It’s early evening, late August.
The sun is shining on the other side of the valley, somewhere in Central Eastern France.
Everyone is on holiday except JP. He’s a winegrower and he’s in his vineyard, on the tractor.
The air is still and dry. But he’s worried about rain. Storms come quickly this time of year: ideal conditions for pests, fungi and disease.
JP is doing what’s called 'preventative spraying'. He’s doing it with phytosanitary plant protection products (PPPs); chemicals to you and me. He does it because the received wisdom is spray sulphate is when the winds are down.
His vines, like all others, are exceptionally fragile plants and easy targets for pests. In their defence most growers have inherited the postwar mantra of beating back their insect and plant foe with a cocktail of chemicals.
Today’s effort is one of the twenty ‘sprayings’ JP and other winegrowers like him do each year. It’s because of this the wine industry is by far the country’s largest consumer of plant protection products.
The Champagne region, France’s northernmost wine region, takes pole position in the vine spraying rankings. It used a quarter of the industry’s plant protection products in 2016.
But this story is not just about France and JP.
Spain, Italy and Germany are also super-users of these products. In fact, due to weaker regulation, the picture is even worse beyond Europe. Spraying the way JP does is common practice for conventional, industrialised vineyards the world over.
The wine industry has been hiding behind the fact that pesticide residues are rarely found in wine. According to the Institut Rhodanien, the pesticides found in the end product, wine, is significantly below the maximum authorised for grapes in Europe.
But the real tragedy is these chemicals linger in nature.
They affect fauna and flora, and more than decimate insect pollinators. In some places local rivers, which effectively act as a drain for these products, are changed beyond belief.
We need to wake up
We are collectively putting our ecosystems, and ourselves in danger.
The impact on people’s health from spraying is significant: increased rates of endocrine disrupters and cancers at a local level. Families exposed to these sprays are terrified and naturally are demanding a minimum safe distance between spray zones and their homes.
How did we get here?
How has it come to this? Surely we have to change our industry because the status quo is intolerable.
It’s easy to think that systemic change is the only real option, and you’d be right. But the hard truth is it takes time and money. Both of which are in short supply for the likes of JP.
Now let's take a moment to get to know JP a bit more. He took over from his father over 30 years ago.
He produces on average 50,000 bottles a year. No mean feat, but nothing like the big brands. Spraying helps his production to be more consistent, which in lean years is vitally important, as margins are tight. A drop in production can easily mean curtains for the family vineyard.
So, faced with the cold hard reality of finance set against the burning issue of biodiversity loss and climate change, what options does JP really have?
Let’s take the high road first. JP could:
Seek Biodynamic certification. For us at Altitude Wines, this is the gold standard for growers because of its holistic approach, but it is tough to achieve.
Get Organic certification. Perhaps slightly less stringent, but definitely a step in the right direction when it comes to spraying
Adopt natural winemaking processes: this is more a general philosophy not an audited programme with certification.
Or he could just keep doing what he does and hope no one notices.
It takes time to convert vineyards. And it takes money. A reduction in postwar industrial practice means an increase in human labour. And as we’ve already said, without chemicals producers have less control over their yields. Which again means curtains to the family business.
It’s pretty clear that JP can’t just be left to do this on his own. As a small producer, he can’t risk the lean years that inevitably will come round without the backbone of industrialised management of pestilence to get him through.
In fact very few vineyards can. Even after decades of evidence of a changing climate and its dire consequences only 16% of wine in the Occitanie region (France’s largest producer of organic wines) is classified organic. Put another way, 84% of producers in the leading French organic region still use conventional industrialised processes that lead to biodiversity collapse and a human health crisis.
Is there a way out of this?
Yes. First things first: we need to get our confidence back.
We can’t rely on postwar doctrine to get us out of this hole. WE need to get ourselves out of it. WE need to work out the new economics.
The first obvious step for us at Altitude Wines is to only stock sustainable wine.
Second, we need to work together in new ways. People like JP need investment and partnership to survive. At Altitude Wines we will invest half our profits in helping producers like JP put an end to their postwar practices and convert to a more sustainable approach, whether they’re in La Salta, Argentina, the Arbois in Jura, France or Kent.