Growing wine grapes is not as easy as you may think. While growers talk to each other about how much it costs to do 13+ spays a year, that news doesn't make it into the wine magazine that's trying to paint a pretty picture and sell wine for its advertisers.
"Consumers think you just have a vineyard and the grapes ripen and you make wine. It's that simple," says Lulie Halstead, CEO of London-based Wine Intelligence. She studies consumer perceptions of wine around the world and in the U.S. for the wine industry.
Halstead says consumers have a romantic view of vineyards that doesn't include chemical spraying. She has worked with sustainability programs trying to woo consumer.
Speaking at an industry gathering of Sonoma growers in 2018, she said that it's not easy for consumers to understand what sustainability means.
"When we tell consumers, hey, we're going to be sustainable now, they don't even know what that means," she says. "Consumers want to know, 'what were you doing before that you weren't telling me about that you won't be doing now?'"
Consumers are not aware that thousands of tons or herbicides and fungicides, along with other toxic chemicals, are routinely used on the vast majority of vineyards, including in the sustainable ones.
If you have ever talked to friends who live in wine country, they'll tell you about the spraying.
They hear tractors in the vineyards spraying at night. (Spraying is typically carried out when there's less wind and that's at night).
Area residents smell the of sprays applied to wine grapes. They may not know exactly what is being sprayed, but for many of them (and their children), it causes problems.
For their part, growers are trying to combat three major problems: weeds, mildew and insects.
Organic and biodynamic growers use less toxic materials and pro-actively try to prevent problems that affect plant health. They also have new, more powerful, organic approved materials to use.
• WeedSlayer, which is clove oil, is proving effective at weed control
• Serenade, a microbial pesticide Bacillus subtilis, is used as a fungicide
While conventional and sustainable growers may also use some of the same materials and techniques, they differ in that they typically also use herbicides for weed control and fungicides for mildew. They may also use insecticides for bugs.
The advantages of stronger products it that they can be applied less frequently in most cases. The disadvantage is that they may lose their effectiveness over time.
For consumers, the most basic issue is that these toxic substances do stay in the wine, while organic herbicides like clove oil do not.
Oregon doesn't collect pesticide statistics, but the state California does.
California has a mandatory system that requires every grower to report to the state what pesticides they use.
This individual grower data is made public at the county level and the aggregated data is made available in state reports.
In California, health authorities and researchers also use this data for a variety of projects. State health authorities have created maps that let the public see every pesticide used on every crop in every region.
While Oregon does not collect this data. it's possible to draw some general parallels between Oregon and a county like Sonoma, in California, where Pinot Noir is the dominant grape.
Growing grapes is not as easy as it may seem. Grapes are prone to mildew, pests, and disease so growers who are not organic, typically apply vineyard chemicals.
Conventional and sustainable growers use:
• Herbicides that are carcinogens (Roundup, glyphosate and more)
• Fungicides that are bird and bee toxins and neurotoxins
Until recently, many people did not realize that herbicide residues were in wine.
Thanks to more precise testing that measures residues to the parts per billion, it's clear that the chemicals applied in the vineyard make their way into the wine.
Is that harmful for consumers?
The latest medical research (by Michael Antoniou of Kings College London (photo, left and 2016 video here) found that when herbicides are consumed, they affect the bacteria in your stomach and impact the liver or kidney.
Gut bacterial imbalances have been linked to cancer, type 2 diabetes, obesity, and depression. Recently, scientists found that patients with a serious liver disease all had high levels of glyphosate in their bodies.
While glyphosate consumption has risen dramatically over the last 25 years, most of the rise comes from eating non-organic oats, wheat and grain products. But beverages like wine are also a source.
Fungicides were also once thought to "disappear." But scientists have now found that residues also remain in wine.
Conventional or "sustainable" growers commonly use thousands of pounds of fungicides to prevent mildew.
While no one collects data on the use of these vineyard chemicals in the state of Oregon, California does collect this data.
A comparable county might be Sonoma County where Pinot Noir is the predominant grape grown. Though Sonoma has more vineyard acreage than Oregon (60,000 acres to Oregon's 36,000), here's what Sonoma growers used in 2017 (the most recent year data is available for). One can extrapolate that Oregon growers are using similar fungicides at similar rates.
• Copper*: 18,758 pounds on 37,915 acres
• Boscalid, a bee and bird toxin: nearly 10,000 pounds on 36,000 acres
• Fenhexamid: 12,000 pounds on 15,800 acres
These fungicides leave residues in the finished wine.
Organic growers (and others) often use mineral oil sprays to prevent mildew. Biodynamic growers may use silica sprays and applications of horsetail teas to combat mildew.
Data source: California Dept. of Pesticide Regulation's 2017 Pesticide Use Report
*Copper is approved for use by organic growers, but almost all the copper used in California (and the U.S.) on wine grapes comes from conventional fungicides (where it's a common ingredient).