20 Years of Sustainable Wine Grape Growing

Vineyard View: What has changed, what has not and how can we improve?

by Cliff Ohmart
Improved spraying technology has helped growers use pesticides more efficiently and with less drift.

San Rafael, Calif.—My inaugural column devoted to sustainable farming of wine grapes was published in the November 1998 issue of Wines & Vines. It was appropriately titled “What is Sustainable Viticulture.” Twenty years and more than 100 columns later, it seems like a good time to sit back and see what has changed, what has not, and what growers can do to continue to advance sustainable farming of vineyards in the United States.

My observations are based not only on my experience in working with wine grape growers; they have also been reinforced by working with growers in other cropping systems over the last 30 years. Many of the topics I mention have been the focus of my Wines & Vines columns over the years.

What has changed
Some of the most obvious changes that have occurred during the last 20 years, particularly in regions with large vineyard acreage, are in farming equipment. Much of it has been driven by the increasing shortage and cost of labor. Labor-intensive practices like harvesting, pruning, shoot-thinning and leafing have all been mechanized.

Sprayers and sprayer technology have also advanced, from air-blast sprayers pulled by open-canopied tractors to self-propelled over-the-vine sprayers with enclosed, air-conditioned, carbon-filtered cabs that can treat multiple rows in one pass. Growers in some regions use tunnel sprayers that recapture pesticide runoff from the canopy. Reduced-drift sprayer nozzles have been developed along with electrostatic systems that are designed to improve spray coverage. Image analysis is advancing that allows sprayers to detect the canopy or lack thereof to turn nozzles on and off, and weed sprayers are being equipped with sensors to detect weeds and spray only when they are present.

Another dramatic change I have witnessed over the last 20 years in sustainable wine grape growing is the significant increase in our ability to measure things in the vineyard, capture this data and use it in vineyard management decision-making. A great example is in irrigation management. Our ability to estimate vine water demand has changed dramatically, from basing it on vine appearance to directly measuring vine water stress using a pressure bomb or sap flow sensors, to now being able to measure water use over an area of vines using surface renewal technology. At the same time, our ability to measure soil moisture has also greatly improved. University scientists and private companies have developed software to capture this data, process it, and use it to operate the irrigation system remotely using personal computers, tablets and smart phones. I have long maintained that attention to detail in the vineyard is the foundation of sustainable wine grape growing. I am a big believer in the measure-to-manage approach to farming: If you can’t measure something, you can’t manage it.

In some instances, I feel our ability to measure things and collect data has gotten ahead of our ability to interpret the data and use it to improve vineyard management. Drone technology is an example that comes to mind. I constantly see ads in trade magazines about how drones are going to revolutionize agriculture with estimates of billions of dollars in savings. We are very good at programming drones on how to fly where we want them to, not to crash and to take pictures and NDVI images. We are less advanced in interpreting this data to advance vineyard management other than to identify stressed areas. It is one thing to identify a stressed area; it is another to figure out how to improve vineyard performance in those areas, given the physical limitations a vineyard trellis and irrigation system put on our ability to apply precision viticulture.

Another big change in the past 20 years is that pesticide risk has declined dramatically in vineyards in many regions. There are several reasons. One is that almost all the pesticides registered for wine grapes in the past 15 years are much lower-risk than the older materials. Another is the increase in use and efficacy of personal protective equipment by workers who handle and apply pesticides. A third is that the sprayer technology discussed above is resulting in more efficient use of pesticides and less drift. And finally, many growers are intentionally selecting lower-risk pesticides to apply.

Knowledge about wine grape growing has steadily increased. University research, coupled with grower experience, has greatly improved our ability to grow high-quality wine grapes in all regions of the U.S. through improved management of irrigation, canopy, trellis design and crop load.

The implementation of sustainable viticulture used to be measured by an assessment of the practices being used in a vineyard. A relatively recent development is the interest by some to measure the outcomes of the use of sustainable practices through metrics, such as the amount of water, nitrogen and fuel used to produce a ton of grapes. The approach is to establish a benchmark for each metric and then measure change over time so one knows if practices have improved sustainable performance or not. I am hoping this trend continues, and I recommend that growers start using these metrics to assess vineyard performance and efficacy of their sustainable farming programs.

There has been a significant increase in interest and participation in sustainable viticulture programs in the last 20 years. Initially the programs focused on growers self-assessing their practices. The idea started in California, resulting eventually in three regional and one statewide program, and it quickly spread to Washington and New York. Some have evolved into certification programs so that sustainability claims can be made in the marketplace. There are now four programs in California encompassing more than 100,000 acres of certified vineyards; one program that straddles the border of Oregon and Washington; and one program on Long Island.

I occasionally hear some growers say, “Talk to a 90-year-old farmer; now that is someone that is sustainable.” Nevertheless, I feel that all of the changes I have discussed above have greatly improved the sustainability of our management of vineyard soil, efficacious use of water and energy, enhancement of habitat and biodiversity, and bettered the working environment for employees. All of which enables us to produce the highest-quality wine grapes possible in an economically sustainable way.

What has not changed
What has not changed is human behavior. This is a much more challenging case to present, because unlike describing changes in equipment and technology, making observations about changes (or not) in human behavior is much more anecdote-based. Most of us are instinctually wary of or resistant to change, or both. Sort of the attitude, “If it isn’t broken, then don’t fix it.” It was true 20 years ago, and it seems true now. The problem with this attitude is that it gets in the way of striving to do better. In other words, continually improving our farming, which is a major goal of sustainable viticulture.

When I discussed the idea of sustainable viticulture with a grower 20 years ago, the reaction was skepticism and push-back. The usual comment when we discussed adopting a sustainable farming practice was: “What is it going to do for my bottom line?”

This reaction has not changed. Granted, a much higher percentage of growers in 2018 are familiar with the concept of sustainable farming. However, even among many of these growers, their skepticism remains about sustainable wine grape growing being good business. I have always had a problem with the “bottom line” argument because many growers do not have a detailed enough vineyard-management plan and accounting system to accurately determine if a new practice is going to pay for itself or not. I think much of the skepticism comes from our instinctual resistance to change.

Another sentiment from growers that has not changed is the notion that state and federal environmental and worker regulations are going to put them out of business. Two decades ago, I frequently heard statements such as, “I became a farmer to farm, not to do paperwork,” or “I spend 90% of my time in the office and 10% in the field.”

I hear the exact same comments today. Despite this opinion, the U.S. wine industry is larger now than it was 20 years ago, and wine is now produced in all 50 states. Granted, there has been consolidation in acreage managed by farming companies in the major wine grape regions, but there are still a large number of small wine grape growers. In fact, given the rise of wine industries in more states, there are likely more growers now than 20 years ago.

How can we improve
In my opinion, the biggest challenge presented to us by sustainable wine grape growing is that there is no finish line. There is no point in time when we can say: “We are there.”

Improvements can always be made, and each of us needs to figure out how to make that happen. How to improve on measuring and managing one’s vineyard operation. There are many ways to do this, and it will not be the same for everyone. Self-assessment workbooks, such as the Lodi Winegrower’s Workbook, the California Code of Sustainable Winegrowing Workbook, Vinewise in Washington and VineBalance in New York, are great tools to use periodically to be reminded where improvements can be made. If you farm in a region not covered by these workbooks, there are still many practices in them that are applicable to most regions. I highly recommend growers take advantage of these great tools.

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