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It's All About the Vines

March 2011
by Jim Gordon
Wine is made in the vineyard, right? Rarely do the fermentation tanks sit between the rows, but the essence of this overused aphorism is true. Even with all their skills and technology, winemakers can’t make great wine from average grapes.

Most winegrape growers have taken this concept to heart. They are more proactive than they were a generation ago. They intervene less often with pesticides and herbicides, but with better knowledge of how to use them effectively. On the other hand, they apply more cultural practices than ever. How many vineyards in the 1980s used double pruning, leaf pulling, shoot positioning, shoot thinning, cluster thinning and so on?

Our annual Vineyard Equipment & Technology Issue is timed for early spring, when growers are focused on the tasks to come. In this issue our writers pay special attention to two areas of these tasks: efficiency in handling cultural practices and smart disease prevention.

Efficient viticulture
Who better to consult about making viticulture practices more efficient than a veteran vineyard manager who trained as an engineer? That’s what our correspondent Laurie Daniel did for her interview with Hank Ashby of French Camp Vineyards near Paso Robles, Calif. Ashby began experimenting with mechanization of vineyard tasks about 10 years ago. Now he is convinced that mechanization saves labor, saves money and not only maintains grape quality but can improve it.

Why wouldn’t it make sense to use better science and engineering to grow better grapes? My impression is that other ag industries are way ahead of grapegrowers in terms of using machinery and technology to grow better crops more efficiently. I’ve been surprised how often a tool or technique that’s new to North American winegrowers is old hat to cherry growers, corn farmers or foresters, not to mention the wine industry in Europe and Australia.

This year seems like an ideal time for growers who can afford it to invest in better tools. With prices for most domestically grown grapes down, but future demand very likely to increase, any reasonable step that can improve a grower’s quality metrics could help attract more upscale wineries as buyers for the future.

Wisdom from the East
On the vine disease front, growers and researchers in the eastern states and provinces take a special interest in fungal diseases because of their generally humid climate and variety of vine ailments. Here in California we battle powdery mildew in many areas, but the challenges are limited compared to those in Missouri, New York or Virginia.

One man in particular has tested how to most effectively spray vines and fruit trees for fungus prevention: Dr. Andrew Landers of Cornell University. His experiments have been conducted mostly in the East, but many of the lessons learned are universally applicable. Landers has written two articles on the topic for Wines & Vines in recent years. Now he has compiled his many years of experience into a new book, “Effective Vineyard Spraying: A practical guide for growers.”

Our Vineyard View columnist, Dr. Cliff Ohmart, was very impressed with Landers’ book. An integrated pest management specialist himself, Ohmart explains in detail why he thinks Landers’ book is an important one for grapegrowers, and what its main benefits are.

Timely research on mildew
Another great article related to disease prevention runs in the Wine East section of this issue. Professor Wayne Wilcox from Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station at Geneva, N.Y., and his grad student Craig Austin present some eye-opening findings about how important sunlight is in preventing mildew.

Wilcox’s series of trials on sunlight and vines make a convincing case that it’s not just the air-circulation factor that is essential in mildew prevention. The sunlight falling on the leaves and grape bunches makes a huge difference.

How often does a researcher get to make a statement this sweeping? “In all vineyards, in all seasons, for all experiments at all locations, increasing sunlight exposure on leaves or fruit reduced the severity of powdery mildew on those tissues—independent of spray coverage,” Wilcox wrote. Moreover, when the grower opens up the canopy to let in sunlight, it also makes fungicide spraying more effective, he found in collaboration with Dr. Landers, his Cornell colleague.

West Coast growers may begin spraying in March, while many Eastern growers are still waiting for bud break. No matter where you are in North America, however, another growing season has begun. We hope the information in this issue helps you fine-tune the wine you’re growing in your vineyard in 2011.

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