When we planted our first test vines in May of '01 after a epiphanic trip to Cote de Beaune (Burgundy) the previous harvest season, I had intended to grow grapes organically. That's why I chose hybrids with good disease resistance in our area, including Cynthiana/Norton, Vidal, Traminette and Chambourcin. I had visions of featuring "Made with Organically Grown Grapes" on bottles of my private stock. I'm a card-carrying Sierra Club member and a proud tree hugger. My little diversion into agriculture has even heightened my environmental concerns as I can see global warming working directly through the progressive forward movement of budbreak and harvest during my six years of growing grapes. I've never met anyone with grapes in the ground who harbors the slightest doubt about the pace of climate change.
So as an environmentally conscious individual, I set out with the intentions of growing grapes without any chemical assistance. And I've learned the hard way that, if you want to grow good grapes in our region, you have to treat for fungus aggressively, including chemical sprays. Now my goal has shifted from growing organically to growing the best grapes possible. Once I can produce a full crop of quality grapes on a consistent basis, I'll move toward embracing more sustainable (and riskier) practices. But you need experience to minimize risk, and I've got a long way to go.
There are several practices that I now employ, which I haven't in the past, that are completely organic and sustainable. They include aggressive canopy management and leaf pulling, use of grow tubes and use of bird netting. I found that much late-season rot on the Cynthiana was due to bird pressure...a couple broken berries can spread disease throughout an entire cluster. Grow tubes seem to allow for stronger growth and root development in young vines, increasing its disease resistance in the first few years. Leaf pulling around the fruit increases air flow, sunlight exposure and reduces the damp conditions funguses like.
There are other things you can do that are completely sustainable practices, including use of treatments like Serenade and Kalligreen instead of more caustic chemicals. You can use bio-fuel in your tractor, solar-powered or solar-charged tools and pumps in the vineyard. I also plan to irrigate from a pond rather than using district water as water shortage becomes an increasing problem, even in our area. These things can save you money as well as reduce the footprint of your farming operation. But I've also learned the hard way that you first have to focus on growing good grapes, and right now I can't accomplish that in our region without some chemical intervention.