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Grapes try to kick the chemical habit

by William Campbell

Wine grapes are perhaps the highest-value, most quality-driven legally-grown agricultural crop in the world. As such, growers are usually quick to adopt the latest technical advances for protecting their vineyards. Winemakers have begun to realize, however, that the traditional agrochemicaly-based approach to farming has significant drawbacks, both in terms of quality and long-term economic viability. We spoke with a number of growers recently, and found that a quiet revolution is fermenting in the wine business today.

The romanticism of nature has a long and glorious history, as readers of John Muir or Henry David Thoreau can attest. It is often most acute among city dwellers, who perhaps hark back to an imagined bucolic past. Yet as anyone who has ever farmed quickly realizes, the concept of nature as a benign, nurturing force couldn’t be further from the truth.

Plants compete in the wild for water, sunlight and nutrients, often in a struggle to the death. Those that do survive serve as a ready food source for insects and animals, who themselves try to avoid being eaten. Meanwhile, a robust variety of molds, fungi and other diseases permeate the ecosystem, waiting to find a host in a susceptible plant or animal.

In response, most wild plants have evolved elaborate protective mechanisms to avoid being consumed or overrun by disease. As Michael Pollan pointed out in his excellent book “Second Nature,” what distinguishes most modern-day crops is that they contain carbohydrates, proteins and fats in far greater concentrations than wild plants, making them fantastically tempting targets. As Pollan states: “They stick out like rich kids in a bad neighborhood.”

Pollan says that not only are insects and animals drawn to this “nutritional extravagance,” but modern crops are also in a sense nature’s weaklings. Plants are now bred for the qualities that appeal to us (such as a thin-skinned but ethereal-tasting Pinot Noir) rather than for any defense mechanisms that might help ensure their survival.

To protect their grapes and deliver as large a crop as possible, growers in the post-World War II era have increasingly resorted to chemicals. While these means have resulted in short-term improvements, over the last 20 years, winemakers and growers have realized that indiscriminate use of these industrial tools can have a detrimental impact on both immediate wine quality and the longer-term economics of running a vineyard.

The path toward chemical dependence was an easy one to take. From dusting vineyards with elemental sulfur in the mid-1800s, fungal and bacterial diseases were controlled with ever-stronger measures. After WWII, the then-idle chemical manufacturers turned their expertise toward agriculture, making super-strength fungicides and herbicides readily available.

Insecticides were next on the wish list, as vineyards are subject to attack by a litany of invertebrate pests, including beetles, moths, mites, leafhoppers, cutworms and the elegantly named but devastating Western Grapeleaf Skeletonizer (whose appetite for grape leaves is so voracious that it leaves only the veins of the plant behind).

But problems soon began to appear. While plots treated with herbicides initially looked more attractive, after five to 10 years the soils in these plots would die, and the vines slowly decline, at which point the “white-coated salesman” would recommend fertilizers to keep the vines alive. But the more fertilizer that was used, the more the vines’ natural resistance to disease and pests seemed to weaken, requiring more pesticides and fungicides — all of which were conveniently for sale by the same white coats.

As Pollan writes, the end result of this type of aggressive “agrochemical” agriculture is often a soil devoid of any biological activity. With no new organic nutrients being generated naturally in the vineyard, the vines became dependent on fertilizer. The soil, as Pollan states, became “little more than a device to hold plants upright while gorging themselves on 5-10-5 (regular) fertilizer.” Or as one skeptic quipped, “Imagine trying to raise your child on a diet of sugar water, vitamin pills and antibiotics.”

Besides the economic, moral and ecological issues raised by this type of farming, winemakers began to notice that wines made from these plots often just didn’t taste as good as those made from vineyards using fewer chemicals.

Paul Dolan, who headed up California’s Fetzer Winery for nearly two decades, describes tasting grapes from two different blocks of Sauvignon Blanc while walking a vineyard in 1987. One was vibrant, while the other was bland and flabby. Dolan later discovered that the vibrant grapes came from an organically farmed test block, while the flabby grapes had been grown conventionally, and this epiphany led him to transform Fetzer into one of the largest organic wine producers in the world.

And this did not go unnoticed. Unlike fresh produce, wine is one of the few agriculture products that can travel long distances and last through many seasons, making head-to-head comparisons much easier. While you may have no choice but to buy an industrially grown tomato in the summer, or a hothouse tomato look-alike in the winter, the wine market is wide open to competition, and it is a rare winemaker who is not looking for a better result in the bottle.

To further this pursuit, growers are currently experimenting with many different approaches to farming, of which most can be divided into one of three broad categories. They are “Sustainable,” which seeks to minimize external inputs (within reason); “Organic,” which prohibits synthetically produced materials altogether; and “Biodynamics,” a near-mystical code of farming practices based on homeopathic sprays and astral calendars, an approach that is currently capturing the attention of Japan’s trend-setting wine drinkers.

Each has its passionate advocates and equally passionate detractors. In an upcoming column we’ll take a closer look at what is proving to be the most interesting viticulture debate in decades, and one that is likely to impact the wine in every bottle you drink.

In the meantime, Cave de Re-Lax in Nishi-Shimbashi carries more than 100 wines that are either Biodynamic, certified organic or sustainable, and to help make these easier for customers to find, owner Kunio Naito has put a “Re-lax Natural” seal on each of these bottles. And for those looking to really dive in, BioFach Japan, which bills itself as the 7th International Organic Trade Fair, is open to the public on Oct. 12 at Tokyo Big Site, and it offers more than 400 organic wines. See www.biofach-japan.com for more info.

For questions or comments on how farming practices relate to wine quality, please contact vinelandtalk@hotmail.com