Vineyard Viewby Cliff Ohmart
Terroir and Other Myths of Winegrowing, the new book by Dr. Mark A. Matthews, is a must-read for any wine grape grower or winemaker who has ever wrestled with the most important myths of winegrowing or debated them with colleagues—and that would be all of us! It is also a great read for any wine consumer interested in looking at “the man behind the curtain,” so to speak: the myths promoted by wine writers, tasting room staff, sommeliers and other wine gatekeepers.READ MORE
If the goals of sustainable winegrowing are to reduce farming’s environmental footprint and produce more with less, then the input supply chain business model is an impediment to realizing those goals. Success is measured by selling more rather than less, since most input salespeople make commissions on the amounts they sell. Furthermore, many salespeople not only promote inputs to growers (primarily fertilizers and pesticides), they also provide recommendations on how to use them.Many pest control advisors make commissions from the inputs they sell to grapegrowers.
Therefore, if the goal is to do more with less, the position of input supply salespeople has an inherent conflict of interest. If vineyard managers don’t apply inputs to the acres they farm, their vendor’s income will decline. If the salespeople want to make more money, then they need to sell more inputs—either by selling to more growers or selling more to the same growers.
Historically, this issue has been raised in relation to pesticide sales and use. Now that we are confronted in many parts of the United States with significant water-quality problems related to nitrates in ground and surface water, we need to recognize that the conflict of interest is not just connected to pesticides but also fertilizers, because consultants working for input-supply companies get paid commissions on their sales, too.
A divisive topicREAD MORE
December 2015Establishing soil moisture-holding capacity will help create an irrigation schedule.
This column has been building in my mind for the past several months. It started when I read two opinion pieces—one in The (Santa Rosa) Press Democrat, the other in the Sonoma County Gazette—both highly critical of the wine industry’s sustainability efforts in Sonoma County, Calif. It continued to grow after the Napa Valley news media published several items expressing concern about the number of wine-related events and contending that, if such events continue to grow in number, they will adversely affect the community. It peaked when I read an opinion piece in the Washington Post suggesting that participants in the debates about mainstream agriculture compared to alternatives like organic, Biodynamic or sustainable were all wrong. As a result, I thought it was time to revisit the topic of sustainable winegrowing.READ MORE
Some readers may be surprised at the headline of this column, because they have the impression grapevine red blotch-associated virus is a new disease. I borrowed it from a presentation by Dr. Deborah Golino, director of Foundation Plant Services (FPS) at the University of California, Davis. The wording is deliberate, because the goal of her talk was to let growers and winemakers know—once and for all—that the disease has been with us for a very long time. We just did not have the tools to identify it.READ MORE
Are there enough viticulture and enology research dollars available for the U.S. wine industry to remain competitive in the world market? Most viticulture researchers I speak to say “no.” Having been a researcher myself many years ago, it seems part of human nature to feel there is never enough research money available. That said, let’s try and answer this question objectively by taking a look at what is currently available compared to other important specialty crops.
It is probably best to begin by asking the question: Does research provide a return on investment (ROI)? Dr. Julian Alston, a professor of agriculture and resource economics at the University of California, Davis, has devoted considerable time and effort to this topic. While there haven’t been recent studies devoted to the ROI of viticulture or enology research, Alston says significant work has been done to estimate the ROI of agriculture research in general.READ MORE
One of the most common questions I am asked by growers trying to decide whether to participate in a sustainable farming program is, “What’s in it for me?” How does a 1,000% return on investment sound? That was the 2013 ROI for participants in the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing Certification program, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year.READ MORE
A performance metric is a measure of the outcome of a practice or set of practices. I have dedicated this space to performance metrics three times in the past (the May 2009, September 2011 and December 2012 issues of Wines & Vines), more than any other topic. There are several reasons for this. First, it is becoming much more common for buyers down the agri-food supply chain to ask growers to provide metrics data. Second, some regulatory agencies are also beginning to request this kind of data. Third, I believe performance metrics have a role to play in finding efficiencies and cost savings in farming. And finally, despite the increase in visibility of performance metrics, a large portion of the grower community is still reluctant to embrace their use.READ MORE
In the past several years I have been hearing more and reading more about the use of biochar as a soil amendment. Promoters of its use present an impressive list of what biochar can do for our soils and greenhouse gas problems, including: improved water-holding capacity, improved nutrient-holding capacity, providing a favorable habitat for soil microbes and long-term carbon sequestration.READ MORE
Many members of the California wine grape community have been waiting several years for the third edition of Grape Pest Management to be published by the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources Division. The wait is over, and it was worth it. Once again UC’s Communication Services has produced an outstanding pest-management manual, this time to replace the second edition published in 1992. Larry Bettiga, the technical editor, deserves to be congratulated for working with 76 editors and authors to produce the excellent 609-page book.READ MORE
More regional sustainable farming certification programs exist for winegrapes than for any other crop in the United States. By my count, there are six (see table at right). With so many options, it is worth discussing why there are so many programs and how to evaluate them.
After six years of hype, the Leonardo Academy (a nonprofit group dedicated to advancing sustainable agriculture, LEED building and fire suppression) has finally made available for public comment what they are calling the National Sustainable Ag Standards. This is their attempt to establish a single set of sustainable farming practice standards for all crops throughout the United States.
There are several reasons why the U.S. wine industry has been an incubator for so many sustainable wine-growing certification programs. First, wine grape growers are progressive and proactive, and they have formed trade associations in many regions to meet local wine grape-growing challenges, with several focusing on the sustainable growing of wine grapes. Second, many sustainable wine-growing practices are correlated with good quality fruit that makes good wine. Third, terroir is a key factor in wine marketing, and some regional groups decided to connect regional identity with sustainable farming practices. Lastly, every winery is a brand unto itself—each with its own marketing program that can use the sustainable farming story, providing a comprehensive way to promote the region’s sustainable-certification programs.
Transparency is an essential element of a sustainable wine-growing certification program. Without it, potential members cannot determine how the program was developed or evaluate its rigor and credibility. The Internet is a great vehicle for presenting information about a program, but potential members must remain critical when interpreting what they see on a program’s website. It is easy to give a program the appearance of being credible with nice graphics and text, but be skeptical of any program that does not clearly present information about some of the following points.
Process vs. practiceREAD MORE
December 2013I have been fascinated with using technology in agriculture since 1990, after buying a programmable Intermec barcode reader, a Toshiba laptop equipped with Rbase database software and a Canon bubble jet printer that I could run through my Toyota pickup’s cigarette lighter. I mention all those brands to make the point that with technology comes many companies trying to sell farmers their wares, whether they are needed or not. I call this a solution looking for a problem. Since making those purchases 23 years ago I have noticed that certain technologies seemed to emerge years ahead of their widespread adoption by mainstream agriculture.READ MORE
August 2013A couple of months ago I found out that Steve Vasquez, the University of California Cooperative Extension viticulture farm advisor for Fresno County, was resigning from his position to take a job in the private sector. This news made me surprised and concerned: I was surprised because Fresno County, with its 200,000 acres of vineyards, is a vital part of the wine and table grape communities, and it seems like a great place to be for someone who wants to work in viticulture. I was concerned because the UC Cooperative Extension (UCCE) has been through severe budget cuts during the past 10 years, so it has been challenging to replace farm advisors who retire or leave their positions.READ MORE
Increasing biodiversity in and around vineyards is often touted as one of the goals of sustainable winegrowing, and it is frequently mentioned as an important component of other sustainable cropping systems.READ MORE
August 2012A report released in March about nitrate contamination of groundwater has triggered a process by California’s regional water quality control boards that will potentially affect farmers across the state. Although winegrape growers apply less nitrogen than farmers of other crops, it appears they will not escape scrutiny.READ MORE
May 2012On Dec. 31, 2011, Mark Chandler resigned as executive director of the Lodi Winegrape Commission, capping 20 years of exceptional leadership for the growers in California Crush District No. 11. It marked the end of an era. I spent 14 years of my professional career working for Mark. Given what Mark and the growers of Lodi accomplished during his tenure related to sustainable winegrowing, I felt inspired to share with you some of the program’s history.READ MORE
March 2012It has been 12 years since glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS) infected 300 acres of grapevines in Temecula with Pierce’s disease, killing the vines and inciting panic in the California wine industry. That mini-disaster set in motion actions that led to the formation of the Pierce’s Disease Control Program (PDCP), which continues its work today.CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Dr. Andy Walker, at UC Davis, talks about traditional plant breeding of Pierce’s disease resistant winegrape vines. Click here to see several researchers discuss their work to combat Pierce's Disease and the glassy-winged sharpshooter.READ MORE
January 2012It is easy to get the impression from media outlets and groups promoting sustainable growing that large-scale farming is not sustainable. Adjectives like “industrial” and “corporate” are used in front of the word “farming” to imply something very negative.READ MORE
November 2011Early in my career, academia and years of experience as a research scientist had me convinced that pest-management decision-making should be objective and based on measurable, quantifiable, scientific observations. However, once I became a practicing pest-control advisor (PCA) working with California’s orchard crops and observing other pest-management consultants in action, I saw that pest-management decision-making often wasn’t based on objective, scientific observations.READ MORE
September 2011The wine community has embraced the concept of sustainability like no other cropping system. Since the early 1990s winegrowers and winemakers have been committed to moving along the sustainability continuum, from less sustainable to more sustainable. For the most part, progress has been measured by implementing and tracking practices.CLICK PHOTO TO PLAY VIDEO: Cliff Ohmart at Bokish Vineyards
Furthermore, all of the existing sustainability certification programs (such as Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing, Sustainability in Practice, Certified California Sustainable Winegrowing Program, National Organic Program and Biodynamic Farming) are practice-based. University and government programs designed to improve environmental and social conditions on and off the farm also are based on implementing what have been labeled best management practices, or BMPs.READ MORE
July 2011For as long as pesticides have been used—and particularly since the invention of synthetic pesticides—there has been great interest in developing active ingredients that have minimal impact on non-target organisms. An active ingredient in a pesticide is the material that kills the pest. The other materials, inert ingredients, do not affect the pest but are in the pesticide formula to make it stable in the environment, mix well with water for spraying, etc. Finding active ingredients that do not negatively impact non-target organisms has proven to be a real challenge.READ MORE
May 2011While many definitions of sustainable farming have been proposed, one point of agreement for most is the three “E”s of sustainability: farming that is economically viable, environmentally sound and socially equitable. Sustainable discussions almost always deal with the first two “E”s in great detail, however social equity, the third “E,” gets the least amount of time devoted to it. Why is that? I think it is because it is the factor that is the most challenging to address for many companies.READ MORE
March 2011Almost every grapegrower will spray his vineyard multiple times during the year, no matter whether he farms organically, Biodynamically or “conventionally.” That is due in large part to most grape varieties being very susceptible to one or more diseases. Most regions also have their share of insect, mite and weed pests that must be managed, often involving pesticide sprays.READ MORE
January 2011The inspiration for this column came from a discussion that played out on the Association of Applied IPM Ecologists listserv (AAIE). AAIE’s mission is to provide “quality information about ecology-based pest management (IPM is short for integrated pest management), while encouraging environmentally compatible approaches and an awareness of IPM.” Its membership is comprised primarily of independent pest control advisers (PCAs). For those not familiar with the term “independent PCA,” it describes pest management consultants who do not sell products.READ MORE
November 2010Most winegrape growers have a nutrition management plan for their vineyard. However, the plan’s form and level of detail varies significantly from one grower to another. For some growers, the plan exists primarily as a mental record, while for others it is written down. In past columns I have highlighted the benefits of keeping written records of farming operations, and a vineyard nutrition management plan is no exception. Because some growers are unclear about how to create a written vineyard nutrition management plan, I will present some guidelines for developing one.READ MORE
September 2010What’s in it for me? The question sounds narcissistic, but it is something we all must consider to understand what motivates people. Marketing professionals have known this for a long time, but since I never took any marketing classes, I was in for a surprise.READ MORE
When a winegrape grower decides it is necessary to use a pesticide, he must evaluate which one to use. Considerations include at least the following: level of the pest infestation, efficacy of the material, length of time until harvest, size of the crop, the presence of damage from any other pests—and terms of contracts with winery customers. Many growers are also deeply concerned about the risk the application poses to themselves, their workers and the environment in and around the vineyard.READ MORE
May 2010Every so often I have a true epiphany. At least twice it was the sudden confluence of what had been, until that moment, seemingly unrelated things. One of these came when I was a junior in forestry school, listening to a lecture. At that moment, a complete picture crystallized from my knowledge about forestry, which, until that time, seemed like relatively unrelated bits of information I had been collecting from seemingly unrelated classes. I realized that all of the biological and physical science classes I had taken were related, and all the studying I was doing was forming a knowledge base about an interconnected biological system.READ MORE
March 2010Unless he’s been in a cave for the past five years without access to any kind of media, it is impossible for a winegrape grower not to have been confronted with the concept of a vineyard’s carbon footprint, or to have come across someone claiming to have a carbon-neutral vineyard.READ MORE
January 2010In early 2010, the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance (CSWA) is expected to unveil a voluntary certification for the Sustainable Winegrowing Program. Because of this, as well as the presence of several other sustainable certification programs available to growers and winemakers, it is an opportune time to discuss certification. I think it’s important for people inside and outside the wine community to understand the various types of certification, so that they can see the relationships among them and evaluate their advantages and disadvantages. This is particularly important for winegrowers or wineries contemplating whether to participate in a certification program.READ MORE
Whether you are interested in maximizing winegrape yield, wine quality or both at the same time, understanding vine canopy management is essential to being consistently successful from one year to the next. A properly balanced vine, with the right ratio of shoots and leaves to fruit, is the goal, as well as striving for the right fruit exposure to light and maintaining the fruit within an optimum temperature range. We tend to focus on fruit production when thinking of vine balance, but two other critical elements are production of adequate fruit buds and production of sufficient carbohydrate and nutrient reserves for the following year.READ MORE
September 2009Soil is the foundation for every vineyard. Not only does it provide an anchor for the vines, but its properties contribute significantly to vineyard health, wine quality and terroir. Moreover, improving soil quality is one of the primary goals of farming, whether it is sustainable, organic or Biodynamic. I am a big believer in the adage, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." Soil is a particularly difficult medium to measure, but it is important to do the best we can, because knowing the properties of our vineyard soil and how they change over time is a key to managing soil sustainably.READ MORE
May 2009Many readers are likely familiar with the sustainable winegrowing programs in California, such as the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing program, the Central Coast Vineyard Team and Napa Sustainable Winegrowers, and those in other states, like New York's Vine Balance program and Washington's Vinewise program. In the past two months I was invited to speak about sustainable winegrowing in Missouri, Iowa and Michigan. Each state is contemplating initiating its own sustainable winegrowing program.READ MORE
March 2009In keeping with this issue's theme of vineyard equipment and technology, I will discuss a topic that readers might not think of right away when contemplating technological advances in viticulture. Not only have there been advances in things like vineyard equipment, computer software and new approaches to canopy management, there also have been advances in pesticide chemistry. Much of the change has been driven by the need for pesticides that are effective but have less negative environmental impact than the old pesticide chemistries.READ MORE
January 2009I recently returned from the ENDURE Conference in La Grande Motte, France. I was invited to give a plenary talk on the topic of impediments California growers face in adopting Integrated Pest Management (IPM), and how to get around them. The conference organizers felt that my on-the-farm experience working with growers to increase their adoption of IPM might provide some insights into solving the problems faced on European farms. It was a great opportunity to get a snapshot view of the level of adoption of IPM in European agriculture.READ MORE
November 2008Discing breaks up surface soil, cultivating the top few inches and keeping alleyways clean, rather than letting vegetation spring up naturally, or growing a layer of cover crops.As another harvest comes to an end, growers should think about how they are going to manage their vineyard floor next year, particularly if they are going to plant a cover crop. To be honest, writing a column on vineyard floor management is an excuse for me to discuss what many growers do not seem to want to hear, that frequent tillage is bad for soil quality. Despite all the talk about how cover cropping has been widely adopted, I am surprised how many disced vineyards I see around California during the growing season.READ MORE
September 2008We are entering a very exciting time in the wine industry. Consumer interest seems to be growing rapidly for wines made from grapes grown with organic, Biodynamic or sustainable methods. Growers and winemakers are attending educational meetings addressing these farming paradigms, and many articles are being written about them. The first green wine competition was convened last May (greenwinecomp.info). The Green Wine Summit will be held Dec. 1-2 at the Hyatt Vineyard Creek in Santa Rosa, Calif. (winesymposium.com).READ MORE
July 2008Until now, the sustainable winegrowing programs of which I am aware have been dedicated to education and self improvement, with regions and states coming together to develop programs to help themselves move along the sustainable farming continuum. One aspect of sustainable winegrowing is only now beginning to emerge, and that is marketing winegrapes and wines produced using sustainable practices. It is an essential aspect of sustainable winegrowing for the simple reason that if one cannot sell his wines in sufficient amounts, the vineyard and winery will go out of business--in other words, they will not be sustainable.READ MORE
May 2008In my July 2005 Wines & Vines column, I reported on the formation of a nonprofit organization, the National Grape and Wine Initiative (NGWI), which has the potential to significantly improve support for research, extension and outreach in all sectors of the grape and wine industry in the United States. It is a critical time in our industry in terms of funding for research and extension, and it's a good time to update readers on NGWI's progress to date.READ MORE
Many attendees appreciated the introduction of roundtable sessions, where researchers discussed specific topics.The seventh Pierce's Disease Research Symposium was convened by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) in San Diego, Calif., Dec.12-14, 2007. The symposium has two main purposes: To let the wine industry hear scientists report on progress to find a control for Pierce's disease (PD); and probably more importantly, to give scientists working on this problem the opportunity to network, brainstorm, and find better ways to cooperate. It is very important for California growers and wineries to keep up to date on the program's progress, because their money is paying for the research through the California Statewide Winegrape Assessment Program.READ MORE
January 2008On Oct. 29, Scientific Certification Systems, Inc. (SCS) convened a two-day meeting of interested stakeholders to begin the process of creating a national set of farming standards for sustainable agriculture. These standards would apply to all crops. Several members of the California wine industry were present. At the moment, it is difficult to assess the importance of this process, because the initial stages have been handled so poorly by SCS that many groups question its chances of coming to fruition. However, I feel it is potentially too important for the U.S. wine industry to ignore.READ MORE
November 2007During the month of August, I had the great fortune to travel to Australia, courtesy of funding from the Australian Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation (GWRDC), as well as from local winegrape grower groups. The purpose of the trip was for several speakers--myself included--to present a series of workshops for winegrape growers focusing on vineyard IPM and sustainable winegrowing. The workshops provided me a wonderful opportunity to meet with Australian growers and learn about issues that are important to them, some of which we can learn from here in the United States.READ MORE
Photo: Todd GilliganMany of you have heard that the light brown apple moth (LBAM) has landed in California to become our latest exotic intruder. It is important that we are all aware of this potential vineyard pest. There are lessons to be learned from LBAM's introduction. First, let's learn a little bit about its biology and how to identify it.READ MORE
July 2007One of the ways to be a successful winegrape grower is to keep up with the latest viticulture research. Nevertheless, it is important to remember that a lot of very useful information about winegrape growing was published many years ago, sometimes in newsletters or magazines that are not easily accessible. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a place where you could access current and past work in an easy-to-negotiate format?READ MORE
May 2007When a former Vice President--Al Gore--wins an Oscar for a movie documentary on climate change--"An Inconvenient Truth"--and the same topic is also the cover story in Sports Illustrated within the same month--week of Mar. 12--it is clear the topic has gone mainstream. I think this is a good thing, given that climate change is one of the biggest--if not the biggest--challenge facing humanity over the next century or more. The wine industry, with its usual proactive approach to things, is putting the topic front and center at venues such as the Unified Wine and Grape Symposium.READ MORE
March 2007A commodity is defined by Wikipedia as "a largely homogeneous product traded solely based on price." Growing a commodity crop seems like a brutal business, since the grower has no control over price yet price is the only thing that matters. When prices are up, the grower makes money; when the prices are down, the grower loses money. About the only thing a grower has control over is trying to lower the cost of production per unit of product.READ MORE
January 2007Given the controversies swirling around the topic of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) in agriculture, it is surprising how little talk there has been in the wine community about it. I am not sure why this is the case. One possible reason is since there are no genetically engineered (GE) grapes nearing commercial availability, people in the wine community may be taking the attitude of "let sleeping dogs lie." Why stir up a hornets' nest when you don't need to?READ MORE
November 2006What is the role of science in winegrape growing in the United States? I often ask myself this question for many reasons; to name a few:
Frankly, I am not sure how many in the U.S. wine industry appreciate the significance of science in winegrape growing.
- Grower reps from some wineries advise (more like tell) growers when they have too many leafhoppers or mites in their vineyards, even though there is not a shred of data to go on.
- Some wine writers wax eloquent about biodynamic farming when it is clear they really don't understand what it is.
- Applied research is taking a back seat to basic research at the University of California.
- Financial support for university cooperative extension programs around the U.S. is eroding.
- Donations to the American Vineyard Foundation research fund are declining.
- Some pest control advisors (PCAs) complain that the California Department of Pesticide Regulation's educational requirements for obtaining a PCA license are too strict. Meanwhile, the plant protection and pest management major at UC Davis is about to go under due to lack of students. A similar program is struggling at Fresno State for the same reason.
- The market share of Australian wine in the U.S. continues to grow, fueled by a US$20 million annual research and extension budget, while the U.S. wine industry can barely manage $3 million (excluding funding for Pierce's disease/glassy-winged sharpshooter).READ MORE
September 2006The UC Statewide Integrated Pest Management Program (UC IPM) has launched a new website that provides great resources and tools for growers and pest management consultants to use in managing pests of wine and raisin grapes (ipm.ucdavis.edu/).READ MORE
July 2006A major milestone was reached in June of this year in Lodi, Calif., with the signing of California's first programmatic Safe Harbor Agreement (SHA) by Brad Lange of Lange Twins Wine Estates, the California Association of Resource Conservation Districts (CARCD) and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). The signing was a culmination of more than two years of hard work by a collaboration of Lange Twins, the Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC), USFWS, East Bay Municipal Utility District, Environmental Defense and CARCD.READ MORE
May 2006The California wine industry has had the great misfortune during the last 15 years of experiencing the serious economic impacts of invasive pest species, including the vine mealybug (VMB) and the glassy-winged sharpshooter (GWSS). Most of the economic impact so far has been through money spent on containment, and in the case of GWSS/Pierce's disease, a major research program seeking to manage this deadly insect/pathogen combination. Nevertheless, the Temecula region lost more than one-third of its vineyard acres due to GWSS-vectored Pierce's disease. As these pests slowly spread--which they inevitably will, despite rigorous efforts to contain them--their economic impact will only grow larger.READ MORE
March 2006In my October 2004 column, I proposed three challenges to implementing sustainable viticulture: defining it, measuring it and implementing it. Since then I have become familiar with an approach to sustainable planning and implementation that appears to be a great way to meet these three challenges. It is known as Environmental Management Systems, or simply EMS.READ MORE
January 2006The Lodi-Woodbridge Winegrape Commission (LWWC) recently launched a third-party certification program for the sustainable production of winegrapes, The Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing. It is California's first regional sustainable winegrowing certification program that has been peer reviewed by scientists, consultants and environmental organizations.READ MORE