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Engaging with the source of the drift


Philip White reports on encouraging wine industry moves to tackle problematic poisons.

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Spray drift. First time I encountered it on a serious scale was in the Upper Hunter at the old Penfolds Dalwood winery, which had just been made part of Rosemount. It must have been around 1980 – I reckon Neil Paulett was still working there.

It was a hot, dusty summer and the countryside was bleak, with that down-at-heel feel you could sniff in Patrick White yarns. A neighbouring farmer had hit his pasture with some sort of deadly herbicide which had drifted into the vineyard on the breeze. You could stand there and watch the vines die. It stank.

Winemaker Philip Shaw thought it was so deadly it must have contained dioxyns. 2,4-D or something. Agent Orange. Shut that vineyard down.

Thirty years later I drove through these bonnie South Mount Lofty Ranges on a warm New Year’s Eve, windows down. Paul Drogemuller was at the wheel. As we curled through the cute winding bits of apple orchards and vineyards from Oakbank through Lenswood to his Paracombe winery across the Gorge, Paul named the sprays each farmer had left hanging in the air. A litany of exotic, even playful trade names: you could be forgiven for thinking they were millennial wine brands.

Paul had been a farm goods supplier in a previous life: he knew his poisons by their smell.

This year I watched various vineyards around my neck of the woods spread either unwanted spray or disease into adjacent vineyards which didn’t want it.

It’s a big problem in areas where the fruit is borderline and often remains unpicked and unpruned. Even slightly dishevelled vineyards whose owners can’t afford the obvious prophylactic and preventative sprays are trouble.

These vineyards are incubators, breeding all sorts of mildews and moulds.

If it’s not the fungus crossing the fence into the perfectly-kept organic vineyard next door, it’ll be the spray the poor devil has eventually afforded drifting on the breeze, infecting that neighbour’s licensed vineyard with a poison whose traces will see that certificate of cleanliness removed by the white coat brigade.

They display a peculiar model of toughness, the bio-d authorities. They’ll chop your leaves up and tear them to bits in the lab, and if they find a trace of one little barred substance, your guarantee of cleanliness is gone and it’ll take you years to get it back.

One of the wine industry’s favourite sprays is Monsanto’s glyphosate-based Roundup. You can see who uses it: any stripes of bare ground beneath a vine row is the work of this highly-efficient herbicide. Monsanto’s up in arms as country after country bars the unregulated sale of the stuff. As of July 7 that glowing fruit basket, California, has dared to list it as a poison. This follows the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifying glyphosate as a “probable carcinogen”.

“We will continue to aggressively challenge this improper decision,” blustered Monsanto’s Scott Partridge, vice-president of global strategy. “Glyphosate is not carcinogenic, and the listing of glyphosate under Prop 65 is unwarranted.”

At the same time, Monsanto’s entangled in a federal lawsuit in which people from California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York and Wisconsin allege that glyphosate “targets the enzyme 5-enolpyruvylshikimate 3-phosphate synthase found in plants and many beneficial gut bacteria essential for digestion and good health”.

Enter Dr Gerhard Rossouw, Associate Lecturer and Researcher in Wine and Viticulture at Charles Sturt University. With support from Wine Australia, the native South African has commenced a year-long investigation “of exposure to four problematic herbicides on grapevine leaf, fruit and root metabolic responses, and the related implications for fruit quantity and composition”.

Basically, Gerhard hopes to study “the injury symptoms (especially related to foliar and bunch development) associated with different herbicides, and link the symptoms to primary metabolic responses in the grapevine …

“Essentially,” he explained, “we will be creating a simulated herbicide drift under controlled conditions, using rates that replicate what happens in the field … We want to be able to link what the grower can see as a symptom to what actually happens in the vine and allow them to identify which herbicide is causing the problem so that they can engage with the source of the drift.”

Like that? “Engage with the source of the drift?”

Short of mounting a class action against, well, anybody, there’s plenty of room next for Wine Australia to put some funding aside to assist those wine producers who don’t use petrochemical fungicides and herbicides to advise their customers of this without raising the legal ire of the manufacturers and distributors of those products.

It’ll be a bold step: such responsible wine growers are unfortunately a tiny minority.

But imagine being able to buy a bottle whose label advises you the wine inside is free of glyphosate.

Oh, you already can?

Of course. It’s called certified organic and/or biodynamic.

Until, of course, that perfectly clean, poison-free, hand-tended vine garden is infected by other people’s poisons that come in for free, on the air.

Meanwhile, the sheep in the vineyard outside my window have trimmed this year’s vineyard weeds down to a neat lawn-like sward, evenly spread with tidy little pellets of organic/biodynamic gut-fermented fertiliser. They have thrown a high number of twin lambs this year, since the harvest.

By the time the vines shoot in spring, those lambs will go to market at a fine price, and their mums will go back to pasture elsewhere, keeping fit for next year’s roundup.

Sure beats paying for poison.

Which brings me to goats. This may be a naive dream, but among the thousands of poor refugee folk trying to get into Australia there must be some who have the equivalent of a doctorate in goat-herding. Engage such a person, assist in procuring a herd of goats, and put them through the dishevelled unkempt vineyards to prune the vines back to the wood.

As we now know sheep do a perfectly good job of the weeds, why not try goats in the vine foliage?

You wouldn’t need the expense of fences; the spread of wind-born disease would diminish, and the local cheese-maker would love access to all that fresh milk, no?

Oh yes: that Upper Hunter vineyard. Last I heard it had become a coal pit.

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