DC Refined: The Virginia winery experimenting with eco-friendly winemaking
“At the grocery store, a growing number of consumers are reaching for organic foods. In recent years, this trend has spilled over into the wine industry. Organic and biodynamic vineyards are much more established in Europe, but wine regions in the U.S. are also starting to join the movement. Organic, the better-known of the two, is a government certification that is overseen by the USDA. Biodynamic is a certification written by the company Demeter to define a holistic, sustainable agriculture method that uses minimal inputs and allows a farm to rely on its natural dynamics.
While both are noble causes to strive for, neither method is popular in the mid-Atlantic region just yet. There are no biodynamic-certified vineyards in this area, and only a small handful of organic vineyards. However, there are a number of vineyards experimenting with these techniques.
Early Mountain Vineyards, near Charlottesville, is one of the wineries that is dabbling with organic and biodynamic practices, trying to find the right combination of treatments to produce both eco-friendly and delicious wines in the challenging climate of Virginia.
The biggest struggle in managing a vineyard in Virginia without conventional methods is humidity. The moisture causes downy mildew, botrytis, and bunch rot, which can significantly harm the crops. While Early Mountain still uses conventional practices when needed, Maya Hood White, the vineyard manager and enologist, is constantly experimenting with non-conventional techniques to beat pests and diseases.
Hood White came to the vineyard in 2014, a year after her predecessor began implementing non-traditional practices. In 2015, she introduced a few trial blocks (making up about 10 percent of the bearing vines) to more aggressively test the efficacy of products like biological fungicides and tea sprays.
Biological fungicides contain a bacterium or yeast that can outcompete the harmful organisms causing problems with the vines. Tea sprays are made from herbs or botanicals such as dandelion, chamomile, horsetail, and nettle, and they are used to strengthen the vines and amplify the antifungal effects of other products, like copper or sulfur. Hood White is also using Kaolin clay, a benign white powder, to deter pests such as spotted wing drosophila or Japanese beetles.
“If we can make the plant stronger and have its own natural defenses, then the idea is that we can pull some of the bit more traditional sprays out of it,” explains Winemaker Ben Jordan, who has been with Early Mountain since 2015. However, “if it looks like we’re going to lose a significant crop, we’re going to step in and do something,” Hood White added.”
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Photos courtesy of Early Mountain Vineyards.