As flowers bloom all around California, the time has come to go back out in the vineyard. In today’s article, I would like to cover more in depth the concepts of sustainable, organic and biodynamic vine growing. These terms are used more and more nowadays, and they deserve a deeper examination.
Growing grapes organically is obviously not a brand new idea. Farming chemicals have been slowly introduced over the past two centuries. Before, Mother Nature was in charge and farmers were at her mercy. More and more, because of scientific progress, we are now able to change, substitute or eliminate harmful molecules. Organic vineyards are farmed naturally without herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilizers. Caring for the land with these practices can provide a more balanced ecosystem.
Animals and plant life add biodiversity and control pests by natural means. Owl boxes provide nesting homes for raptors that control gopher populations. Year-round cover and companion crops provide host environments for beneficial insects, like ladybugs.
Goats and sheep graze in-between the vine rows, eliminating host plants for Pierces’ Disease. The Glassy Winged Sharpshooter spread the virus Xylella; vines become infected and die over time because it prevents water from being drawn through roots. Prevention goes a long way as there is no cure yet for Pierces’ Disease.
An Organic Certification is obtained after a rigorous three years of study, covering the management of all vineyard operations. Organic Certification by the California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF), an independent non-profit organization, guarantees that the grapes have met specific standards of organic agricultural methods.
The Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Practices workbook was introduced in 2002 by members of the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). The main goal is to provide all participants with a self-assessment tool to conserve natural resources, protect the environment and enhance relationships with employees, neighbors and local communities. More than 1,000 California wineries and affiliated organizations responsible for 85 percent of the nation’s wine production are enrolled. The workbook includes 14 chapters of practical guidelines, including information on grape growing, soil management, pest management, ecosystems management, water and energy conservation.
Solar panels are becoming as popular in many vineyards as on roof tops. Absorbing heat generated by a cooling system and utilizing it around the winery, allows many production buildings to be Net Zero in their energy usage. Grey water is also recycled to provide water for landscaping, rinsing and cleaning. Using different calculations and parameters, this could also give wineries a Net Zero in water consumption.
Biodynamy takes growing grapes to an all-new level. In addition to meeting all organic certification guidelines, sprays and preparations using Biodynamic principles must be used in the vineyard. Vibrant and living soils are key to growing healthy plants. The vineyard crew makes special preparations from scratch, including growing the needed herbs, raising animals to gather manure, and then storing all of these products for application at key times during the vegetative and lunar cycle. Here are two examples:
Preparation 500 – Cow manure is placed inside of cow horns and buried in the soil over winter. The horn is then dug up; its contents (called horn manure or ‘500’) are then stirred in water and sprayed on the soil in the afternoon.
Preparation 508 – Common Horsetail (Equisetum arvense) made either as a fresh tea or as fermented liquid manure is applied to the vines or to the soil.
Here is another example that reflects what Biodynamy is. During my studies in 1992, I worked at an antenna of the National Institute of Agronomic Research in Bordeaux. We were evaluating the devastating effects of red spiders (top picture) on vines in Medoc and Saint-Emilion (middle picture). Several growers participating in these trials were asked to not use certain chemicals. They saw the natural proliferation of Typhlodromuspyrior Thyflodromes, (bottom picture) the natural predator to the red spider. This study showed that by changing your protocol, you can have a positive impact on the environment.
These cute little bugs are now saving growers thousands of Euros worth of chemicals every season.
In conclusion, vine growers are mindful of the impact they can have on their generation and the next. The large majority have taken steps toward adopting these practices. Some people have even said that certain practices can enhance the Terroir effect and increase the quality of the grapes. Detractors of a full-on application of these practices want to have the opportunity to be able to spray their vines to save their crop if necessary, and therefore they would not need to seek many certifications. However, wine tastings have shown no discernible difference between wines made with organic, sustainable or biodynamic practices vs. wines produced regularly.
Sonoma County has pledged that by 2017, they will be 100% organic. This season, the Super Bowl will be played at Levi’s Stadium, the “greenest” stadium in the league. Because of this pledge, Sonoma County wines will be the only wines available during Super Bowl week. Not even Napa County wines will have a spot during this event.
So next time you end up with a bug in your glass of wine, save it, because they may have helped protect the wine you’re enjoying!