A Vineyard Odyssey


Chapter 1: If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now

Oidium.  Even if you don’t know what it is, the very sound of it seems menacing, conjuring up images of evil, disease and pestilence.   Which is entirely appropriate, given its history and potential to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting.   Still commonly referred to in Europe as oidium, here in the United States it is more commonly known as grape powdery mildew.  Mycologists and plant pathologists call it Erysiphe necator, which is the botanical name for the fungus that causes grape powdery mildew.   But oidium was the name applied to the disease when it was first discovered in the 19th century.    The word oidium, despite the rather ominous image it invokes, derives from the Latin word for a small egg – oidion, which aptly describes the small egg-shaped spores by which the fungus reproduces.

Call it what you will, it is the scourge of winegrowers everywhere.  In most vineyards, every year brings a new battle to prevent and contain outbreaks of powdery mildew.   In some, with only modest effort and expense, powdery mildew is little more than a speed bump on the road to harvest.  But for most, powdery mildew is an expensive and ever present threat.

Powdery mildew is unique among the many pests and diseases that afflict wine grapes and vineyards.  No other affliction threatens (nearly) every wine grape vineyard in the world, every year.   The consequences of ignoring or not understanding this threat can be catastrophic, as the winegrowers of Europe discovered in the 19th century.   Likewise, the consequences of simply misjudging the threat of powdery mildew can be traumatic, even for the well informed and well intentioned winegrower, as I learned all too well in my own vineyard.  But it is hardly alone, as a host of insects, fungi, bacteria, and viruses, along with feathered and furry critters, lurk in the vineyards, all of which are capable of sabotaging a promising vintage right under the nose of the unsuspecting grower.

I knew none of this when I set out to become a winegrower.   Well, truth is, I didn’t know much of anything about growing wine.   I knew I liked wine, and fancied myself as something of a connoisseur.   So I probably knew a great deal more about wine than the average person, but I knew next to nothing about what it really took to get from a grapevine to a bottle of wine.    Deb, my wife and partner in this venture, was skeptical at first, and being a city-girl, she was no more familiar than I was with the rigors and hazards of farming or winegrowing.

Sure, we lived in California and visited Wine Country regularly.   You know the drill.  Weekends spent touring vineyards, tasting wines and talking up the winemakers and tasting room staff.  If nothing else, it endowed me with an appreciation for the beauty of places like Sonoma County and the deep connection between the land, the vines and the wines that we love so much.  This proximity and superficial familiarity no doubt contributed to the idea that a winegrowing future was a realistic possibility.

We came to winegrowing rather late in life.   It was to be a third career, of sorts, for me.   I was in my mid forties when we set out to plant our own vineyard, by which time I had endured twenty years of schooling followed by twenty years of corporate life.   Of course, none of that education or experience was remotely related to agriculture.   However, my background in science, engineering and the warp-speed, ruthlessly Darwinian world of Silicon Valley high tech did serve me well when I jumped in to winegrowing full time.   I thought to myself, how hard could this be?    I took it as just another intellectual challenge and something new to master, which was more or less a way of life in the business I had come from.

I will admit up front that this vineyard thing was entirely my idea, and it was not an easy sell, but once Deb bought in, she was all in.  It’s not always that way.   We have a few friends with vineyards or wineries, where one person has the passion and the other wants little or nothing to do with it (apart from living in a nice place and drinking lots of good wine!)   In our case, it was meant to be a partnership from day one.   Deb is more naturally risk-averse and detail-oriented, which is a nice compliment to my tendencies to jump into new things and manage more from the big picture than the nitty gritty details.

The wine business is unusual in that it attracts a great many participants from unrelated walks of life, most with little or no relevant experience beyond the passionate appreciation of fine wines.   That certainly described us when we set out to buy a vineyard in quest of a lifestyle centered on growing grapes and making wine.   At the time, the late 1990s, we were not alone in this quest as a prosperous economy enabled many wine lovers to seek out their little corner of paradise with a vineyard or winery of their own.   The ensuing boom would have far reaching consequences, as vineyard acreage in California expanded dramatically in the 1990s and early 2000s.   Wine grape acreage in Sonoma County, for example, grew from 33,000 acres in 1990 to 58,000 in 2006, while Napa County's vineyard acreage increased from 32,000 acres in 1990 to 45,000 in 2006.

Terrific wine is grown in many places around California, most of which are stunningly beautiful places to live and work.  Our personal quest led us first to the well established wine regions of Napa and Sonoma, both of which were within a couple hours drive from our home in Silicon Valley, just south of San Francisco.   In the end, we were won over by the beauty and agricultural diversity of Sonoma, its vibrant food and wine culture, proximity to San Francisco, and of course, a rich history of fine wine production dating back to the middle of the 19th century.

Like many novice winegrowers, we set out initially to find an established vineyard.  It seemed like a faster, easier way to enter the business.   Buying an operating vineyard would enable us to get a vineyard with a known track record, produce (nearly) instant cash flow and save us the time, complexity and investment of developing a vineyard from scratch.  Hopefully it would also come with a vineyard management team in place that could manage the property for us while we continued to work in our existing careers for a few more years.    Maybe even an existing contract with a winery to buy the grapes.   Sounds simple enough.

So we went in search of a small vineyard, something in the neighborhood of five to ten acres.  Initially, it seemed that anything much larger would be a daunting responsibility, if not prohibitively expensive, whereas smaller vineyards did not seem to be commercially viable.   We wanted something that would be more than just a ‘hobby vineyard’, but not too large.   At the time, we were living about a hundred miles south of Sonoma, working full time, and eight to ten years away from the prospect of quitting our day jobs and living full-time in the Wine Country.    A turnkey operation just seemed like the right choice.

We soon discovered several limitations and shortcomings in our plan.  In 1997, which was early in the 1990s vineyard boom, five to ten acre vineyards for sale were few and far between.  Zoning and land use restrictions had sharply curtailed the subdivision of large acreage parcels into smaller properties of the scale we were looking for.  Also, most vineyards we found for sale were larger than ten acres, which was thought to be the low end of what was viable to “make a living” growing wine.  Perhaps most significant, it seemed that nearly all of the vineyards we found for sale were fraught with peril.  Some were just out of our price range, often including very nice homes that drove the property value up.  In other cases, disease or old age had diminished yields down to the point where the economics were not attractive, and the additional expense of replanting seemed inevitable.  There were some properties, mostly old-vine Zinfandel vineyards, where ripping out the old low-yielding vines just seemed wrong, if not immoral.  In any case, the economics of these old vineyards, with yields of three quarters to one ton of grapes per acre, just never seemed to pencil out.

After a while, we reset our sights on virgin vineyard land, ultimately acquiring twenty acres of mountainous woodlands and meadows in late 1999.   Landlocked and completely undeveloped, we had to cut in a road, bring in electricity and drill a well nearly four hundred feet down for water before we could put any vines in the ground.   That work, and the complexities of navigating new regulations on hillside vineyards added a couple of years to our timeline.  

Whereas initially we had hoped to carve about five acres of vineyard out of the property, the limitations of our steep, rocky terrain led us to dial back our expectations just a bit further.   So it was that in 2002 we converted four acres of south facing meadows to vines.   Even at that, the rather severe terrain forced us to plant these four acres in two blocks, separated by a steep wooded ravine.   The Upper Vineyard, as we call it, provides a beautiful scenic hillside just above where our house is now situated, a panorama we enjoy daily from almost every window on the front of our house.  It was initially planted to about two and half acres of Syrah and a few rows of Cabernet Sauvignon, though some of that Syrah was later grafted over to Grenache.   The Lower Vineyard, which is downhill and through the woods from our house, was planted to about an acre of Syrah.

In hindsight, scaling back our ambitions from ten acres to just under four, proved to be a blessing in disguise.   We now know that ten acres is way more vineyard than we could possibly manage ourselves.   We were in search of a lifestyle, one that did not include managing employees, but did embrace an active life managing the vineyard ourselves.   Also, as we were soon to discover, the wine market is highly cyclical and the financial responsibility that comes with a larger vineyard is much greater than we really want.  After all, despite all the hard work involved, we really do like to claim we’re “retired.”

At the time we set off on this adventure, I had no idea that of the many educational and intellectual challenges I would face as a winegrower, I would find powdery mildew and all that surrounds it to be the most fascinating.   This is quite an achievement for something so obscure and mundane, particularly as there seems to be no end to the new challenges, life lessons and amusing anecdotes that life on a vineyard produces.  On top of everything Mother Nature could find to throw at us as novice vineyard owners, we added an ever-changing cast of wooly, furry and feathered creatures to an already overwhelming experience.   We brought in sheep to “mow” the vineyard in lieu of herbicides, a livestock guardian dog to protect the sheep from mountain lions and coyotes, vineyard cats to keep down the voles that girdle and kill the vines, and free range chickens for eggs and entertainment.   Each new season in the vineyard and every addition to the menagerie came with interesting new challenges and rewarding experiences, but year after year one challenge would rise anew.  A shape shifter, it changes from year to year.    It lurks in the shadows in hot dry years, only to explode and race through the vineyard like wildfire in a dry forest during cool damp years.

What follows is the story of a winegrower and an organic philosophy that guides the annual struggle to coax great wine from a steep hillside and a few thousand vines.  The story highlights, in particular, the many hazards of nature that lie hidden in any vintage, along with the trials and tribulations they bring.  First and foremost among these hazards, grape powdery mildew is the star in a cast of scoundrels that threaten to wreak havoc in the vineyard at any time.    What are these hazards, where do they come from and how do they impact the people and vineyards that bring us the wines we all love?  It is the story of the perennial fight to save wine from the ravages of nature.

The story starts in the next chapter, The Origin of Our Affection and Its Peculiar Afflictions, where I set the stage with a trip back in time, describing the origin and history of wine grapes, and the wine and cultivated vineyards that followed.  I show how evolution and geography conspired to keep wine grapes apart from powdery mildew and other major wine pests for millions of years, and how once their paths crossed neither would be the same again. 

It’s Personal – Man versus Fungus picks up the story in modern times, set against the backdrop of our early years as full time winegrowers.  Many lessons for the novice winegrower are revealed as we learn the ins and outs of managing our own vineyard, and sow the seeds for our transition to organic farming.  Here I also unveil the origins of my fascination with powdery mildew.

Chapter Four, Revenge of the Fungi, introduces vineyard enemy #1, along with several other fungi that regularly wreak havoc in the vineyards of California, and around the world.  Questions answered include: Just what is powdery mildew?  How do epidemics of powdery mildew occur in wine grape vineyards?  How big a problem can a few fungi be?   After all, it’s kind of like a mushroom, right?

As if these pesky fungi were not bad enough, the fifth chapter spins a broader tale of death and destruction that awaits the unsuspecting vineyard owner.  Chapter Five describes many of the bacteria, viruses and assorted animals that wreak havoc in our vineyards, and describes both the agony and the ecstasy we have experienced battling these demons in our vineyard.  As the old saying goes, If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Another.

In the face of all these hazards, one might wonder why anyone would dare to grow wine grapes.   Chapter Six, Some Things Get Better With Age, shows how nature can rise to meets its own challenges, in this case focusing on the grapevine and how it responds to attack by powdery mildew and other fungal invaders.  Despite an evolutionary path mostly devoid of exposure to powdery mildew, I show how the grapevine nonetheless develops resistance to powdery mildew anew each year, albeit well after a period of naked susceptibility.

In the next chapter, The Winegrower’s Challenge, we examine how different farming philosophies play into the winegrowing challenge.  What is conventional farming?  What about sustainable farming?  Organic and Biodynamic farming?  This chapter explains each of these farming philosophies in broad terms, as well as some of their more specific implications for important winegrowing practices like fertilization and pest control.  I explain the different types of materials that can be used to thwart mildew and other pests in conventional, sustainable, organic and Biodynamic vineyards, and how growers decide when and how often to use different types of pesticides.

Chapter Eight, entitled Going Organic, or Something Like That, chronicles our own transition from absentee farming to hands-on organic farming.   This is a story of mountain lions, sheep, lambs, dogs, cats, squirrels and mice, along with lots of compost as we jettison conventional fertilizers and pesticides in search of an organic ideal.   And live to tell about it, somehow.

Organic or not, powdery mildew and other vineyard pests do not take our attempts to control them lying down.  In Nature Strikes Back we look at how powdery mildew, as a case in point, responds to our persistent efforts to eliminate it from our vineyards.  As we have found with antibiotics in human medicine, excessive use or misuse of pesticides can lead to the development of pesticide resistant strains of the pests we are trying to control.  I show how winegrowers deal with pesticide resistance, and the advantages of organic farming for avoiding the development of resistance strains of mildew and other pests.

It’s All Out War takes us back to our own ranch, Kiger Family Vineyard.   In this chapter we look back over one of the worst powdery mildew seasons that California has seen in decades.   This is a first hand account of our monumental season-long battle against a raging mildew epidemic, an experience that will imprint the memories of 2010 in our minds for years to come.

By this time, we will have seen how powdery mildew and other pests takes a toll on both the vineyard and the farmer, so we turn to the reason we’re doing all of this in the first place – for the wines.  In Chapter Eleven, From Vine to Glass, I show how powdery mildew, botrytis and other fungal diseases, along with fungicide usage in the vineyard, affect winemaking and the wines we drink.  The questions posed include:  How does the battle to control these pests affect the wines we drink?  Are there perceptible effects to consumers and wine enthusiasts?  Are there other implications of fungicide programs we should be concerned about?

The penultimate chapter, Looking Forward, peers into the crystal ball, seeking to uncover clues to the future of pest control in wine grape vineyards.  We look into ongoing research efforts to reduce fungicide usage by developing more resistant vines through genetic engineering and hybridization.  In parallel, research continues into safer, more effective fungicide alternatives, for both conventional and organic growers.

Finally, in Truce, I close with some final personal observations and a snapshot of a winegrowing lifestyle driven by the seasons and the vicissitudes of nature.  We revel in the anticipation bud break brings each spring, the sigh of relief set forth by veraison, and the excitement of harvest that brings each vintage to a close.

John’s book, A Vineyard Odyssey: The Organic Fight to Save Wine from the Ravages of Nature, published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available for order at Amazon and other online and physical retailers.

We also have a handful of copies here that we can sell you, sign for you, and ship to you.

The book offers a unique and personal take on life in a vineyard, intertwining the personal story of an organic winegrower with the facts of nature that make growing wine so challenging and unpredictable.

It is a tale of history, science, technology and personal experience, and of navigating the many hazards of nature that lie hidden in any vintage, along with the trials and tribulations they bring.

John has drawn on his experience as a hands-on winegrower to craft a book that will be appealing to wine consumers and enthusiasts of many stripes, and also to winegrowers and producers who will find the personal and technical information in the book to be both enlightening and entertaining.  

Here is a link to the book page on Amazon.