Grape Critters

Grape growers are under constant pressure to keep the production of their vineyards high enough to meet the demand of wineries. It’s not an easy task, considering that those same grapes make convenient snacks for all kinds of living things. Grape growers spend thousands of dollars a year ridding their vineyards of pests that range from microscopic organisms to turkey and deer. Simply put, critters want to enjoy your grapes before you do, and they will stop at nothing to get them.

Even without critters, the Finger Lakes Region poses challenges for grape growers. The cool climate ensures that proper ripening is never a foregone conclusion, and growers have to work hard to keep the fruit exposed to precious warmth and sunshine.

Ironically, the same elements that make the region beautiful – the rural towns, broad forests and fertile soil – provide an ideal habitat for countless numbers of creatures that view the vineyards as an easy food source.

Spraying for mildew and fungus
The most common vineyard predators hardly capture the imagination, but they represent the most significant challenges to grape growers. Various forms of mildew can spread quickly over a vineyard, wrecking entire clusters of grapes. Good growers have to anticipate problems by understanding which varieties of grapes are susceptible to mildew and keeping a constant eye on the weather, says Warren Colvin, vineyard manager at White Springs Winery in Geneva. “Damp and warm weather can cause mildew, and during some bad summers we have to spray every few weeks to keep up.”

Another problem that can strike a vineyard is fungus, which is called botrytis or bunch rot. While a touch of botrytis is in some cases desirable to concentrate flavors late in the harvest, during the growing season it can quickly overtake the grapes before they reach maturity. “You have to be ready for botrytis at any time,” Colvin warns. “The only way to handle it if it gets out of control is with a broad spectrum spray.”

He stresses that good vineyard practices, like keeping the vines far enough apart and the leaf canopy open for air circulation, is the best way to prevent mildew and fungus problems to begin with.

Running from hornets
Insects are known to cause serious vineyard problems, and these pests can include cane borers, mites, leafhoppers and the infamous Japanese beetle. They are not a huge problem every year, but when Japanese beetles are active they can cause a great deal of damage to the foliage that the vines need for photosynthesis and fruit production.

Insects that do not feed directly on the vines can also threaten grape farming.

Steve Shaw, owner and winemaker at Shaw Vineyards in Himrod and a 30-year grower, describes an incident that derailed his work in the field. “One day I was on my tractor mowing weeds between the vines, and I ran over a nest of ground hornets. The swarm came up at me, so I got off my tractor and ran as fast as I could. I had to wait for hours as the swarm attacked my tractor again and again, and it was in idle the entire time. Finally, when it started to get dark, the hornets stopped attacking and I snuck back to the tractor so I could turn it off.”

Moving up the food chain
It is inevitable that birds will pick a grape here and there, but the real danger to crops is a large flock of migratory birds such as starlings. If a flock of several thousand descends on a vineyard, the birds can consume a huge amount of grapes.

“One morning a flock of starlings ate over three tons of Chardonnay grapes,” relates Chris Verril, independent grower and owner of Harvest Ridge Vineyards in Ovid. “That was an entire acre’s worth of grapes.”

Like Verril, many growers are forced to net their plants every season lest the birds get the grapes before the winemakers have a crack at them. “Netting is important, otherwise you can lose a lot of grapes to birds in the fall.”

Several other animals make the list of grape predators. Turkeys can be voracious grape eaters, along with woodchucks, rabbits and raccoons. Most of these animals can be deterred by netting or a low-charged electrical wire.

In an interesting twist, the re-emergence of many different species of birds of prey in the Finger Lakes may help keep the ecosystem in balance and take some pressure off the vineyards. Grape growers mention that they have seen an increase in the activity of red-tailed hawks, which swoop down and capture small mammals that are otherwise distracted by the low-hanging bounty on the vine.

Chasing off the deer
No matter whom you speak with in the Finger Lakes grape-growing community, deer are always referred to as the most difficult animal to keep away from the vineyard. Not only are they large creatures with big appetites, they are also relentless, bold and cannot always be chased off.

The damage a small herd of deer can cause is significant. Phil Davis, grower, winemaker and owner of Damiani Wine Cellars in Hector, points to the economic impact that deer can have on an entire wine operation as the costs compound from two-and-a-half tons of Cabernet Sauvignon. That’s a loss of about $6,500 for the grape grower, but if you look at the final price of the wine it’s nearly a $50,000 loss in potential wine sales.”

To control the deer and other grape eaters, Davis netted his vineyards to the tune of $1,200 an acre, which in his mind is a sound, long-term investment.

Davis cites a decrease in seasonal hunting as one of the main reasons deer have become a nuisance. While the New York Department of Environmental Conservation allows grape growers and other farmers to apply for nuisance permits to hunt deer throughout the year, most grape growers find that this solution works only for a year or two before new deer move into that area to take the former herd’s place. There are so many deer that vineyards will always prove a tempting source of food.

Chris Verril felt particularly threatened as deer kept mowing down the new 10,000-vine vineyard that he planted in 1999, to the tune of 300 plants a night. Instead of obtaining a nuisance permit or employing other popular methods, he purchased two Siberian huskies and surrounded his 38-acre property with an invisible fence.

“The dogs keep the deer out,” he says. “They rarely have to chase or attack. They roam all over the property and their scent is enough to scare off the deer. And they are great dogs, really friendly to people.”

What about the ultimate grape predators of the two-legged variety? Phil Davis remembers his father having to chase down some out-of-state vacationers who refused to acknowledge that entire sacks of grapes had any value. The local sheriff disagreed with them that it was an innocent crime. Steve Shaw recalls an individual who used to pilfer grapes from one of his vineyards and only stopped after being caught red-handed.

Thankfully, most humans prefer to wait until the grapes make it through the winery before enjoying them. Winemakers and consumers alike rely on the grape growers to ensure that animals do not provide too much competition. It is a cliché that winemaking starts in the vineyard, but in many respects, winemaking relies on the grape growers to be diligent and protect the precious fruit from diseases, insects, birds and all sorts of critters. After all, there are plenty of other food options for most animals, although we can hardly blame them for trying.

by Jason Feulner

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