The past few days have been filled with bothersome “tweets” on twitter and postings on Facebook from winemakers and vineyard consultants who are questioning the benefits of organic and biodynamic winegrowing. Some are calling this mode of farming a fad and others are going so far as to post video of the two clowns Penn and Teller calling organic farming “bullshit.” The video is filled with testimonials from the Hudson Institute debunking the qualities of organic farming. Hudson Institute is a think tank funded by the huge chemical companies Monsanto, DuPont and others. These items are posted because the authors know that we, at Shinn Estate Vineyards, will probably see them.
Unfortunately, we run into a lot of this. It didn’t take more than a minute for my husband David to post back: I get messages from winemakers damning organic and biodynamic viticulture. They should spend time hawking the benefits of Monsanto pesticides.
This back and forth online is a telling moment for me. 2010 will be the first year of a three year commitment to farm our wine organically under the Stellar organic certifying agency and the Demeter biodynamic certifying agency. Here, on the east coast, it is generally agreed amongst viticulturists and researchers that organic winegrowing is impossible so there is a good amount of skepticism surrounding the way we farm our wine at Shinn. Nevertheless, we continue to experiment every growing season with organic control of insects, fungus and weeds. It has been a long road to travel having no local certified organic example to follow.
We began planting our vines in 2000 and by the 2004 harvest we had converted our vineyard floor to a blooming meadow where no herbicides were used. The meadow grows between the rows and under the trellis where we mow the weeds under the vines, gaining a thick mulch of green manure with every pass. In 2003 we began weaning the 3 year old vineyard off chemical fertilizers and feeding the vines with fish, seaweed and compost teas. Today, the soil is fed a diet of only organic inputs including several different kinds of composts and we continue with the seaweed and fish and other organic materials. In 2004 we began an integrated pest management program to address troublesome insects and now they are controlled by the beneficial insects harbored in our meadow along with organically approved controls like pheromone ties. By the 2009 growing season we successfully controlled powdery mildew, black rot, sour rot, phomopsis, and botrytis organically. The key to the 2010 season is to discard phosphite as a component in controlling downy mildew.
It may seem like a decade is a very long time to transition a vineyard from conventional to organic but as I began to change the way I had been taught to farm wine, it became apparent that I could not make changes by simply substituting organic materials for conventional ones. I had to somehow transform the entire farm into a more natural state. It wasn’t a matter of finding the one enormous golden key to unlock the secret of natural winegrowing, instead it was starting a collection of tiny keys each unlocking small doors and drawers that all worked in tandem with each other. Maintaining the harmony amongst the vines means that I have to be incredibly tuned in to the flow of what the vineyard needs throughout the 4 seasons and keeping a balance between the soil, the sun, the weather and the fruit. It means learning not only to see Mother Nature’s signals but also to use my other senses like listening to the noise being made by the insects which gives me an indication of their population, smelling the scents made by the soil which tells me how active it is and feeling the skin of the grapes for density letting me know the degree of disease resistance the fruit may have this year. This is the kind of farming that inspires me and makes a decade of transition seem like a mere moment in time.