January 2019 Issue of Wines & Vines

What is Sustainable Wine Grapegrowing?

by Gliff Ohmart

Sustainable wine-grape growing is a journey, not a destination. In the next few paragraphs, I will make the case for why using this approach for growing wine grapes is so important. I will then discuss some significant areas of tension in the wine industry that have come about as the sustainability movement have evolved, which may help growers better negotiate them.

Sustainable grapegrowing as an overarching approach
There are three basic approaches to growing wine grapes: conventional, organic and biodynamic. I contend that all three fit under the umbrella of sustainable wine grapegrowing.
The three approaches have certain characteristics in common. All use labor and energy as inputs. They all require land clearance to establish a vineyard. Practitioners of each type are proud of the way they farm and feel it is the best way to farm. And they all have resulted in grapes that were made into award-winning wines as well as forget table ones. Furthermore, all three approaches recognize the importance of healthy soil for a successful farm.

The three approaches differ significantly as well. Conventional viticulture involves the use of both synthetic and naturally derived soil amendments, nutrients and pesticides. Organic and biodynamic viticulture prohibit the use of any synthetic nutrients or pesticides, and both require soil building through addition of organic matter, using practices like cover cropping and compost additions. Bio dynamic farming differs from the other two in requiring practices and inputs outlined by Rudolf Steiner in a series of eight lectures in 1924. For example, a grower must use nine plant-derived “preparations” in crop management. Most are added to the composting process, and the others are mixed with water and sprayed onto the crops.

Animals must also be a part of the farming operation. There are other practices that make biodynamic farming unique, but space does not allow a more detailed discussion. It is worth noting that biodynamic and organic farming were developed in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, when some farmers and farming advocates were becoming very concerned about the negative impacts of off-farm inputs, such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, and the decline in soil health as a result.

Organic and biodynamic certification programs fully addressed these concerns through specific farming practice requirements and prohibition of synthetic inputs. During the last 20 years, other important issues besides the negative impacts of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides came to our attention, such as energy use, water use, farm biodiversity, climate change and worker welfare and safety. All of which have been addressed by sustainable agriculture through the promotion of practices designed to optimize the use of energy and water, improve worker welfare and safety, and enhance farm biodiversity.

Many sustainable-farming certification programs have been established in the last 20 years and address most, if not all, of these issues through specific farming practice standards. While organic and biodynamic farmers would likely agree that these more recent issues are very important and must be addressed, their respective certification programs have not yet incorporated practices to do so.

Profits and sustainable growing
We farm in a capitalistic system and, therefore, unless a vineyard owner has a second income besides the vineyard, wine-grape growing must ultimately produce a profit for it to be sustainable. The cost of producing wine grapes varies tremendously based on location and the farming practices used. The revenue from a vineyard also varies tremendously based on location, yield and perception of the quality of the wine produced. Therefore, the cost of production for a given vineyard compared to the price per ton of grapes in the winery contract will determine to what degree sustainable farming practices can be used, such as cover cropping, compost addition, organic versus synthetic fertilizer, pesticide choice, mowing versus sheep grazing, management of hedgerows for biodiversity, and so forth. I once visited a Syrah vineyard where half went to one winery and the other half to another, each paying a different price per ton. More sustainable practices were being used on the section receiving the higher price.

Sustainable growing and pesticides
As with any human endeavor where there is more than one approach to accomplish something, there are advocates and critics of each one. Farming is no exception. Advocacy and criticism are based on a range of things, such as research results, environmental activism, experience, ideology or a combination of all of them. In my experience, pesticide use is the most controversial topic among farmers, farming advocates, environmentalists, ag input supply companies and the public.

Let’s not forget that a pesticide is a material designed to kill a pest. There are many ways a chemical can accomplish this, and whether we like it or not, all pesticides are going to have side effects on workers, consumers, the farm and surrounding environment. These side ef¬fects vary tremendously in their magnitude based on the active ingredient. Unfortunately, in some circles, pesticides that are approved for use in organic and biodynamically managed vineyards have gained the reputation of being totally benign. However, a pesticide is a pesti¬cide, even if it is approved for use in organic and biodynamic vineyards. I think it is much more useful to discuss pesticides in terms of the potential risk they present, risk being a combination of toxicity of the pesticide active ingredient coupled with the chance of exposure to it by non-target organisms.

There are many synthetic pesticides that present high risk of negative impact on one or more non-target organisms – workers and/or consumers – and there are a few organically approved pesticides that do so, too. There are also many synthetic pesticides that present mod¬erate or low risk, as do most organically ap¬proved pesticides. The Integrated Pest Management Institute of North America has developed a web-based pesticide risk tool that anyone can use to get a scientifically based mea¬sure of the risks presented by an EPA-registered pesticide to 12 risk indices. I feel this is a much better way to decide what pesticide to use rather than the simple dichotomy of whether it is syn¬thetic or organically derived.

Recently, a new class of pesticide active ingredients has been developed that does not directly kill a pest but stimulates the plant in a way that makes it less susceptible to insects or diseases. This is an exciting new area of pest management, but it is still too early to deter¬mine how impactful it is going to be. It is defi¬nitely not the silver bullet that will solve all of our pest-management challenges.

If we are to continue to farm wine grapes commercially, I feel we will always need to use pesticides, whether they are synthetic or organi¬cally approved. There are several reasons for this. First, vineyards are not natural systems that are inherently stable with vines that can ward off any pest problem. Second, over time pests are transported from one part of the world, where they are in relative balance with their host plants and environment, to another part of the world, where circumstances enable their populations to grow unchecked. The wine in¬dustry has several famous cases where this has happened, such as grape phylloxera, leaf-roll viruses, red-blotch virus, vine mealybug, glassy-winged sharpshooter and, most recently in the Northeast, the spotted lanternfly. The goal then is to use pesticides only when they are necessary, efficacious and present the lowest risk to work¬ers, consumers and the environment.

Sustainable wine-growing certification
Several groups have developed sustainable wine-grape growing certification programs, all of them practice-based, as are organic and bio¬dynamic certification programs. There are four programs in California, one on Long Island, and one that is primarily in Oregon but also certifies some vineyards in southern Washington and in Idaho. Overall, I think these programs have a very positive effect. They all address the impor¬tant issues such as soil management, water management, pest management, energy use, biodiversity and worker health and safety. They all require a minimum level of implementation of sustainable-farming practices that is verified through on-site audits. And they give a partici¬pating grower a sense of community, pride and accomplishment. Some wineries in California are paying growers a bonus for certified wine grapes. Certification can have its dark sides, too, one of which is playing out right now in California’s North Coast, which I think is un¬fortunate and counterproductive. The dark side being: “My certification program is more sus¬tainable than yours!”

Farming is not natural
Implicit, if not explicit, in the definition of sus¬tainable agriculture is that it is a “natural” ap-proach to farming. In other words, it is trying to mimic a stable, natural ecosystem. The argu-ment for why this is important is the assumption that a natural system is more balanced than an artificial one, and it will therefore require fewer or no inputs and/or manipulation. However, there is nothing natural about the way we grow wine grapes in the United States.

At some time in the past, natural habitat was eliminated where a vineyard was estab¬lished. Most vineyards are planted with variet¬ies of vinifera, which are not native to the U.S. but to the Mediterranean and Central Asia. The vines are grown in rows, and in most vineyards, they are trained onto stakes and wires. Finally, we have manipulated the vines to produce more fruit of a desired quality. In other words, no matter what farming approach is used, it leaves a footprint on the environment.

There is also a social impact – a social foot¬print, if you will. In most vineyards, much of the work is done by immigrants, many of them here illegally, who are paid a less-than-desirable wage under very challenging working conditions. Neighbors of vineyard or winery operations are inconvenienced by conversion of native habitat to vineyards, dust from farm¬ing operations, traffic and noise. The bottom line is that no matter how we farm our wine grapes, we will not be able to eliminate the environmental and social footprints. In other words, there is no destination we can call natural farming. Our goal, therefore, needs to be minimizing our environmental and so¬cial footprints created by farming wine grapes. Since knowledge, technologies, regulations and the marketplace continually change, our ability to impact those footprints continually changes. Sustainable wine-grape growing is therefore a journey.

What is sustainable growing and who can participate?
Sustainable wine grape growing is the journey of continually improving one’s ability to mini-mize farming’s environmental and social foot¬prints. All farmers can participate in this journey, whether they use conventional, or¬ganic or biodynamic practices, or a combina¬tion. The population of U.S. winegrape growers can be viewed as being on a continuum of farming practices from less sustainable on one end to more sustainable on the other. No mat¬ter where an individual is on the continuum, he or she can have a goal of moving along the continuum to increase sustainability.

We are in denial if we think that one ap¬proach to farming is the only way to solve en-vironmental and social issues related to farming. For one thing, we will never be able to get farm¬ers to all farm in the same way. Another is that all three approaches to farming leave an envi¬ronmental and social footprint. Some of us get caught up with the idea that natural or sustain¬able farming is a destination that is some kind of environmental and social utopia. This puts farmers in an impossible position, because there is no such destination. The journey of continual improvement in the sustainability of one’s farm¬ing practices should be the goal.

Over the last 20 years, it has been a privi¬lege and wonderful experience for me to have shared with Wines & Vines readers my thoughts on many aspects of sustainable wine-grape growing. In this final column, I attempted to draw some conclusions that might be useful for wine-grape growers as they continue their journeys along the path of continual improve¬ment that is sustainable farming.

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