Tradition and Science Strive to Engage and Then Imitate Nature

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Last week I reported on devastating weather in western Europe that severely impacted the potential yield of 2017 grape crops. Throughout France and Italy, 20 to 50 percent of this year’s potential crop may be lost.

The devastation took place unexpectedly and quickly. In only two days, in just a few morning hours, frost hit the affected vineyards, wreaking havoc on emerging vine shoots and buds. Earlier in the month, hailstorms, lasting mere minutes, exacted similar damage in several regions, including the Champagne and Burgundy regions of France.

This is another example of nature’s affinity for the element of misdirection: Vineyard owners in Bordeaux were glowing in the gentleness of an early warm, spring this year; grapevines had begun to produce shoots and buds up to two weeks earlier than normal, portending a strong and longer growing season. Ironically, in a typical year the frost would have occurred when grapevines were still hibernating and buds had not yet emerged. Sacré bleu, what happened to the beneficence of nature?

This week I’m focusing on those means that man has devised and developed to live in harmony with nature and to attempt to appease her with natural measures to mitigate and minimize the destruction wrought by frost and hailstorms.

The traditional means include:

  1. Fire. What better way to combat 20-degree weather in the vineyard than with heat? One traditional frost-preventive method is to place hundreds of oil-burning heaters strategically throughout the vineyards. Another is to transport large drums filled with oil into the vineyards and ignite them. The problem this year is that the early morning frosts hit so quickly and without warning that grape growers were caught off-guard.
  2. Water. Where irrigation sprinklers are available, grape growers spray water on their grapevines. This creates a layer of ice as the water freezes, insulating the tender shoots and buds. This method is employed extensively in the citrus orchards of Florida.
  3. Wind. Giant wind machines are brought into the vineyards to circulate the air and prevent frost. Financially, this is not very practical; and electricity is not always readily available to power the fans.

In recent years, helicopters have been employed to circulate and warm vineyard air. But not this year. In Bordeaux, for example, local laws prevent air traffic before 6:30 a.m. Wily nature decided to strike a few hours before that, wreaking havoc in a matter of minutes.

On to the newest developments in combating frost: Why battle nature when you can become nature?

Glenn McGourty, a farm adviser at the University of California Cooperative Extension, and Professor Steve Lindow, a plant pathologist at the University of California–Berkeley, are researching novel approaches to dealing with frost at the molecular level, rather than the macro level.

Their approaches are organic in nature. In one project, they have isolated “ice nucleating bacteria on the leaves of vegetation, which act as nuclei for formation of ice crystals from moisture in the air.” These bacteria live in the molecular structure of the shoots and buds and then destroy their hosts. The goal? Displace the ice-forming bacteria with a friendly strain. The intended result? Grapevines that are not susceptible to frost. This “biopesticide” may be the ultimate answer to frost resistance for organic vineyard owners. But are they creating a new solution or mimicking nature?

As for the devastating hailstorms mentioned above, man has been forced to live with their randomness and devastation – until recently. Scientists have sought the ultimate organic solution: man-made climate change is now a reality.

Beginning this year, at the threat of a hailstorm, grape growers in Burgundy will launch a “hailstorm shield.” As reported by the British newspaper The Telegraph, a specific geographic area “will be protected by a network of 125 ground generators that cause tiny particles of silver iodide to rise to the clouds above, where they stop the formation of hail stones.”

Man rises to nature’s challenges at every turn. Science in the 21st century strives to imitate nature rather than engage her. Will this new “God-like” endeavor be successful? Perhaps, but always beware of nature’s scorn.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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