Occasional Notes

The growing season officially started Monday with bud break in the Nebbiolo in the experimental vineyard, and a few Chardonnay in block 9 (the third leaf vines) of the commercial vineyard. It’s always exciting, accompanied by both celebration and a touch of angst.

I’ve been asked quite a bit about the effects of March’s cold spell. The short answer is that it delayed vine phenology, reducing the risk that a late season frost would cause bud damage. It also gave us time that would otherwise have been lost to the warm winter to finish pruning.

But as always with nature, the longer answer is much more complicated. False springs, like the period that preceded the March cold spell, are increasingly common, and they can be very disruptive to balance in the vineyard. At Dodon, we’re especially concerned about the consequences on pest control. For example, insect pests like grape berry moth are more likely to survive winter, hatch earlier, and have more generations during the growing season, but natural predators do not necessarily keep the same schedule. Increasing insect species diversity, which we hope will mitigate these pest/predator timing mismatches, is the chief motivation for Dodon’s new cover crop project. It will take a few years to get established, but in the coming years, crops like mustard, buckwheat, cowpeas, and bachelor buttons may be as common as grapevines in the vineyard. As Bob Kinnard says, “Half for you, half for nature.”

Our ancestors probably knew much more about maintaining balanced ecosystems than we do now. I’m often reminded about how much wisdom we’ve lost, most recently by a remarkable report published in Nature. Sequencing the DNA from the calculus of 40,000 year old Neanderthal with a dental abscess revealed evidence of salicyclic acid (the active ingredient in aspirin) and Penicillium (the fungus that produces the antibiotic penicillin). While we can’t know for sure, Neanderthals appear to have learned to use the tools at hand as very sophisticated medical treatments, knowledge that we subsequently lost only to rediscover, and then overuse, in the post-Pasteur era.