After I became the director of a vineyard management company in Napa, I learned quickly the difference between how a well managed company like my previous employer, E&J Gallo, handled problems compared to other less functional companies. Their systems, processes, and proactive farming practices were things that I could only appreciate when they weren’t at my disposal. Let me be clear, it doesn’t require the prowess of a billion dollar company to avoid viticultural problems. It makes it easier, but problems still have to be corrected. I resolved many problems of a million dollar company, but I could have done most of it more efficiently if I worried less about the cost of overreacting and more about the risk of under-reacting.
I began operating a 65-acre vineyard in southern Napa. This vineyard was 20-years-old and had seen its fair share of neglect. It had three varieties: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Syrah. At that time, I had no idea how bad the phomopsis, eutypa, and mildew had been in previous years. There were no systems in place for communicating historical issues, and nobody in the company was looking for them, including me. Welcome to life outside of E&J Gallo…
I started just in time to begin fungicide sprays. I started on a Monday morning and began spraying on Tuesday night. My instructions for this vineyard were simple and sharp: cut the farming cost, stop losing money. I fired up the first spray of the season with a Mettle 125/JMS Oil. I figured I might as well start pinching pennies from the start. To save a few more dollars, my second spray was only Quintec. Pinching pennies didn’t seem that hard…
Sadly, losing dollars was the result of pinching pennies. Southern Napa can have very windy days because it is situated just off San Pablo Bay. While these are not West Texas winds, it’s still windy. On May 7th, we had one of those windy days, which caused a ton of shoots to break off the vines. We lost 15-20% of shoots, especially in the cane pruned blocks, which meant at least 15-20% less clusters. I investigated the problem and found phomopsis everywhere. Eutypa everywhere. Old powdery mildew lesions everywhere. Phomopsis combined with eutypa makes an unforgiving combo. And my penny pinching spray program… well, it covered none of that. Great start to my mission to “stop losing money”. Needless to say, we lost money in the 2015 season.
We found phomopsis everywhere. Eutypa everywhere. Old powdery mildew lesions everywhere.
OK. Let’s try this again. I started with Abound/Sulfur as my first fungicide spray and Mettle/Sulfur as my second spray. I figured I would start strong with the Abound and still be cost conscious with the Mettle. While this showed some improvement, we still saw shoot breakage around 10% when we were hit with a high wind event in early May. Better, but still not good enough, and we only made a little money that year. What the heck, man?
Third time’s a charm? I was done playing around at this point. I was not going to let it get the best of me. I started out big from the start with a post-pruning spray of Topin M and Vitiseal. Then my first fungicide spray was Dithane and Rally, and my second spray was Abound and Sulfur. That translates to about an extra $160/ac in costs. And guess what? No breakage in shoots when the winds kicked up in May. Guess what else?!?! We made money off this vineyard in 2017. BOOM!
Turns out, the primary reason this vineyard was losing money was because the eutypa and phomopsis had not been addressed for MANY, many years. The overwintering and in-season fungi had been left to roam free. This was laying waste to the vineyard by the reduction in healthy cordons and spurs from eutypa, and the severe breakage of fragile shoots caused by phomopsis. It took me three years to fully resolve it, but make no mistake, I should have been able to fix it faster.
The reason it took so long was because I trusted too easily, and I addressed the symptom, not the cause. Initially, I was told that there were never any issues with trunk pathogens or disease. I was told that we needed to cut the costs in order to stop losing money on the vineyard. I believed everything I was told without having any resources to verify it. What I could not see, was the reality that the vineyard was in a death spiral. Big problems were going unaddressed; they cut costs to compensate, which meant they had more problems and then had to cut more costs… you get the idea.
In actuality, the vineyard had serious problems with cordon and trunk death and high disease pressure. The reason it wasn’t making money was not the lack of cost management, but the lack of revenue. I finally righted the ship by realizing that I had to spend money on better fungicide practices in order to generate more revenue. Now, I can spot vineyards in a death spiral like a hawk. Sadly, it took me failing several times and several ways to get to where I am now. Hopefully you are able to solve your vineyard problems faster than I did!
A guy I used to work with always said, “It doesn’t take any talent to spend money.” While this is true, it also doesn’t take any talent to spend NO money. The real talent is spending money efficiently and with purpose. I see a good deal of phomopsis and eutypa in Texas High Plains vineyards. Don’t be like the young me. Trust me. It’s way better to take action before it eats your lunch!