar continues to grow. Solar panels can produce power (at lower levels) even under the Puget Sound's gray, wintery skies.

Cox considered adding solar power to his property for quite a few years. “Once the costs came down and reliability of the system went up, coupled with generous tax credits from the State of Washington went into play, it was a no brainer to go solar,” he says. Once that decision is made, says Jeff Greear of Ellensburg Solar, it takes about a month to install a whole system. That includes working with the utility, filing for the incentives and permits, and installing the actual system. Installation typically takes one day for roof-mounted systems and two days for ground-mounted, allowing for concrete footings to be poured on the first day. Cox adds that they “have been very happy with the program and look forward to reaping the benefits going forward for many years.”

Ellensburg Solar reviewed Cox’s electricity consumption from the previous 12 months to arrive at an estimate for system size. Cox had used about 32,524 kW of power so his new system is designed to produce about 32,819 kW for the year. Ellensburg Solar estimates that Cox’s saving on utility bills will pay back the system costs over the next four years.

Because of federal incentives for renewable energy systems, Cox also saved about $15,000 on his system through a 30% tax credit – a rebate for which will go towards paying off the cost of the solar panels. Additionally, his system was financed by a credit union at 3.5% interest and will be paid off within five years.

Cox’s system is connected to grid power with Puget Sound Energy which means he can bank credits in summer that will be used in the winter when there’s not much power generation in his location. Most of his power consumption is during harvest when his solar plant is producing the most electricity. At year's end, if he uses more power than produced, he will be billed for the difference – which Greear says is unlikely because their estimates are very close to reality.

The solar system has no moving parts which makes it ultra-low maintenance. An inverter converts the DC power generated at the solar panels to usable AC power; the inverter is checked periodically, which can be done remotely with a smart phone. Rain (if it does rain in the canyon!) keeps the panels clean. Even in winter, snow removal is not necessary, partly because there’s such a small amount of power generated that it doesn’t make sense to expend the effort.

California has more than 100 solar wineries, while Washington has only a smattering despite the superb solar insolation in South Central Washington during the summer. In fact, during the viticultural growing season, Washington averages two more hours per day of sunlight than California, reports the Washington State Wine Commission.

In the first three quarters of 2016, solar accounted for 39% of all new electric generating capacity brought on-line in the U.S, second only to natural gas for new power. According to the Solar Energy Industries Council’s Solar Market Insight Report for the final quarter of 2016, Washington State ranks 28th for photovoltaic installations in the US. While Cox is happy to be part of this growth in the state, he is also pleased that he can receive a solar power system depreciation tax credit that applies to total billing at his address, for both home and business.

Conservation & Water

Cox Canyon Vineyards took special care in developing its site above the Yakima River, as rock was removed during cultivation and planting, the rocks were repositioned within vineyard rows to act as heat sinks during the day, slowly releasing warmth to the vines during the night to facilitate even respiration and sugar production. Vine prunings are mulched back to the soil to encourage mycorrhizal fungus associations to form within the vines, facilitating water and nutrient uptake, says Cox.

Cox is a member of the S.H.A.R.E. Pollinator Partnership that supports bees, butterflies and other pollinators. Cox has set aside more than five acres for pollinators, he minimizes or eliminates the use of pesticides, and maintains green areas in the vineyard itself to qualify for this program. He practices companion cropping with raspberries, native huckleberries, elderberries, and blackberries that has a direct effect of pollen on seed characteristics, thereby producing additional flavors within the wine grapes.

Fortuitously, this area is not hospitable to pests. The cold, dry winters of Washington State produce temperatures which kill many vineyard disease-carrying pests such as moths, mites and nematodes. Further, Phylloxera does not nymph into the winged form of the insect therefore localizing outbreaks which are eradicated upon detection, leaving Washington remarkably free of this global vineyard pest, according to Cox. Due to its arid climate, Eastern Washington is remarkably fungus free, too. As a result, very few chemical pesticides are required (Powdery Mildew being one notable exception), further promoting Cox’s sustainable vineyard practices that provide healthy soils and water.

As an aside, Cox mentions that, in the late 1850s, Phylloxera was exported from the US to Europe on the roots of native American grapes to create the Great French Wine Blight that decimated more than 40% of the wine industry in France. But then Americans came to the rescue, he says, by providing resistant rootstocks to graft the Vitis vinifera onto using hybrids created from the Vitis belandieri, Vitis riparia, and Vitis rupestris species. Cox emphasizes that, "In Washington State, we plant on true varietal root stock with no grafting onto hybrids, and thus obtain 100% of that variety's characteristics, which is unique in the world of wine. Only Argentina and Chile, the mirror image of Washington, do not have the winged form of Phylloxera. This is a big deal in getting the true varietal taste in our wines."

Cox believes that excellent water is essential to good grapes, reminding us that fruit is 95% water and therefore the quality of the water incorporated into the grapes is essential to creating a healthy fruit. He is a Master Watershed Steward, a program that focuses on good stream ecology, wildlife biology, protecting water resources through responsible farming practices, and varied conservation strategies for agriculture and fisheries. The grapes at Cox Canyon Vineyard are irrigated utilizing state-of-the-art irrigation applications with the clean head waters from the Yakima River that is fed by snowmelt. Cox’s efficient drip irrigation system allows for absolute control, saving water and stressing the vines in a good way, conserving water in the process.

The rain shadow effect in Eastern Washington – wherein precipitation fronts bump up against the Cascade Mountains, dropping moisture in Western Washington - creates desert conditions on the eastern slopes. With only 7 to 12 inches of precipitation per year in Eastern Washington annually, irrigation is a must. But the lack of natural rainwater, the availability of irrigation water, plus solar access sets up a dry, sunny environment perfect for growing wine grapes - and also for cultivating the solar power.

His Roots

Cox says part of the motivation for going solar was that he and his wife, Susan, both “absolutely wanted to get off the grid and become more independent.” They had come to the Yakima area because it’s Susan’s home. Growing up in Chicago, he had fond memories of vacationing in the West, venturing as far as Mount Rainier by automobile at a time when they would feed big brown bears from their car windows. He didn’t need much convincing to locate on the West Coast.

As a soil scientist, Gary Cox was hired by the Hanford Nuclear Reservation to study radioactive tumbleweeds. For him, it was the first real demonstration of how plants take up whatever is in the soil – good or bad. He was able to revegetate the burial grounds of waste at Hanford, placing soil on top of the tumbleweeds and then planting with native grasses to stabilize the site. This work set him on a path towards sustainable growing and, eventually, wine production.

“Biological organisms are always looking for nutrients,” Cox says, and his legacy to his grapes is to provide the best nutrients possible to make great wine. He likes organic growing because “it takes less energy,” he says, “and is sustainable.”

As a graduate student, Cox “tested” wines for Professor Walter Clore at Washington State University, considered by many to be the Father of the Washington wine industry. From 1976 to 1978, Cox and other graduate students were “guinea pigs” who gave a thumbs or thumbs down for wines as part of Clore’s Wine Project. “It’s how I got hooked,” he laughs.

Clore was attempting to increase small fruit products in Washington and had noticed that the latitude of France and Italy wine producing regions were similar to Washington’s. Nearly all of Washington’s commercial wineries had gone out of business as the state became one of the first to go “dry” during Prohibition in 1917. Clore’s suppositions and research on which grape vines produced the best wine in the soils and climates of Washington ultimately helped establish the modern wine industry in the Pacific Northwest - now second only to California in the US. Later, Cox would be an instructor in the Vineyard & Winery Technology Program at Yakima Valley Community College, as well as an instructor in the World Wine Program at Central Washington University.

As a small vintner and proprietor of the 697th licensed winery in Washington, Cox has awards to attest to his successes, including three Golds, five Silvers, eight Bronze Medals and an Outstanding/Best Buy from Wine Press Northwest Magazine. His varietals include Cabernet Franc, ‘White’ Cabernet Franc, and Rieslings, and several blends such as Red Bordeaux. Cox also produces hard ciders such as HoneyGal made with honeycrisp and gala apples, fermented with champagne yeast.

Raisin’ in the Sun

According to the Washington State Wine Commission, great wine grapes use photosynthesis to aid in the production of sugars, color development and heat accumulation for overall physiological ripening. Cox points out that, even though the growing season is slightly shorter than more southerly wine regions, the “sun hours” in Eastern Washington are equal due to the high latitude that is similar to the popular wine regions of Northern Europe (almost 50 degrees north). This also increases the temperature, causing grapes to mature, increasing the quality of the wine.

Eastern Washington faces sustained winter freezes low enough to kill vines to the ground once every seven years or so. Methods such as layering (planting a living vine below the ground level for protection) are employed to combat this problem. Cox says that Washington vines actually go through full dormancy in winter, which is unique in the wine world.

There is up to 50º F difference between high day and low night time temperatures in the Yakima River Canyon, fluctuations that develop flavonoids in the grapes. This fluctuation has virtually no impact on the generation of solar power, though. There is so much sunlight generated during the spring, summer and autumn months that it doesn’t matter that Cox’s vineyard receives no direct sun on its solar panels during the winter. The elevation on his property varies from 1400 to 1525 feet, providing for good air drainage, but the 2800-foot steep canyon walls above his rolling fields block out the low-angled winter sun rays.

On his west-sloping site that is adjacent to the entrance to the Wild & Scenic Yakima River Canyon, Cox’s grapes grow on alluvium laid upon uplifted basalts and layers of volcanic ash from three nearby volcanoes, providing vital micronutrients to the vines. The sun shines here more than 300 days per year, his vines receiving 16 hours per day of sun at the summer solstice. Wine grapes need at least 1,400 hours of annual sunlight during the growing season to ripen properly and Cox has that in abundance. These sunlight conditions also optimize the generation of electricity from photovoltaics during the summer – which is when production requires the most power.

In Cox’s small slice of paradise, he has what he needs to stay focused on both conservation and high quality grapes – clean water, clean power, clean air, nutrient-rich soil. As sustainable wine growing gains popularity across California, Virginia, Oregon, Washington and other wine growing states, Cox has nimbly placed his winery and vineyards at the forefront of a solar boom, too. As Goldman Sachs predicts, the solar industry is expected to grow by almost 30% by 2018, partly due to cost competitiveness and better performing solar panels, along with beneficial policy incentives – the same reasons that drove Cox’s decision to go solar as he anticipates with relish his reduced power bills in 2017 and beyond!


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