Morning napalm: The other side of the wine industry
By Robert Butler
You've probably heard that iconic cinematic moment in Apocalypse Now from Robert Duvall's character, Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning," he says. "It smells like... victory.”
I am reminded of those lines during grape-growing season on my early-morning walks. You see, I live down the road from a vineyard, and from the very early spring through to the very late fall, an invisible barrier– the smell of pesticides– drifts across the roadway.
Needless to say, upon reaching the vineyard I do an about-face.
I’m always hoping I can continue in that direction since it is picturesque and adds variety to exercise, but it is only during the winter months that I may proceed and fill my lungs with healthful air.
That pesticide smell doesn’t make me think of victory. It makes me think instead of a needless assault upon the environment.
This conflict between the vintner and the natural world is expanding in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As more wineries open their doors and more vines are planted, more acres of soil become a repository for the abundance of chemicals necessary to achieve success in grape production.
The financial success of the wine industry in this state– $750 million a year, according to a recent announcement from the governor– might lead one to believe that Virginia’s climate is a natural for this crop. However, wines have primarily been products from arid regions such as southern Europe and, more historically, the Middle East. There, the growing of grapes is more akin to a naturally occurring phenomenon.
In other words, when the climate is right for a plant, it needs little help to be fruitful and multiply. But in Virginia’s humid and insectivorous environment, commercial wine grape growing owes its existence to the technological advancement of the chemical industry.
I liken the situation to a kind of foreign policy, a form of imperialism, if you will. First, you place a colony of plants in an area where the environment is hostile to them. Then you use all means necessary to suppress, alter, and destroy various aspects of the local environment so that your plants may thrive. Ultimately, the continued survival of the colony depends on an ever-increasing input of support in the form of chemicals.
At the Virginia Tech Extension web page, the list of chemicals mustered in support of viticulture reads like a who’s-who of the pesticide world. There are at least 94 named formulations of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, bactericides, and acaricides to combat at least seven diseases, 17 species of mites and insects, and 65 weeds that– unfortunately for all of the targets– are attracted to vineyards.
The only time grape growers don't need chemical application is when the ground is frozen.
Virtually all agricultural production uses an assortment of pesticides in various quantities depending upon the crop. But can't we stop the poisoning of our soils and ourselves in the name of a leisure activity (wine drinking)?
Don’t get me wrong. In my view, capitalism is the only way to go. I just wish that people were a bit more enlightened. Just because you can do it (make wine grape plants survive in Virginia), it doesn’t mean you should.
Back to the movie. Colonel Kilgore later laments, “One day this war’s gonna end.”
If only that were true in the battle against nature now playing at your local vineyard.
Western Albemarle resident Robert Butler earned his degree in horticulture from Virginia Tech in 1982.Read more on: wine industry