Organic Transition Like “Learning to Ride a Bike Again’

July 15th, 2008

Sokol Blosser winery gets certification after fine-tuning

Capital Press
by John Schmitz

Going organic was quite a challenge for one of Oregon’s oldest and most highly acclaimed wineries.

Back in 2001 Sokol Blosser began organic operations on its 72-acre estate in the celebrated Red Hills of Dundee.

Unfortunately, that first attempt was not all that successful, said vineyard manager Alex Sokol Blosser.

“Basically I had to learn how to ride a bike again. We hired a number of consultants. We read a lot of books, talked to a lot of growers.”

One of the initial problems was spray efficacy. “Basically, you try some sprays and they just don’t work,” Sokol Blosser said.

It got so bad that a powdery mildew outbreak “got out of control” and forced the winery to go back to conventional farming until the next year.

The year 2002 turned out to be the charm as Sokol Blosser fine-tuned its organic management practices and went on to become certified organic by Oregon Tilth in 2005. Today, Sokol Blosser, which won Sunset magazine’s Green Award in 2007 for its sustainable approach to growing and making wines, is one of the few wineries in the state whose estate fruit is all grown organically.

“Our biggest challenge was weed control – and definitely mildew and botrytis control,” Sokol Blosser said.

After experimenting with various implements, Sokol Blosser has settled on an in-the-row cultivator that sits on the side of the tractor and cultivates under the vines.

“Timing is everything on using that tool,” Sokol Blosser said. “Use it at the wrong time and you have to use it a lot more. In the spring two passes is usually good enough.”

The cultivator works to a depth of around an inch.

With 30 to 40 inches of rain a year and hilly ground, one of Sokol Blosser’s biggest concerns is erosion control.

Erosion is kept in check with a certified organic ryegrass propagated in Italy that’s fall-planted in the rows and cultivated out in the spring. For high-use areas of the vineyard needing more erosion control, certified organic straw is used.

“We experimented with a number of things to get on top of mildew (which strikes between May and August) and botrytis (a problem from August through harvest),” Sokol Blosser said.

To combat powdery mildew, sulfur, Sonata and Serenade (both derived from bacterial fermentations) and Kaligreen and Milstop (both potassium bicarbonates) are some of the materials used. But the treatments themselves are only part of the picture.

“The thing with spraying is not just the chemicals you’re using but the coverage,” Sokol Blosser said. “It’s how fast is your tractor going, if your sprayer’s calibrated, how many gallons of water you’re using per acre.”

Instead of spraying every two weeks, the cycle is now every 10 days. In addition, the tractor applying the treatments has been slowed down. “We’re using more water per acre. If we were using 50 to 60 before, we’re using 75 now to really soak the vines.”

For even better efficiency, Nu-Film 17, which is a pine resin extract, is used as a sticker for mildew sprays; whey from the cheesemaking process is the sticker used for the bio-control fungicide Serenade. “Nu-Film 17 is a sticker, but it also has some UV protection for the sulfur (and Serenade) spray, which in my mind is as important as the sticking potential,” Sokol Blosser said.

With the growing popularity of organic production, new OMRI-approved materials are coming out every year, Sokol Blosser said. An example for 2007 is Actinovate, a broad-spectrum, beneficial Streptomyces bacterium used in its spore form to treat both powdery mildew and botrytis.

“One of the big challenges of organic farming is treating diseases once they become established,” Sokol Blosser said. “Most of what you’re doing is preventative. Once you get mildew in your vineyard, there’s no (approved) eradicators.”

One of the companies Sokol Blosser turned to for help in establishing his organic operation was Mark Gibbs of OVS in McMinnville, Ore. OVS also supplies Sokol Blosser and other Oregon vineyards with organic inputs, from fertilizers to foliar sprays.

Gibbs said that around 15 to 20 percent of Oregon winegrape acreage in the Willamette Valley is under certified organic production.

He said Sokol Blosser is representative of other organic winegrape growers in terms of challenges faced.

“They certainly face issues with disease control, particularly powdery mildew, as well as botrytis some years.”

Approved fertilizers offer several alternatives, Gibbs said, including fishmeal and different formulations of chicken and beef byproducts. Gibbs pointed out that livestock byproducts, such as manure and bone meal, don’t have to originate on certified farms to be approved by OMRI. “The animal itself does not have to be certified organic.”

Freelance writer John Schmitz is based in Salem, Ore. E-mail: [email protected].

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