Vineyards Dumping Chemicals in Pest Battle
“Air spraying effectively removes the water of the canopy, removing excess humidity that can bring other issues like mildew, without requiring chemical or organic inputs”
Franco Bastías, chief agronomist at Domaine Bousquet:
Growers are using weird but effective ways to beat vineyard pests – and without using chemical poisons.
Vineyards and Real Housewives are sisters from a different mister.
Both are generally recommended for those ages 21+ (and, in practice, often not completely appreciated until the age of 35 or so); sometimes offer more flash than cash; are often pumped up with chemicals, fillers and all manners of toxic additives in order to look youthful, perfect and natural … in an Instagram pre-filtered and airbrushed sort of way.
At first glance, driving by pristinely manicured vines, with neat neon-green grass that seems to be bursting with “life”, and then driving past that scraggly vineyard with patches of brown here and there, and “weeds” everywhere, it’s easy to see why the former picture-perfect scenario has been a more common sight for the past several decades in wine country (especially in the New World).
But as the short- and long-term consequences of conventional pesticides are beginning to be understood, that’s changing.
In the US alone, about 1 billion pounds of pesticide is applied to control weeds, insects and other pests, according to the US Department of the Interior. Tracking precisely how much of that is used in vineyards is tough, but it’s not on insubstantial amount, even today, amid a consumer-driven push for sustainable wine. According to the California Department of Pesticide Regulation, in 2018, 30,345,692 pounds of chemical pesticide landed on vineyards just in the Golden State, with 637,000 planted acres getting hit. There are about 895,000 acres under vine in the state total, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture.
Clearly, vintners’ reliance on chemical assistance needs to be addressed.
But what are the alternatives to declaring nuclear war on weeds, when so much money (about $326 billion at last count) is at stake? For vintners who aren’t ready to go fully biodynamic and plant via the moon cycle come what may, there are plenty of effective alternatives to chemicals. (And no, they don’t involve digging up a horn you stuffed with poop six months ago and turning it into tea). Read on for their surprising, but effective green solutions to common vineyard problems.
Pump up the biome
Much has been made in recent years of the power of the human microbiome. Now, that same hope is being placed in the teeming community of microorganisms under our feet. Bacteria, archaea and fungi can be deployed, pumped up and maximized, some say, in the battle against climate change.
“Climate change seems to have worsened in recent years, and vines are particularly sensitive to the effects of climate change,” says Marco Poggianella, founder and chief science officer of Resonant Technology in Mill Valley, CA. “We designed microbiome-boosting products at Resonant that can help winemakers deal with late frosts following warm winters, extreme heat waves, long droughts in regions where irrigation is not allowed, periods of intense rain.”
Poggianella helped develop technology at Resonant that strengthens the relationship between plants and soil, and improves nutrient transfer, he explains.
While Poggianella wouldn’t divulge precise details on the five core products’ ingredients – citing proprietary technology – he did confirm that they are all organic, and based solely on the principle of enhancing the soil biome’s inherent ability to develop more robust root systems (with a focus on the rhizosphere), improve the synergy between unique terroir-specific microbes in the soil and the root system and pump up the vine’s internal vascular system. Included in the lineup are products that should be applied throughout the year to boost health and fertility, and an emergency product to be deployed during extreme weather events.
“I’ve seen a lot of products in my 30 years of working, but after using it for a few years, we’ve seen many benefits,” he says. “Our newly planted Chardonnay vines show a higher degree of vigor and vitality than we expected, and the technology has helped our vines elsewhere better cope with water stress.”
The suite of products increase yield by an estimated 20 percent, reduce heat stress by 30 percent and reduce reliance on nitrogen-based fertilizers by 70 percent, according to a survey of Resonant’s clients across the globe.
Air spraying, like French kissing, sounds like a ridiculous waste of time, until you really think about it.
It is exactly what it sounds like: vineyard managers use the same spraying machine they utilize to deploy copper, sulfur and organic compounds, and instead just spray air, using the turbine.
Franco Bastias, chief agronomist at Mendoza’s Domaine Bousquet, which has 741 acres of grapes under vine, says air spraying effectively “removes the water of the canopy, removing excess humidity that can bring other issues like mildew”, without requiring chemical or organic inputs – or at the very least, not as many, he says.
“It’s natural and non-interventional, and improves the sanity of the vines,” he explains. Sanity is good.
Pruning to extend life
Sometimes in the quest to find tactical solutions to combat the crisis in front of you, the kind of strategic thinking that will reduce those issues in the long-term gets abandoned.
At Simonit & Sirch, master pruners and co-founders Marco Simonit and Pierpaolo Sirch work with the goal of creating strong vines that can withstand the stress that extreme weather and pests can create on vines not just this season, but for decades to come.
Their pruning methods, Simonit explains, are based on four principles – respecting a vine’s organic growth, encouraging vascular flow, reducing wood disease through strategic small cuts and utilizing protective wood – can be used in any vine-training system.
“Our pruning system increases the nutrient flow in the plant, helps vines adapt to extreme weather and combats trunk disease like esca,” he says. “We tailor-make techniques for each region, varietal, terroir and the challenges emerging depending on where our clients are. There isn’t a one-size fits all solution when it comes to pruning.”
The pair founded their first pruning school in Italy in 2009 to share their knowledge with other growers who couldn’t necessarily contract them for services. Since then, they have trained at least 15,000 people in Italy and around the world.
“One of our primary goals to extend the life of the vine,” he says. “In many regions it’s normal to rip out vines after a few decades, but our system allows vines to last 100–200 years. This is more environmentally sustainable, but it’s also economically sustainable, and it helps preserve ancient clones that are unique to different regions, and may only exist in a handful of vineyards.”
Building nests and hedges
Sustainability has been trending in Trentino, Italy since the 1980s, long before #greenwashing was even a thing. Currently, about 82 percent of the vineyard area is certified SQNPI, which means it uses integrated crop management to control disease pressure.
At Endrizzi, a Trentodoc winery, the team avoids using even organic sprays whenever possible.
“We use cow dung as an organic fertilizer and only irrigate in extreme emergencies,” says fifth-generation family co-owner Daniele Endrici. Endrizzi keeps pests under control, Endrici says, thanks to a diverse crew of feathered friends.
“We have 20 nest boxes per hectare [they have 55] to attract chickadees, redstarts, sparrows, robins, hoopoes and bats,” Endrici says. “They say thanks for the hospitality by combating pests like grapevine moths and the leafhopper Empoasca vitis. Because of their help, pesticides are no longer necessary.”
Meanwhile, Alentejo’s Herdade do Esporao has long championed creative ecofriendly wine-growing, from experimenting with 189 native and international varieties in its ampelographic field, to encouraging biodiversity in its fields.
One of its most surprising – and effective – innovations was its installation of hedges in 2014 around its vineyard to minimize cross-contamination between its field and its neighbors, and to welcome new species of insects and small mammals. The hedgerows include rosehips, honeysuckle, blackberry, puff pastry, pomegranate, laurel, the rather ominously named blood from the hedges and elderberry.
“At the moment, we have installed 14,058 meters of hedges around our property,” winemaking director Sandro Alves says. “They create ecological corridors within the vineyard, create excellent nesting sites for birds and welcome auxiliary species of insects. They also reduce dehydration of the vines by controlling the impact of dry and aggressive winds in the summer.”
Alves explains that while they are unable to assess the precise impact of the hedges, “the increase in auxiliary and beneficial insects and birds is significant”.
The team also began applying kaolin, a clay product, to the vines in a bid to alleviate extreme heat stress.
“Kaolin reduces the temperature of the vegetation cover, which in turn decreases water requirements,” Alves explains. “In our trials with it, we have been able to reduce the number of waterings after application by up to 50 percent, while also improving the quality of the grapes. This leads to savings in both water and energy.”
In the US, Santa Barbara’s Crown Point has been experimenting with high-tech non-chemical pest control techniques, says winemaker Simon Faury.
“We use a lot of organic practices, but we are not certified,” Faury says of the 45 acres under vine. “For me, it’s not a religion; it’s a science. We work with a lot of organic teas that we spray, just like you would a conventional pesticide.”
And Faury says they also drop beneficial insects like cryptolaemus and anagyrus via drone (through a company called Associates Insectary) “at specific stages of the growing season. They feed on the bad bugs, and it’s as effective as insecticide, and much better for the health of the vineyard and workers.”
He also uses “spore traps” for mildew (via Coastal Viticulture Consultants).
“It’s a little rod in the vineyard, and we send it to the lab once a week,” says Faury. “It shows us how many spores of mildew are present, almost like a PCR test for Covid. That tells us the level of infection, and we can decide if we want to do organic sprays, instead of automatically doing it.”
After experimenting with the tool in one block, they realized how much it reduced the need to spray, and they installed the rods all over the vineyard.
Pesticides and climate change – like Real Housewives’ castmates – have a toxic, co-dependent relationship. The extreme weather caused by climate change can create imbalances in the natural world, spurring unexpected and alarming pest and disease incursions that cause growers to ramp up pesticide use.
But the manufacturing of pesticides emits three greenhouse gases that speed up climate change. Add to that the carbon footprint of transporting and applying them with tractors, and the impact on the environment only worsens. Pesticides themselves of course are literally toxic, and impact not just the pests and weeds they nominally target but birds, insects, animals, fish and humans that surround the communities in which they are used.
More vintners need to break the toxic cycle of chemical dependence. And as it turns out, incremental changes can be accomplished in relatively straight-forward, cheap ways, with impressive results that will pay dividends in the bottle, and in their community.