Friday, June 12, 2009

Broke Aussies forced into organic viticulture

Australia's wine industry is suffering hard times largely from an image problem -- that they make only cheap wines, not great high-end ones.

I don't think that's true, but stories like this one show why the image persists. Does anyone down there understand that organic viticulture is trendy?

When I first read it -- Australian wineries are chastised for not "tending" their vines over the winter because they don't have money to spray poison on them -- I was appalled.

Not by the absence of fungicide, of course. What's appalling is that the Sydney Morning Herald reporter and the head of the local viticulture association can't seem to imagine life without chemicals.

Here's a section:

Vineyard owners have been warned that producers with particularly pinched pockets may fail to spray and that disease could spread to nearby vines.

Ken Bray, who heads the Hunter Valley Wine Association's viticulture sub-committee, points to a Pokolbin vineyard untended since the March harvest where marshmallow weed and wheaten grasses now grow mad because the owners have not spent the money to slash.

"It [disease] has been on people's minds since there's been an oversupply of grapes," said Mr Bray. "It's a bit like swine flu. It could spread."

This is so misleading it reads like it was written by Rush Limbaugh. A vineyard that hasn't been weeded is compared to swine flu. A reporter writing about powdery mildew uses weeds as an example.

Throughout the whole story, there's no suggestion that vineyards have been left fallow for the winter for centuries. There's no discussion of potential organic means of mildew control. There's only hand-wringing and this tidbit:

Mr McKenzie knows of an owner in McLaren Vale in South Australia who offered to spray his neighbour's vines for free.

Legal complexities, including possible trespassing offences, face grape-growers who might be tempted to spray neighbours' vines without permission. It is not great for relationships, either, Mr Bray said.

Hell yeah, it's bad for relationships if you walk into my yard and spray fungicide about.

While I'm not a fan of what the US calls "organic wines" (click here to read why), I'm a firm believer in organic agriculture of all types, including for wine grapes. But whether or not organic grapegrowing makes better wines, the point is that many American consumers believe it does. Organics have an upscale image, exactly what Australian wine needs.

One can forgive a business reporter who probably covers topics other than agriculture for not realizing that. But Ken Bray and Wine Grapegrowers of Australia chief executive Mark McKenzie ought to know better.


Anonymous said...

So after telling us that sulfur should be used in bottled wine, you don't believe we should spray it on our vineyards to inhibit fungal growth?? Are you serious?

W. Blake Gray said...

Sulfur sprays are fine -- some of them are even allowed in organic viticulture. I'm talking about herbicides, because this writer was talking about weeds.