Strategies for Optimizing Energy and Farming Efficiency

Editor’s Note: This originally ran in the March/April edition of Vintner Magazine

Winemakers everywhere are doing their part to be good stewards of their resources and the environment, optimize efficiency and do more with less staff in both their vineyards and their wineries.

Setting yourself up to be green and conserve manpower is certainly not inexpensive, said Chris Pearmund, owner of Pearmund Cellars in Virginia, but it’s well worth it. He suggested designing your facilities with the sun, wind, and shade at different seasons in mind and spending the extra money at the outset with future savings in mind.

Pearmund Cellars had a geo-thermal system installed in 2002 that its owner said is still working with no issues. The same is true for Pearmund’s other wineries: Vint Hill, built in 2009; Effingham, built in 2015; and Barrel Oak, built in 2007.  

“Energy is an upfront consideration — invest now, or pay more later. Having built four wineries with geo-thermal technology, savings are huge,” Pearmund explained. “Upfront is much more, but it’s well worth the effort over time.   

“It’s the same with (installing) insulation, higher quality doors, hinges and windows at design/construction phase.”

Bel Lago Vineyards & Winery in Michigan is among many in the wine businesses in the Midwest that is aiming for sustainability in its vineyard, looking to minimize its impact on the environment while optimizing efficiency, owner Charles Edson said.

“We maintain natural areas around the edge of the vineyards as reservoirs for beneficial insect species,” Edson said. “Similarly, we mow the vineyards infrequently, mowing every other row when we do mow. This reduces tractor/fuel use; reduces compaction in and around the vineyard and allows natural plant species to grow and flower in the rows, increasing habitat for beneficial insects.”

Bel Lago also uses canopy design and management in conjunction with crop control to help them produce top quality grapes. 

“Our goal is to create a vine where the leaves, grapes and root system are in optimal balance, the fruit is exposed to sunlight and good airflow and there are enough leaves to adequately ripen the grapes present,” Edson said. “We use six different trellis systems in our vineyards matched to the varying growth habits of the many varieties we grow.” 

Some of Bel Lago’s practices increase the complexity of managing the vineyards as well as the training needed for vineyard staff, Edson admitted.

“However, it helps us improve yield and quality overall,” Edson said. “We also have the added factor of maintaining vine cold hardiness to insure survival during our cold winters. This starts with vineyard site selection and is bolstered by choosing suitable viticultural practices.”  

Equipment and strategy help Bel Lago conserve energy and labor costs in the vineyard.

“We have added a mechanical hedger and a leaf blower to help us manage the grapevine canopy in a timely manner and reduce labor costs and the need for fungicide sprays, and hence, input costs,” Edson said. “We fertilize infrequently based on monitoring vine vigor and yield performance, the observation of deficiency symptoms and testing. We use fertigation and foliar applied fertilizers rather than ground applied fertilizer to save energy, efficiently target application and to lower the amount of fertilizer applied.”

Compost and mulch are being added at planting with a goal to improve soil quality as Bel Lago expands its vineyards.  

Fungicides are applied based on scouting the vineyard to reduce the number of sprays required annually (compared to a calendar-based schedule), which also reduces tractor/sprayer use.  

“We use a sprayer that provides excellent targeted coverage that allows us typically to use less than the lowest labeled rates of the materials that we apply,” Pearmund said. “We base our selection of materials on low toxicology profiles, with many being registered for use in organic production systems. We rarely spray insecticides, averaging less than 0.4 sprays annually over 30 years. In addition to the well-known European V. vinifera varieties, we also grow several acres of disease resistant varieties that further help us reduce fungicide inputs.”

Pearmund also looks to limit herbicide applications to one early application per year at low rates, desiring weeds to regrow under the trellis as the season progresses. 

“Our goal has been to reduce weed competition during early vine growth and flowering and to have weeds regrow during the season to improve the community structure of soil organisms as the season progresses,” he said.“We are in the process of eliminating herbicides completely to further those goals and have been exploring select ground covers as part of the vineyard floor management system.”  

Edson said the challenge with successful viticulture was to find ways to minimize input and intervention in a way that maximizes quality and maintains a sustainable yield while maintaining acceptable vine structure and health — including soil health.  

And of course, lessons have been learned along the way.

“We have pushed the envelope a bit too far over the years, occasionally suffering crop loss or driving down vine vigor in the process as we learn the limits and how to effectively and efficiently apply certain strategies,” Edson said. “We experiment constantly in both the vineyard and cellar, always looking to improve the quality of our wines and the efficiency of our processes and the sustainability of our vineyard and winemaking practices.” 

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