Times They are a Changing

Organic, biodynamic, natural, sustainable, and many other techniques of viticulture and winemaking are once again making their existence known in the wine world. Yes, I said again because these farming methods are being updated using current technology but the basic premise of all of them is nothing new. The idea behind all of these methods of producing wine using the least human intervention possible was once done by necessity rather than by a conscious choice. In the not too distant past, there were no chemical controls and spraying programs available to vintners. Winemakers had to rely on taste and experience to know how their grapes and wine were progressing without a lab to verify their assumptions. Even after chemical controls became available the poorer producers still had to rely on biological controls and manipulating the natural conditions to bring in a harvest.

Understanding the delicate interactions between nature and agriculture has always been a passion of mine. My preoccupation with keeping the ecosystem clean and free of dangerous residual chemical compounds is completely understandable once you know a little about me, my background, and my education. I grew up across the road from my mother’s family farm where I watched my uncle, aunt, and cousins farming and caring for the land. I would pursue my higher education at California University of Pennsylvania where I graduated cum laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Nature Conservation. I have since combined that education with my interest in writing and the love of wine into an exciting journey of discovery. My writing has allowed me to become friends with many winemakers and vintners, not only in the northeastern United States but around the world. I have leveraged my access to these remarkable men and women to further my understanding of the practicality of using less chemical intervention in the vineyard. After years of conversations with the people who know first hand which practices work and which don’t work for their particular circumstances, I have assembled a mosaic of the feasibility of organic viticulture across North America and the world. My findings are that success and failure is very location and climate-specific. Climatic factors have never been predictable but are in flux now more than ever before.

In my ongoing effort to gather opinions on growing grapes organically, I recently had the pleasure to discuss the subject with Greg Winslow, owner/winemaker/vintner of Winslow Winery concerning his efforts to keep his vineyard as organic as possible using the options available to him. The Winslow winery and vineyards are located in the picturesque southwestern Pennsylvania town of Perryopolis. Greg grows a diverse collection of wine grapes, including a recent planting of a favorite of mine, Saperavi. Greg quit using glyphosate in 2016 because of the uncertainty surrounding the effects it might have on the eco-balance of his vineyard. That same year he decided to take a chemical-free approach to weed control when be purchased a weed burner manufactured by Flame Engineering. A weed burner is basically a flame thrower that incinerates the vegetation in the vine rows. It’s easy to see how this method of weed control is environmentally friendly even if it can be visualized as a plot from a cartoon where the results can be

Greg Winslow’s weed burner Photo courtesy Winslow Winery

both hilarious and disastrous. Greg pointed out some nice positives of using his weed burner. On the positive side is that it’s organic, weeds can’t develop a resistance to it, all the weeds and grass in the target area are destroyed instantly, and it has the unexpected benefit of helping sterilize the ground under the vines of fungus and mold that might splash up onto the vines during a rain. He also noted on the negative side the extra cost when compared to chemical herbicides and it doesn’t have the duration of chemical controls. Greg included one unforeseen danger of using this device in the vineyard that I hadn’t thought of. “It is absolutely devastating to bird netting. We use side netting that we leave up all year round then roll it down to cover the fruit zone during version. Once you drop the nets, don’t even think about using this.” 

Not completely satisfied with the weed control the weed burner was providing Greg purchased an offset tiller, a Rineri EL170 to be exact, to complement his weed control program. In addition to using his offset tiller to work the floor of his vineyard, he added drainage tiles and annual ryegrass between his rows to improve the water flow out of the vineyard and lessen soil compaction. His efforts are proving to be effective but are labor-intensive and costly but sustainable by definition. I suggested

Rineri EL
170 offset tiller Photo courtesy: Winslow Winery

he consider the organic broad-spectrum herbicide Weed Slayer to enhance his other weed controls. I first heard of Weed Slayer from Mary Rocca at Rocca Vineyards in the Napa Valley of California. I saw photos of her vine rows completely clear of weeds after vineyard manager Sergio Melgoza had applied the product. Weed Slayer consists of two separate products that are mixed with water to produce an effective herbicide. Weed Slayer is the herbicide and Arg Gold is the biological adjuvant. These two products work together to kill weeds from the root up while leaving no toxicity in the soil. If you have used Weed Slayer in your vineyard or another agricultural application please let me know of your experience with this product.

Greg Winslow believes in the idea of growing organically in his vineyard and pursues it as best he can while having to battle the same problems all producers of agricultural products face in the northeastern United States. When asked about the viability of growing his grapes completely organic and chemical-free he answered honestly and realistically. “I think that growing organically is a noble cause and it would be nice to market wines that were grown that way”. “I think growing organically would be difficult at best, at least in the mid-Atlantic states”. ” I haven’t met anyone in southern Pa and points south that is doing totally organic”. I do however use some organic products in my spray program, I use copper, sulfur, and hydrogen peroxide in my spray rotation, especially as harvest nears”. “I am trying to use only what I need when I need it and not spray irresponsibly for everything”.

Greg Winslow’s candid answers are very similar to the sentiments expressed by all the growers that I have posed these questions to in the Northeast. They say going totally organic would be great but it isn’t feasible at this time. Growing grapes and making wine is no different than any other business in that you need a product to sell. Growers are challenged every year to produce a harvest whether it be organically or with the help of chemical controls or a combination of both. I am always amazed by the ingenuity of these tenacious individuals and their sheer will to succeed.  

Winslow vineyards Photo courtesy: Winslow Winery

                  

 

 

Sign of the Times

     In organic viticulture the use of chemicals is strictly controlled by law to the point where almost all the chemicals available to conventional growers are prohibited. Organic growers concentrate on growing healthy vines that are able to withstand pests, disease, fungus, rots and anything else they may encounter in the field while being able to sustain themselves with a robust root system. Conventional growers rely more on chemical solutions for prevention and problem resolution. A balanced ecosystem and healthy soil in the vineyard are essential for organic farming to succeed.

     Biodynamic viticulture takes the idea of growing grapes without the aid of chemical applications a step further. Biodynamic farming looks at a vineyard as an ecosystem unto itself with a system of checks and balances that maintains the system’s equilibrium and prevents any major disruptive events (diseases, insect infestation, animal intrusion, etc.) from affecting the health of the system. Biodynamic farmers incorporate lunar cycles and astrological influences into their decisions. In the U.S.A. wine labeled “organic” is regulated by law. These wines must be made from grapes that are certified to have been organically grown and made without any  sulfites added to them. Wine can be made from “certified organically grown grapes” and have sulfites added to them but the label can’t claim it as “organic wine” but as wine “made from organic grapes”. The difference in wording is subtle but there is a difference in how the wine is produced. Biodynamic wines are also produced from grapes grown in chemical-free biodynamic vineyards but the winemaker is limited to making wine without using any common manipulations, such as adjusting it’s acidity or adding yeasts. As with organic grapes you can find wine made from “biodynamically grown grapes” that have been made using different wine making manipulations but as with the “organically grown grapes” the label will read wine made from “biodynamically grown grapes” but not biodynamic wine. The U.S. Government does not certify biodynamic wine. Biodynamic wine is certified by the independent Demeter Association. Biodynamic and Demeter are trademarks used to assure consumers that the product has been certified to a uniform standard.

     I have had conversations with wine makers and vineyard owners from the Eastern United States that have seen just about everything that can happen in a vineyard first hand. The one point they were all emphatic about was that although it is possible to grow  organic and biodynamic vineyards here it is very difficult. Any grower wanting to pursue this method of viticulture must first be able to withstand the possibility that their harvest may be dramatically reduced in some years and non-existent in others because of factors they won’t be able to control with the tools they allowed to use. 

     The topic of organic vs. conventional farming has been debated with valid points being made and supported on both sides of the discussion. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that any practice that leads to better wine is always welcome. At the end of the day wine making is a business and like any other business you must be profitable to stay in business. It requires a business plan that is flexible and incorporates a vision that can be transformed into a financially viable enterprise in the real world.