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powdery mildew

The Vineyard as Organism

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The Vineyard as Organism

When I discovered powdery mildew in the Chardonnay I was in shock. I cascaded through the stages of grief, all in the course of an afternoon. After denying it was anything significant, I got angry with myself for letting the canopy junglify, bargained with my trusted vineyard workers about it, got depressed and eventually accepted the unthinkable – that something unwanted had found it’s way into my precious pristine temple of a vineyard. Immediately I reconciled myself to a course of action.

First, radiation. I lopped off the tops of the vines and vigorously hedged, shoot thinned and leaf-plucked, exposing the grapes to the intense direct rays of the sun. Truckloads of vine material were heaped on the compost pile and an autumn of leaves carpeted the floor of the Chardonnay. Having let the sunshine in, I watched as here and there grapes became sunburned, shriveled up and dropped off, casualties of the treatment. You kill some good cells along with the undesirable ones…

Next, chemo. I upped the frequency of sulfur treatments in the hopes of creating a climate that the powdery would find undesirable. After a while, it smelt positively volcanic. I smelt positively volcanic! I’d walk the vines in freshly laundered work clothes and return home smelling like Old Faithful. Swimming in the sea, showering with Dr. Bronners cut it somewhat, but always the faint odor of Hades lifting off my skin. My clothes, despite repeated washings, had the stench of, well, skunk. And miraculously, the mildew was dialed back -- it didn’t spread.

So I flagged the grape bunches that had it, decided to watch them, to see if it proliferated, and checked the vineyard to see if it metastasized elsewhere. The sun did its work. The hot winds dried the tender grapes. The sulfur, sulfurated. And the powdery was stopped in its tracks. But it remained in those flagged lumps of grapes.

So today I got radical, and pulled on my surgeon’s glove, beginning the process of cutting out the afflicted bunches, sob. And in farmer mind, I’m assessing, second guessing, remembering, postulating, hypothesizing – had I done this, seen that, if only this, but what if that… In the final analysis my vote is for getting radical, for an immediate unemotional surgical strike. After all the effort, expense and anxiety, I’ve ended up cutting it out, leaving nothing but healthy vibrant, delicious fruit. I’m a radical at heart.

 

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Season's Greetings- Let the Sun Shine In!

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Season's Greetings- Let the Sun Shine In!

Seasons Greetings!

Yesterday I got an early Christmas present - I found several bunches of Chardonnay with the beginning traces of powdery mildew! I freaked, and immediately went on a tear chopping off the afflicted clusters, but I gave up after discovering, that it was mostly just a berry or two in scattered bunches along the Northern side of the block. It seems to have blown in at the heads of several rows, possibly the result of spotty sulfuring along the row edges. Either way, it is a big concern. 

We are days away from bunch closure and if the mildew gets inside the cluster, it will thrive in the dark, closed environment, eventually ruining the bunch. What are my options? If I let it take its course, it might flare up more intensely throughout the vineyard. The weather has been cool, there’s wind, and light precipitation is expected. These are the conditions favored by mildew. Not acting could lead to even more widespread infection. I could go around and cut out the afflicted berries, but I might miss some and that could lead to additional outbreaks.

My strategy for Chardonnay has been to keep a dense canopy in order to shade and cool the clusters. This shading strategy favors the type of flavors I am aiming for in the wine. Because Chardonnay is such a thin-skinned grape, too much sunlight, even reflected light, and high temperature, drive away chlorophyll and yellow up the berries, leading to sunburn. Sunburn, in turn, imparts a riper, more caramel flavor, something that I enjoy as an ingredient in the wine, but not as the main course.

But the dense canopy I’ve been developing blocks sunlight and wind. Were I to open it up I would reduce the mildew pressure –- the sun will help to clear it up and keep it away, and drying air will be able to blow through – but doing so brings the very real risk of sunburn and the possible loss of the flavors I am aiming for. Opening up the canopy will also insure that sulfur would actually get into the fruit zone, rather than merely ending up on the leaves when I spray.

It’s a quandary. The clock is ticking. The days have been cool. There’s been a fair bit of cloud cover, even some overcast. And the nights have had moist winds blowing off the ocean. Precipitation is on the horizon.

I live by signs and portents and a message arrives from a moldy odor in my washing machine. It has been idle for several days and the moisture in the closed dark space has been a breeding ground. I bleach the machine back to health and resolve to get radical in the vines.

I’ve been growing a jungle in the Chardonnay, allowing the vines to grow way beyond trellis height. There are places where they’ve crossed and tangled across the rows, and they are blocking the light and airflow. First up – topping the vines.

I head out in the early dawn covered from head to toe and plugged into music. A flock of White Tailed Black Cockatoos swoop dip across the edge of the vineyard, their conversation making crazy counterpoint to the song. I cut vine by vine with my secateurs, positioning the shoots to provide optimum canopy. I pause to pull away some laterals to let in more light, and notice some of leaves in the fruit zone are senescing –- they are yellowed and shriveling, indicating they are no longer acquiring nutrients for the vine. The shoots are also lignifying, another indication that the vines are far along.

After trimming back the jungle, I bring in a team of leaf-pluckers, having made the decision to expose the fruit to receive the morning sun. We are plucking specifically in the rows where I saw the mildew, plus a bit more. I figure that our close planting will serve to shield the grapes from the sun when it is overhead, as well as in the afternoon. The grapes will still be receiving lots of direct sun, although it will be the cooler morning sun, but inescapably this action will be inviting sunburn. When the nets go on, some of the light will be diffused, and perhaps that will reduce the sun’s effect.

I’ve tossed this decision around endlessly, concluding that this is what is being called for with these conditions. Some of the canopy will grow back in the lead-up to the hottest days of the summer, providing some shielding, the nets will diffuse some of the direct sunlight, and most importantly, we will end up with healthy fruit. There will be some sunburn, and depending on how much, I can drop fruit, vinify it separately, or let it flow and see where it goes. Our stunning 2012 Chardonnay has some rich glazed onion flavors that dance with mouthwatering nutty brioche. I didn’t expect we would achieve such richness, especially at a low alcohol, but I wouldn’t trade it – not for all the shaded grapes in the world.

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Flowering Peppies in the Kambarang

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Flowering Peppies in the Kambarang

The Wardandi are the traditional custodians of the land in our region and their territory extends from the coast north of the Capel River to the Southern Ocean near Augusta, just to the south of us. In pre-contact time, they lived a life closely tuned to the cycles of nature impacting their lives. They recognized six separate seasons, characterized by cyclical events in nature, and foods that became available during those seasons, whose length varied yearly but were each about two months in length. They were a migratory people, moving seasonally to take advantage of the foods that became abundant at different times.

We are nearing the end of the warm season the Wardandi named Kambarang, characterized by an abundance of wildflowers. It is said that if the Western Australia Peppermint trees (Agonis flexuosa) flower abundantly during this time, it is a predictor of coming rains. This year the Peppies are in deep full blossom. If I squint, they appear to be covered in snow. It is a time where moisture is in the air, especially in the nights and dawn, with cool breezes shifting in from the Indian Ocean.

With the moisture arrives mildew pressure. Powdery mildew thrives in cool, damp, poorly ventilated areas. It loves shade and thus could possibly be an issue in our closely planted vineyard, where the distance between vines is only one meter and our cordon is only half a meter off the ground. Powdery mildew gets its name from the characteristic white powder that forms, along with a fuzzy mycelium that releases spores into the air, which in turn spread rapidly. Its presence reduces yield and quality and in some cases can lead to complete crop loss.

The dryer it is, the less worry about powdery. Spore germination is optimal in temperatures of 22-31 C, typical of this season, and to counter it, I’ve been shoot thinning as well as spraying elemental sulfur on the foliage. Sulfur is a non-specific fungicide. Its presence reduces the microbial life in the soil so I use the bare minimum, but I use it.  It is only effective if applied prior to the appearance of symptoms – if powdery appears in the vine it is already too late. 

I walk past the snow-like blossoms and inhale a heady aroma from the Peppies bordering the vines. The promise of a cooling rain is enticing. And before it arrives, and after it leaves, I’ll keep the sulfur level up on the foliage, without which this lovely crop would be at risk.

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