The original title of this essay was “Can 100% Organic Grapes be Grown in Long Island?”, apposite when I wrote it in 2009 as part of my WSET Diploma qualification. I then modified and posted it as the first in a series of articles on Long Island viticulture on 5 June 2010. But I had to change it to “Can 100% Certified Organic Grapes be Grown in Long Island?” because the original title had been mooted by the achievement of Shinn Estate on September 18, 2010, when it harvested its first entirely organic grapes, 2.6 acres of Sauvignon Blanc. A year later the first certified-organic grapes were harvested by a little-known vineyard in Calverton, The Farrm, owned by Rex Farr. The farm had been certified as organic in 1990, growing various vegetable crops, and its first vinifera grapes were planted in 2005. Its first successful harvest took place in October of 2011. This achievement now moots the revised title, which is now “The Challenge of Growing Certified Organic Grapes in Long Island.” The series of posts that deal with the individual vineyards takes off from this piece (now updated to April 2012). So far, ten articles about them have been posted.
Both the sustainable and organic movements in winegrowing are among the most important developments in the wine world in recent years. Whether or not it results in superior wines is difficult to say with any certainty, but that is a separate argument that will not be pursued here. Rather, the focus is on the challenge not only to produce organic wine in Long Island, which represents a special challenge, but also to look at the issue of sustainability in viticulture as a whole.
Let us begin by looking at two excellent wineries: Channing Daughters Winery and Wölffer Estate Vineyards, both in the Hamptons Long Island AVA, which is to say the South Fork of the island, which has fields of Bridgehampton loam—sandy and well-drained—and a Bordeaux-like maritime climate, with Atlantic breezes that ward off frost until late in the harvest season. The two forks, or East End–as they are collectively known, also enjoy the most days of sunshine and longest growing season of all of New York State, though the South Fork has a slightly later onset of spring and a somewhat longer season than the North, as well as a less windy clime. All of the East End has high humidity and, potentially, a great deal of rain right into harvest time.
In discussions with Larry Perrine of Channing Daughters and Richard Pisacano of Wölffer’s, I learned that both had decided against seeking organic certification, though they do practice sustainable viticulture as far as is possible.[i] Their primary reason for rejecting the organic certification route was that the climate conditions—cool and very humid—seriously militates against organic farming. As Perrine pointed out: “Organic is virtually impossible in rainy climates like Bordeaux, Friuli, and LI; downy mildew and black rot cannot be contained by using organic methods.” In Pisacano’s view, “organic certification is too demanding and expensive, apart from the fact that the level of humidity in the area is just too high to allow for organic practices for preventing the control of diseases and molds like powdery mildew and botrytis.”[ii] Both want to be able to use conventional pesticides as a fallback if needed, and they also find that added sulfites are needed in the wineries, and these are precluded by USDA Organic Certification;[iii] nevertheless, both vineyards do participate in the Long Island Sustainable Viticulture Program, or VineBalance.[iv]
The North Fork Long Island AVA shares much of the same terroir as the Hamptons AVA, but it is affected more by its proximity to Long Island Sound than to the Atlantic, and it suffers from similar issues. None of its nearly fifty vineyards are yet organically certified, although a number of them, such as Macari Vineyards and Palmer Vineyard work their land as organically and sustainably as possible, as do other vineyards, such as Peconic Bay.[v] In 2009 Joe Macari told me that he no longer believed that 100% organic viticulture is possible in the North Fork, though he practices sustainable farming to the extent possible, using only organic fertilizers and soil work, for example. That year Jim Silver of Peconic Bay Winery had said flatly that any idea of producing organic grapes in Long Island is simply impossible—the stuff of dreams.[vi]
On the other hand, Shinn Estate has been working on conversion to full organic USDA certification and Demeter certification for the last thirteen years. It is now 100% organic in soil work and pest control, and as noted above, has harvested the first organic/Biodynamic® grapes in Long Island. If Shinn can grow 100% organic/ Biodynamic® grapes for three successive years, the Estate can then be certified, and that would be a major achievement for the East End.[vii] Barbara Shinn said that she saw no reason why full organic conversion couldn’t be achieved in other North Fork or Hamptons AVA vineyards.
Let us then look at what it is that is required to produce certified organic grapes: of first importance is how the chosen method will affect the quality of the wine made from organic grapes, along with the cost of the conversion to a new viticultural regimen, as well as the long-term operating costs—a determining factor with respect to profit. Much literature has been devoted to the advantages of organic or sustainable viticulture, but there are also significant obstacles to be overcome.
- Organic (certified, which is to say, 100% organic as defined by the United States Department of Agriculture, [USDA] and its National Organic Program [NOP])
- Organic (but not USDA certified, falling under categories 2,3, and 4, listed further below)
- Biodynamic® (a special category of organic, but following the tenets of Demeter; not recognized by the USDA)
- Sustainable or natural (incorporating organic viticulture, but not completely)
[In 1990] . . . along came the National Organic Program (NOP), also part of the USDA. The NOP’s goal has been to set guidelines for the processing and labeling of organic products and to maintain the “National List” of allowed and prohibited substances. According to the NOP and the ATF . . . there are four categories that organic products can claim:
- 100% Organic
- Organic [95%+]
- Made With Organic Ingredients [70-95%]
- Some Organic Ingredients; i.e., less than 70%.[x]
As can be seen, the range of choices is wide, the ramifications of any particular approach daunting. Time and cost are important considerations in the process of converting from conventional to organic/sustainable practice, and these vary according to the chosen option. In the case of the USDA organic certification, at least 3 years is required to convert a vineyard for certification;[xi] if Biodynamic®, the transition is the same as for USDA certification and, in fact, overlaps it.[xii]
A comparative study performed by Gerald B. While, of Cornell University, ca 1995, broke out the costs of conventional vs. organic viticulture, and provides a basis for projecting those to be sustained after conversion.[xiii] The study concluded that the costs of organic farming could be considerably higher than it would be for conventional, but it was conducted in 1995 at a vineyard in the Finger Lakes, using very different varieties (one V. labrusca & two hybrids) from the vinifera ones grown in Long Island.[xiv] However, the fact that the three varieties in the experiment each had different issues, results, and costs, suggests that the same may be true with different vinifera varieties.[xv] An article in the October 2007 issue of Wines & Vines Magazine, tells of wineries that have had some success with the transition to organic viticulture, including Shinn Estate. Though more an anecdotal than a scientific study, it captures much of what has changed since the 1995 Cornell study.[xvi]
Nevertheless, the choices remain dauntingly complex, for the issue is not merely to choose between USDA-certified organic or non-certified, or between Demeter certification or ACA-only certification[xvii], but there are different degrees or types of sustainable farming that go beyond standard certification (“natural” winemaking vs. conventional [or interventionist] winemaking as well as socially-responsible viticulture are two matters beyond the purview of this essay, as they are not directly concerned with viticulture proper[xviii]).
Clearly, a three-year transition period is really a minimum period, as was the case with Shinn Estate, where the process has taken much more time.[xix] For certification, the transition needs considerable preparation, including establishing a USDA-mandated buffer zone of at least 25 feet (8 meters) to separate organic transition fields from those farmed conventionally.[xx] The conversion also entails some significant adjustments: there can be no chemical sprays, herbicides, and pesticides, or use artificial fertilizer for the vineyard plot, replacing them instead with natural pesticides and herbicides, foliate sprays, and organic manure or compost, which are all more expensive than the industrial versions.[xxi] On the other hand, fixed costs should not change, nor wage levels, but more manual field work would be necessary, especially if machine harvesting were not used, which would be the case a vineyard went the “natural” route.[xxii]
As pointed out by Kingley Tobin, “The three main areas of vineyard management to focus on are Weeds, Disease, and Pests.”[xxiii] For weed control, using ground cover is a good sustainable practice, and helps reduce the use of glyphosate-based herbicides that tend to shut down the main precursor to plant phenolics; the improved phenolic content of the grapes should result in a better product.[xxiv]
For disease, as the soil returns to a more natural state and the vines are no longer exposed to industrial products that diminish their ability to resist bacterial and fungal infections, they should, over time, develop Systemic Acquired Resistance (SAR).[xxv] Foliate inputs can be made organic by switching to highly-effective silicate applications such as the Demeter 500-series preparations (e.g., 501 horn-silica) or even horsetail tea, which has been used successfully upstate.[xxvi] Periodic applications of chemical sprays may be needed until SAR has been induced, but the use of tunnel spraying apparatus should keep such sprays from entering the soil. Even this may be avoidable if one applies safe, organic sprays such as sulphur for powdery mildew, while liquid seaweed, fatty acids, compost sprays can all be applied against botrytis. Given the high humidity of the Long Island region, more frequent applications may make up for their general lack of toxicity as compared to industrial ones.
For pest control, properly-selected ground cover, such as clover, will attract bees and other beneficial insects. Ladybugs can be purchased in quantity and released after flowering to prey on aphids, eggs, larvae, scale, and other parasites. [xxvii] Pyrethrums (made from flowers) work naturally to deter wasps and yellow jackets that are attracted to the fruit.[xxviii] Soil-borne pathogens that feed on the root damage caused by phylloxera may be controlled by measured use of hydrogen peroxide, as well as by application of harpins (e.g., Messenger®) on the grapes, while BTH can be used to help increase resistance to Botrytis.[xxix] All this means much more attention must be paid to the condition of the vineyard throughout the season, compared to a conventional approach. In effect, this is essentially the practice of Integrated Pest Management (IPM).[xxx]
This can all be accomplished over time, though much experimentation as well as trial-and-error will usually be necessary, as every vineyard will have unique issues of its own. The bottom line is that organic viticulture is more labor-intensive, but with potentially lower supply-and-materials costs, so that the fruit that results should be of higher quality, entirely free of industrial residue or traces, safer for consumption, and better for the land. The question still remains: can 100% certified organic grapes, as stipulated in the USDA guidelines, be grown long-term in the Long Island AVAs, or is sustainable viticulture the best that can be hoped for? Well, according to Barbara Shinn, as of 7 June 2010:
“We are farming 100% organically here at Shinn Estate Vineyards and have entered the National Organic Program and Demeter program. We are in our first year of certification and it will take two more years of farming 100% organically until we can gain certification.[xxxi]
So in two years, if all goes well, Shinn may become certified by both the NOP and the Demeter programs, and that shall certainly a milestone in sustainable viticulture in Long Island. I will pursue this question further when I write about the actual experiences and practices at various vineyards there, including Macari, Peconic Bay, Shinn Estate, Palmer, Lenz, Channing Daughters, Wölffer Estate, and others. All of them adhere to very high standards of viticulture and produce excellent wine, but the issue of how far they are willing to go in order to produce organic grapes is the stuff of which I’ll write.
[iv] New York Guide to Sustainable Viticulture Practices: Grower Self-Assessment Workbook, “[the Program] . . . is designed to encourage practices with low environmental impact that maintain or improve soil.” Also see Channing Daughters Winery, “A Vineyard With a Purpose” Web page.
[vii] Despite Shinn’s involvement with VineBalance, she does take issue with the term “sustainable,” holding that it can mean anything that a practitioner wants it to, and prefers to speak of “natural viticulture.”
[viii] The five categories are my summation of several sources: USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.301; Monty Waldin, “organic viticulture” The Oxford Companion to Wine, p. 498; Jon Bonné, “A fresh take on sustainable winemaking”; also, Sustainability in Practice (SIP) ™ Vineyard Certification Program, FAQ PDF.
[ix] Organic Consumers Association, “Clearing up the confusion about Organic Wine,” introduction. Also see the USDA, NOP, and Labeling: § 205.301a-d, the source for the list. Only the first two items on the list (a & b) are of concern to us.
[xiii] Gerald B. White, “The Economics of Growing Grapes Organically,” 19white.pdf. This and other studies to be found at the http://www.nysaes.cornell.edu/hort/faculty/pool/organicvitwkshp website were all part of a project funded by the federal Sustainable Agriculture Research and Extension program (SARE) from 1991-95.
[xvi] Suzanne Gannon, “Extreme Viticulture: How Northeast growers farm vinifera organically and sustainably,” Wine & Vines Magazine, online, sections on Shinn Estate Vineyards (Long Island) and Cornell’s Program (n.p.)
[xvii] The need for certifying agents is mentioned in passing in the USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.303 (5). For a discussion of Accredited Certifying Agents (ACA) see Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, section on “Getting Certified: What Rules Apply?”:
These ACAs can be private, public or non-profit entities that have received authorization to certify from the USDA. As of January 2006, there are 53 domestic ACAs and 40 foreign-based ACAs. Currently 11 of these ACAs are located in California.
[xviii] Joe Dressner, “Natural Wine,” The Wine Importer, speaks of the “French Natural Wine Movement,” whose members refer to themselves, “. . . as the sans soufistres” because they refuse to add sulfur to their wine when vinifying. The movement to make wine without sulfites has spread to the United States and has, indeed, been incorporated into the USDA certification standard for 100% organic (USDA, NOP, Labeling: § 205.302). The issue of what actually constitutes “natural” winemaking is open to debate, as pointed out in Pameladevi Govinda’s “Natural Progression: The Real Dirt on Natural Wine,” Imbibe Magazine online.
[xxi] According to an article by Renée L. Robin, “Defining Organic Practices for Wines and Grapes,” in Wine Business Monthly online, production cost increases can be “as much as 5 to 10 percent” during the period of transition, after which such costs should be about the same or even less that conventional methods.
[xxii] Jancou, Pierre. MoreThanOrganic.com: French Natural Wine, “As it is picked, the fruit must be collected into small containers, to avoid being crushed under its own weight, and taken to the winery as quickly as possible.”
[xxiv] Don Lotter, “Wine quality, organic viticulture and vine systemic acquired resistance to pests,” section on “Vine systemic acquired resistance and wine phenolics” (n.p.). Lotter states that “SAR is induced by low to moderate levels of insect and pathogen attack, the ability of plants, particularly organically managed plants, to induce a type of situation-responsive immunity to attack by diseases and pests is known as systemic acquired resistance (SAR), in which defensive compounds, mostly phenolics, are produced.”
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