biochemical cultureIt is difficult for me to watch most of today’s winegrowers dump pesticides on their vines. Fortunately, Mother Nature and our health are becoming top priorities and the trend is towards organic farming. This new awareness is convincing most of the French and American winemakers I have selected for this guide to practice sustainable agriculture.
Every year I see increasing numbers of wine growers, especially women, turning to organic farming. While most of us understand organic food, we may not understand the differences between biodynamics, sustainable and traditional wine growing.
To try to control diseases and parasites that were destroying their crops, farmers decided to control nature with herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and other miraculous molecules.
Growers sprayed these chemicals without understanding where they came from or how they could affect the long-term health of their vines.
The result is catastrophic, with many parasites becoming increasingly resistant to these poisons. Recently, in spite of intense spraying, 40% of the Cabernet Sauvignon roots in Bordeaux were hit by fungus rot. We don’t know how to control these new super-resistant strains. We turn to even more powerful, complex, and expensive chemicals but we’re still stuck with parasites.
It is difficult to analyze the terrible repercussions of using these chemicals because substantial quantities of these poisons are dispersed in the air or seep into our water systems. Over time, fertile soil is destroyed because its biological activity is completely disrupted.
In short, the chemical culture we practice today is adversely altering our wine. And as for the men who have to handle all these products, it hurts me very deeply when I think about them.
While many growers may be afraid to become ‘organic,’ practicing sustainable agriculture is a good step towards respecting the environment and bequeathing a healthy Earth to future generations.
This type of growing employs the rational use of what are called agro-pharmaceuticals. Chemicals are only used when there is a definite need for intervention and their strength and duration are strictly limited. The emphasis is placed on preventive measures like reducing nitrogen fertilization, controlling how leaves sprout, aerating the foliage where grapes cluster, and trying to limit development of grape moths and different fungi.
« Vineyards are only 5% of farm land, but they absorb 20% of the money for plant care of which 75% is for fungicides! Most of this is spent on chemicals to get rid of mildew, grey rot and fungi. »
- A. Filhol
Unlike conventional viticulture that tries to eliminate all weeds with herbicides, the winemaker who practices organic farming uses these same herbs to nourish, aerate and give structure to the soil. Organic farmers consider the soil as alive – the worms, mollusks, field mice, and other fauna that knead the earth create biological activity. The smallest bacteria are important, along with the entire unseen world comprised of micro-flora and micro-organisms.
The winemaker watches over the health of the young vines and treats the soil with natural methods. Weeds are there to capture nitrogen from the air and convert it into nutrients for the soil. In the United States, winegrowers plant “cover crops” like fava beans, meadow barley and black mustard among the vines.
Organic farming prohibits the use of any synthetic chemicals. To fight diseases, the winemaker observes nature and works with rather than confronting her to get the required results. To eliminate pests, organic growers were the first to use pheromones to release sexual signals that lured pest species into traps. Ladybugs and small spiders are common sights among vines, as are the butterflies specially brought in to eat aphids and other small parasites. Vineyards in California use birds for this work. Nesting boxes are hung for owls (Tyto alba) and kestrels (Falco sparverius) that prey day and night on gophers and voles. Small homes are also provided for bluebirds and swallows that eat both aphids and parasite insects
In the Carneros région, I saw a revival of the ancient practice of letting chickens run loose through the vines. In the southern France it is not uncommon to see sheep in the vineyards during the winner.
Biology and biodynamics are names that are often confused or considered as a variation of the other, but in fact they are two totally different disciplines.
Biodynamic cultivation is extremely demanding and rigorous. It is sometimes dismissed as being irrational as it is a philosophical approach to winemaking as a winemaker handles his vineyard as he leads his life. It is based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian scientist born in 1861. It helps man find a balance between materialism and spiritualism, and between matter and spirit to achieve harmony in life. Such winemakers are in tune with nature’s cycles. They use ancestral methods to fertilize, such as preparing manure-based compost by adding nettle, valerian and dandelion.
By observing nature, plants, the sun and the moon, biodynamic winemakers see and understand their vineyards in a very unique way. They vaporize herbal plants in low doses on the vines, bury cow horns filled with manure, and use dynamized water. They feel the strong influences the sun and moon have on their health and their vines’ growth. Like our ancestors, they see the superposition of stars as a natural influence on their vineyards. These techniques work: We can read in our grandparents’ gardening manuals how tree sap, like the tides, rises and falls depending on the phases of the moon. Each season requires the winemaker to use different rituals on his vines.
Biodynamic winemaking practices can be ridiculed or linked to witchcraft. But one thing is certain: the end result is impressive, and these techniques produce some of the greatest and most prestigious wines. Instead of dismissing them as mad sorcerers, biodynamic winemakers should be revered as lucid pioneers. I am sure that one day in the future their philosophy will be validated.
California Certified Organic Farmers www.ccof.org
Organic Consumers Association
Phone: (218) 226-4164
6771 South Silver Hill Drive
Finland, MN 55603
Organic Trade Association
PO Box 1078
Greenfield, MA 02238
Phone: (413) 774-7511