Staying a LIVE Vineyard

By Evan Bellingar

As a vineyard manager, almost all new clients say the same thing: “We can start the vineyard farming conventionally, then we can go organic and eventually biodynamic.”

That makes as much sense as saying that if you get sick you will start at the hospital, transfer to the veterinarian and eventually end up in the witch doctor’s hut. It seems reasonable: the “green” PR machine has done its job well, but it has become clear that organic and biodynamic are marketing gimmicks, at best, and harmful to the environment, at worst.

A sustainable/conventional approach does more to protect the environment than organic or biodynamic. The vineyards our team manages adhere to Low Input Viticulture and Enology guidelines, which protect sensitive areas, decrease pesticide use and encourage the use of the chemicals with the least impact. LIVE vineyards protect the environment without compromising quality.

The organic certification process does not tell a viticulturist what he can do. It does not tell them to maintain wildlife habitat, nor encourage them to reduce pesticide applications or rates. Certified organic tells you what you can’t do: it means that no synthetic pesticides were used on the crop. Sounds reasonable enough. You don’t want dangerous chemicals on your food, do you?

Based on the LD50 measure of toxicity, caffeine is 25 times more toxic than the active ingredient in the herbicide Roundup. If you are worried about protecting your family from dangerous chemicals, please hide the coffee, but leave my Roundup alone. The pesticide era began around the 1930s when the U.S. life expectancy was at 62 years in 1935, and in all the years of pesticide use, life expectancy has risen to 78 years by 2006. If synthetic pesticides are poisoning us, they seem to be doing a poor job.

Pesticides, just not synthetic ones, are used every day in organic agriculture. Chemicals such as lime sulfur, copper and micronized sulfur are all acceptable “organic” options. As a winegrower, I would never use lime sulfur in my fields. The chemical is toxic to wildlife and humans, and if it gets in eyes, it causes blindness and is very acutely lethal if ingested.

Micronized sulfur is a valuable tool in any spray program, but it is only one of the tools in an organic spray program. You wouldn’t throw out half your wrenches before changing the oil in your car, so why would you throw out tools when it comes time to manage your vineyard? Sulfur is broad spectrum: it does not discriminate between pathogenic fungus and beneficial predatory mites. The vineyard comes alive again with insects not when you choose organic chemicals, but when you choose the selective synthetic ones.

The cell walls of fungi are composed of chitin, a substance not found in plants or animals. Many of the new chemistries in pesticide research are focused on the chitin specifically. These chemicals attack powdery mildew that is omnipresent here in Oregon and leave our insects and wildlife alone. Since organic agriculture forgoes the last 80 years or so of chemistry breakthroughs, organic growers aren’t able to use these laser-guided pesticides; they rely on carpet bombing. Would you want your doctor to eschew the last 80 years of medical science when treating your disease? Aren’t you glad we have safe and effective products (even synthesized ones) like aspirin when you have a headache? Would you want your certified organic trip to the dentist to have only ether as an anesthetic?

Many crops can be grown organically feasibly, like grains, which have a low moisture content and are harvested during the driest part of the year. Part of the reason that we grow thin-skinned Pinot Noir in Oregon is that it is such a challenge to ripen the fruit here. The wine reaches the pinnacle of subtle complexity and expression of terroir often at the end of the season. Those same attributes that make beautiful wine—thin skin, marginal climate, touch-and-go rains in the fall—make organic production impractical. It is a challenge to bring the fruit in without mold in wet vintages, so why would you want to intentionally decrease quality by growing your grapes organically?

There is no organic herbicide. Various mechanical devices have been developed to control weeds in vineyards but they burn diesel, add time, contribute to soil erosion, compact soil and are only moderately effective when timed perfectly. The soils that we are farming today took tens of thousands of years to form, and it is short sighted to risk them on a farming practice that is merely in vogue.

Biodynamic farming is based on the 1924 lectures of Rudolf Steiner and takes organics to a whole new plane of enlightenment. Biodynamics views the farm as a living organism, and seeks to harness cosmic forces to promote healthy organisms. Planting, grafting, harvesting and other practices are scheduled to coincide with the lunar cycle. Many different preparations are used as well to promote plant health; one of the more colorful is number 500: “prepared by filling the horn of a cow with cow manure and burying it in the ground in the autumn. It is left to decompose during the winter and recovered for use the following spring.” I could go on.

I do not want to downplay the importance of faith in agriculture because all farmers are at the mercy of divine forces. I would, however, like to draw the distinction that my faith meets only once a week, and while it tells me innumerable ways in which to live, it does not tell me how to farm.

Agricultural production systems should be viewed objectively and scientifically. That is why certified sustainable systems like Low Impact Viticulture and Enology are such a benefit to growers. Every time a grower goes through the LIVE workbook, he or she becomes a better farmer. LIVE mandates ecological drawback areas that allow wildlife populations to grow. When you select your next bottle of wine, please choose quality and sustainability, not the latest “green” buzzword. 

Evan Bellingar is a site manager with Advanced Vineyard Systems, which manages premium vineyards in the Yamhill County area.

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