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.

Willi Stürz, tech­ni­cal direc­tor at the Alto Adi­ge co-op Can­ti­na Tra­min, admits he was skeptical.

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 spray

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.

© Simo­nit & Sirch | Correct pru­ning can extend the life of a vine and redu­ce envi­ron­men­tal pressures.


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.”

Drone insectary

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.


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