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.

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I just wish that people were a bit more enlightened. Maybe you should think about pesticides before buying a home next to an agriculture operation. Should we also not spray our potatos, soy, corn, apples? Capitalism is the way to go. Ok so supply will meet demand one spray or the other. No spray= bugs eat all your crop and your farm is the next new subdivision. One day the idealist will have to face reality and be tempered by it. Just because you can buy a house near an ag operation doe not mean that you should.

For someone with a horticultural degree, this article is remarkably inaccurate. Most area vineyards use a BT product for pesticide relief ( - BTs are allowed in certified organic farming. Fungicides and other sprays are used more frequently in Virginia than in other grape growing regions but much effort is put into keeping them as harmless as possible. Several of the sprays are just foliar enhancements, such as Calcium, Potassium, and Magnesium - not quite the "pesticides" you refer to.

But it smells yucky! And now brunch is ruined for the third time this week goshdarnit! Maybe dude should move to belmont where it smells like crack and septic.

"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."

Just because there are 94 formulations available, doesn't mean that all of them, or any of them, are used in this vineyard. And a bad smell doesn't tell you anything either. Many organic products, including compost and manure, can have unpleasant odors.

Virginia does have native grapes. They are not used for commercial wine production. But you would be hard pressed to find any commercial wineries anywhere in the world that use pure native grapes, most of them are cultivars.

If you don't like the smell of agriculture, move back to the city with the smell of factories, trash, etc. And stop supporting agricultural industries if you don't agree with them; grow your own food and drink in whatever you believe is the "natural way".

WOW! This article bothers me for several reasons. An industry that brings 750 million a year to Virginia must be doing some research on this topic. Perhaps that research is being done at Virginia Tech or by private firms with an interest in agriculture.

I have some expertise in farm fertilizer and damage to the Chesapeake Bay watershed and the streams and rivers flowing into the bay. My sense is that some farmers are using more natural fertilizer and pest control. Farms are fenced off from these water sources to keep cattle out of the water.

Good capitalism suggests that those who find solutions to problems usually make money. Let's look for a solution for this issue.

I am a vineyard manager in western Albemarle, perhaps the vineyard you find so offensive is the one I manage. You are correct that without chemical input wine grapes would not ripen a crop usable for the production of wine in the mid-Atlantic region. That is true of many crops, not just grapes. By your logic "when the climate is right for a plant, it needs little help to be fruitful and multiply", I agree, the mid Atlantic region is considered sub-tropical. We have an abundant variety of plants that thrive here. Very little of it is used in food production, whether for leisure or survival. I disagree with your singling out wine grape production as a folly of leisure. Many will argue that the crafting of fine wines is one of the few proofs that we may actually be civilized. As you state the successful production of all commercial agricultural crops relies on some level of chemical input. I would also argue that all commercial agricultural endeavors are a "battle against nature", after all, nature hates a void. Anywhere and everywhere you find a cultivated crop it is invasive, something else was there before which was removed for the purpose of planting the new crop. Your argument of "just because we can doesn't mean we should" applies to all commercial food production world wide. The clearing of land for the production of food is by far the single most destructive activity of man. If you enjoy eating you are contributing to the cause of the invading army.

Your attack of our industry is misleading. I encourage you to visit a vineyard operation and inquire about their pesticide program. Perhaps you would be enlightened to the reality that it is hardly as abusive as you believe. This is my eighth season at my vineyard site. I have yet to spray an aracnicide. I haven't used any insecticide other than an organic/biological for the last three seasons. We use no pre-emergent herbicides. The two main chemicals that are the backbone of our fungicide program are OMRI approved for organic production. One of which has been used in grape production for hundreds of years in the very grape growing regions you state to be appropriate for grape growing. In fact modern spray programs for grapes are still based on research developed in France, whom many would site as the premier wine grape region on the planet.

We, and all grape growers I know, only use chemical spray when it is necessary. If you can stand to take a walk in the middle of July when it is 90+ degrees and hasn't rained in weeks, you will not smell chemicals in our vineyard. It might interest you to know that in 2009 we went 30 days without applying chemicals during the heat of summer, and close to 45 days in 2010. Yes there are at least 94 named formulations of pesticides approved for use on grapes in Virginia. There is no one vineyard that has used them all. They are options, tools to go in the tool box. We in the industry are very aware of the dangers of abusing these options. Virginia Tech Cooperative Extension and the Virginia Vineyards Association focus very heavily on educating grape growers to be good stewards of the land. We are currently developing a workbook for sustainable vineyard practices. We strive to produce a high quality crop with as few inputs as possible. It just so happens that some of the tools we use have an odor.

I don't know whats worse, polluting the ground so winos can have a good time or polluting the tax code with tax breaks and tax credits so winos can have a good time. So much for capitalism.

I am glad that some folks recognize that arid regions are the proper home for the wine grape, and that growing them in their proper climate ultimately diminishes the need for chemical inputs. With that in mind, there is a burgeoning wine industry down in Arizona at this very instant that is putting out shockingly good wines in a manner that eliminates many of the concerns raised by this article. You can find some of these wines at stores around here, but they are not easy to get your hands on unless you go to the internet.

I walked outside today and thought I was in Arizona it was so arid, about as arid as the states tax coffers after handing out tax credits to vintners.

I do think this is interesting, though. I'm a big Virginia wine fan, and have wondered how and if the state can play a role in the growing field of organic or biodynamic or "natural" wines. I have no idea what the answer is, but would be surprised if it was an impossibility.

I hear Afghanistan and Iran are nice this time of year. And the only crop they grow is opium poppies. They blow up their children before they are even grown (fertilizer?). Some folks might even be willing to pay for a one-way ticket for you and your ag degree.