Winter is behind us and vineyards are coming out of their long sleep. Fuzzy green envelopes of tiny leaves unfold with the warming weather. These shoots will grow a little longer and produce new leaves every few days this month on their way to becoming the canopy from which grapes will hang this summer.
Available nitrogen in vineyard soils is crucial for a healthy canopy that will grow to support the summer’s fruit. Good Juice farmers often plow in natural compost, sometimes in combination with nitrogen-fixing cover crops like sweet peas and fava beans to get their vines the nutrients they need. Sometimes they leave every other row unturned to rest their soil and encourage supportive microbiological ecosystems that support their vines, retain moisture, and prevent erosion.
In other vineyards, many conventional grape farmers rely on industrial fertilizers to feed their plants and use a combination of herbicides and plowing to keep rows dead clear of competing biodiversity. In time, they lose precious topsoil, and carcinogenic chemicals take their toll on the land, the people that apply them, and the people that drink the finished wines.
Early in my career in the wine valley west of Barcelona, a great winegrower showed me his neighbor’s twenty-year-old conventionally farmed vines. They were stained black with odium, anemic and soon to be ripped out, their naked rootstocks six inches above bare clay as a marker of topsoil lost. Just up the hill, his septuagenarian vines flourished amongst grasses and flowers buzzing with life. He explained: vines are like people. isolate and pamper them and they’re miserable. they grow weakly and they are fed, they sicken easily and they are given medicine, spoiled and characterless. put them out in the world and give them guidance and they will learn to fend for themselves, grow from their struggles and have wisdom to share.