Pollinator loss in the vineyards, and what some are doing about it

Pollinator loss in the vineyards, and what some are doing about it

ShutterstockMARCELODLT
In this organic vineyard, wild flowers are allowed to grow to attract and preserve pollinators.

Mealybugs are waxy white insects no longer than a pinky fingernail. But they are a sworn enemy of vineyards and the wine grapes that grow in them. Possibly the only greater enemy are weeds. In the past, growers attacked their insect and plant foes with a barrage of chemicals.

Two of the most common: glyphosate, commercially known as RoundUp, and a class of insecticides called neonicotinoids that top the list of suspects in the highly publicized disappearance of bees. 

However, change appears to be on the horizon in California. An increasing number of viticulturalists here are moving toward nature-friendly strategies instead of chemical-heavy ones. A few of the practitioners share a strict fidelity to the 19th-century methods championed by Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Others have jumped on programs that will certify them as sustainable but aren't as rigorous.

In the middle are a group of growers such as Darek Trowbridge of the Old World Winery in Sonoma County's Russian River wine country, who picks and chooses from best practices but forgo any certification at all.

"There are so many connections to this bottle," Trowbridge said, holding up a 2014 vintage. He ticked off a list that included the environment, workers, fish, water, bees. "Every wine is its own little microcosm."

What the growers all share in common are methods kinder to the environment, the people growing the grapes and those who drink the finished product. This third element, the consumers, is driving demand for wine that is produced in more environmentally friendly ways.

So instead of chemicals, they might plant cover crops such as buckwheat to crowd out unwanted weeds and send in the mealybug destroyer — an insect about 1/16th of an inch long that looks like a ladybug without spots and is the mealybug pest's natural enemy.

The system needs pollinators to work. Yet they are losing habitat as ranches, orchards and farms from one end of the state to the other are ripped out to make way for vineyards. The twist is that bees aren't important to wine grapes, but they are critical to efforts to steer clear of chemicals and, by extension, save themselves.

The most widely used pesticide in vineyards

Pesticides are only one chemical commonly used in a vineyard. Grapes and the soil they grow in routinely are sprayed multiple times a year with sulphur to ward off mildew. They are subjected to herbicides such as the weed killer RoundUp, whose manufacturer Monsanto has been the target of lawsuits by plaintiffs claiming the chemical is carcinogenic.

But neonicotinoids are the most widely used. Just under 62,000 pounds were sprayed on California wine grapes in 2014 alone, according to figures provided by the state's Department of Pest Regulation (PDF), more than on any other agriculture product in the state.

Scientists are still trying to figure out how direct a role pesticides and other chemicals play in the declining numbers of honey and native bees. However, in a lineup of suspected reasons, beekeepers and environmentalists increasingly point the finger at neonicotinoids. Research has raised enough red flags about their effects on pollinators that the EPA prohibits the use of some of them where bees are present. 

And while wine grapes don't need pollinators, one-third of the food grown in the United States does. "You can't live by wine alone," said Shepherd Bliss, a Sonoma County organic berry farmer who favors limits on new vineyards and wineries. "You need water and food."

The irony is that when Bayer introduced the first neonicotinoid to U.S. markets in 1994, they were greeted as a safer alternative to the toxic insecticides growers had been using on their vineyards to keep out pests, including organophosphates (PDF).

This new generation of insecticides gave wine grape growers tools to battle leafhoppers, the phylloxera louse and the mealybug — all tiny pests that do major damage to vineyards — that was gentler to the environment and safer for humans.

"It was like a miracle," said Steve Matthiasson, a grower who is also one of Napa's top viticultural consultants. "But that was before we knew about the effect on pollinators."

Organic

Today, Matthiasson grows 40 acres of grapes in Sonoma and Napa counties without synthetic chemicals and is preparing to certify his vineyards organic.

"I'm trying to maintain an ecosystem," he said. "Pollinators are part of that ecosystem."

The certification from the USDA excludes the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticidesfungicides and herbicides, as well as sulfites. Only wines made with organic grapes can use the USDA-certified organic seal on the bottle. When it comes to chemicals, "organic is a line in the sand," Matthiasson said.

The USDA's organic regulations do not address other issues that have come to the forefront in winemaking such as water use, land conservation, labor conditions or monoculture.

But growing without quick fixes such as RoundUp, synthetic fertilizers and insecticides requires a long-term perspective that takes thinking about here and now and over the horizon — and beyond the horizon, Matthiasson said, comparing growing organically to playing a "crazy game of Tetris."

"Every year you get crazy stuff thrown at you," he said.

Sustainable

In 1999, years before bee health became a widespread concern, Matthiasson helped craft standards (PDF) that became the basis for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance, the union of two trade groups, the Wine Institute and the California Association of Winegrape Growers.

Since 2010, the alliance has certified 574 vineyards covering close to 105,000 acres across the state and either spawned or complemented other local certification programs. The Sonoma County Winegrape Commission has set the goal of becoming the nation's first 100 percent sustainable wine region by 2019. 

Participation in the sustainability programs is voluntary and growers choose from a range of more than 200 requirements that they want to focus on, from water conservation to conditions for workers to making chemicals a last-ditch tactic instead of a de facto one. They have to meet at least 50 requirements. Their progress toward meeting their goals and improving their practices is verified by a third party organization.

The program doesn't rule out pesticides and the California Association of Winegrape Growers has opposed attempts to limit them, sometimes adamantly (PDF). The pesticides are permitted, CSWA Executive Director Allison Jordan said. That "likely" will change in the future with the Winegrowing Alliance's attempts to develop a sustainable logo for bottles, Jordan said. For now, she said, "there are no restrictions."

Biodynamic

Both sustainable and organic are less rigorous than biodynamic, another growing standard usually associated with farms rather than vineyards. The difference is obvious with one look at the scruffy plants growing underneath the vines. But the distinctions are go deeper than cover crops.

Whereas the sustainable standards are voluntary and organic certification stops at chemicals, Ridgely Evers, owner of the DaVero winery in Healdsburg, California, called biodynamic a philosophy.

He and Colleen McGlynn transformed their vineyard from what they jokingly likened to "a nuclear waste site" into a haven where bees and butterflies flitter among delicate rose petals, grey-blue olive trees and ripening ruby red plums.

"We brought this land back from the dead," Evers said, his prize vineyards to his back. They were buttressed by shoulder-high corn stalks, sunflowers, herbs and an "insectory," where plants that attract beneficial insects grow. Five-day old piglets, who will fertilize and till the soil, rooted in the yard. Evers and McGlynn hired a "soilkeeper" in addition to a farm manager.

It's a classic comprehensive setup — a diverse farm system, soil dense with microbes, animal husbandry and a holistic approach — required for by the main U.S. governing body, Demeter Association, Inc.

The process can take years. It took DaVero three. But, Evers said, the decision was easy.