How a polluted winery became a model of sustainable practices

This story is reprinted from Sustainable with permission. It originally appeared in On Earth, a magazine produced by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

When Tim Thornhill moved to a ranch in the hills near Ukiah, California, in 2002, he didn't plan to become a vintner. The former landscape contractor -- whose voice still carries the soft twang of his Houston upbringing -- had relocated with a single goal in mind: to build a "paradise" for his family.

Thornhill had started his landscape business back in Texas with little more than a wheelbarrow and a pickup truck, and then moved to Orlando, Florida, where he spent more than 10 years working on Disney theme parks and resort hotels. But within two years of settling in Mendocino County, Thornhill and his brother, Tom, began eyeing a nearby parcel of land that had come up for sale.

The Parducci winery, the oldest in the county, was an anchor of local viniculture. But the property itself had seen better days. The regular application of petroleum-based pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides had distressed the vines. Wastewater polluted with oxygen-depleting wine sugars flowed into a cabernet-colored pond that was covered with scum and "was at risk of being in violation of state environmental regulations," Thornhill recalls. Sensing the potential for rebirth, the brothers bought the winery anyway.

When Thornhill promised his new employees that there would one day be a cleaned-up pond bordered by picnic tables and a bird sanctuary, they didn't believe him. But little by little he began to change the way things were done at Parducci, and to change minds.

Photo of wine barrels in cellar provided by Ferenc Cegledi via Shutterstock

Next page: Inside the winery's transformation