Wine Column: Sustaining vines and the environment

Despite the romantic aura that surrounds the topic of wine, growing wine grapes is as challenging as other kinds of farming; maybe more so because the vine is a perennial crop. Any damage done to the vine or its site will affect future vintages, till the eventual death of the vine.

In 29 B.C., the Roman poet Virgil made it clear in his “Georgics” (a treatise on agriculture) that constant vigilance and timely human intervention are essential to maintain a vineyard:

Be first to dig the ground up, first to clear
And burn the refuse-branches, first to house
Again your vine-poles, last to gather fruit.
Twice doth the thickening shade beset the vine,
Twice weeds with stifling briers o’ergrow the crop;
And each a toilsome labour. Do thou praise
Broad acres, farm but few.

Virgil’s advice to be less ambitious than one’s neighbors still rings true to any who spend their days toiling in a vineyard, for viticulture is a year-round job. Here on Long Island, vines open their buds in late April or early May. The sap that has been rising through their vascular systems since March finally pushes open the cottony lining of each bud that has successfully survived both winter’s cold and the decisive cuts of the winter pruner. Immediately, fungi that also survived the winter, or come airborne anew, begin to attack the tender leaves and tiny new fruiting clusters. As the clusters become enlarged, moths lay their eggs inside them and, after the clusters flower in June, the larvae are unwittingly trapped inside the burgeoning berries.

At the same time, as Virgil warned, weeds grow from seeds spread the year before by wind, bird droppings or established nuisance plants. Nematodes gnaw at tender roots. Viruses propagated along with the plants themselves may also flourish, curling leaves, interrupting photosynthesis or overwhelming the vines with a lassitude like flu.

Then there are predations by deer, rabbits, raccoons, birds and bipeds as the season wears on. “Tractor blight” occurs when technology gets the best of the vine as the tractor driver swerves. Lightning strikes fry rows of vines tied to metal wires. Drought, wind or torrents of rain challenge the ripening crop. Insufficient nutrients make for stunted vines; excess nutrients produce more leaves than grapes.

Indeed, whoever manages to be “the last to gather fruit” will have survived a long season of anxiety and inconvenience. This makes all vintners philosophers, if not poets.

To help wine growers successfully navigate these obstacles with an ongoing, proactive strategy, the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County grape program, under the management of Alice Wise, has announced a new protocol for sustainable viticulture. This is a project that has been developed over several years with Wise’s industry advisory group, especially Bedell Cellars winemaker Rich Olsen-Harbich, along with Bedell vineyard manager Jim Thompson, Channing Daughters general manager Larry Perrine and Shinn Estates owner Barbara Shinn.

As Wise explains, “These growers have made a big commitment to creating their own very specific set of guidelines for ecological farming.” The program involves extra effort, cost and commitment by the growers, but in return it helps them maintain environmentally friendly ways of growing grapes with systematic records kept to inform future practices.

The advisory group also raises funds that are matched by the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, this year to continue variety and pest management trials.

Wise’s CCE division was also awarded a three-year grant by the USDA’s sustainable agriculture division to look at some alternative ways growers can manage growth under their vine rows, addressing that perpetual nuisance, weeds. Instead of routine use of herbicides that may kill beneficial organisms, or of cultivation that compacts the soil, these trials experiment with low-growing seeded ground covers and native vegetation. The CCE’s new blog,, offers a fascinating look (with photos) at vineyards like Claudia Purita’s One Woman (she’s the one woman), where New Zealand white clover was planted to compete with invasive plants.

Alice Wise understands that not every grower will join the sustainable grape-growing program. She told me, “Vineyards and wineries are awash in paperwork. The record keeping and reporting aspects of these businesses are daunting. So those aspects must be outweighed by the desire of the business to work toward the common goal of environmental farming. The beauty of the program is that it is not static. It will be adjusted and updated as the industry grows and learns.”

As the Romans would say, “In vino, veritas …” The wine will tell the truth about what works in the vineyard.

Ms. Hargrave was a founder of the Long Island wine industry in 1973. She is currently a freelance writer and consultant.