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08.29.2007

The Inexact and Ancient "Science" of Growing Stuff

Farmers, that is, people who spend pretty much all day trying to coax living things out of the soil are a real enigma. They are some of the most genuine, inspiring, hard working and determined people I have ever met. They are also some of the most superstitious, irrational folks I've ever had to deal with.

While the existence of modern science and big agro-businesses like Monsanto can easily lull us into believing that growing stuff is pretty much a science at this point, all you gotta do is ride around on a tractor for a day, or walk through a vineyard for an afternoon to know that even those folks that deploy sensor mesh networks and utilize satellite thermal imaging to do their farming still rely on a lot of gut, and a lot of tradition to do what they do.

And like a lot of stuff that we do "just because that's the way we've always done it" some modern viticultural practices are actually complete bunk. Now I'm sure that there are a lot of them that are fantastically effective, and many notions of the right way to farm a vineyard are held up as powerfully true by science all the time. But we don't tend to hear about science proving those old farmers right, because that's a boring story.

What we do hear about, and what always pique my interest, are the stories where a little experimentation shows that what we've always believed to be true, just isn't.

In a recent article in Wines & Vines Magazine, Paul Franson shares some of the latest scientific research into the effects of certain viticultural practices that are commonly accepted as beneficial, but upon further analysis turn out to be, well, not so important.

Now before I set you loose on the claims reported in this article, it's worth mentioning that because of how many variables are involved in farming and winemaking, many of which are difficult to control enough to result in scientifically comparable results, any study which claims to "prove" that something works or does not needs to be scrutinized heavily and replicated several times under various conditions.

So what have we been wrong about all these years?

1. Lowering yields in vineyards by dropping fruit does not mean higher quality fruit. Winemakers like to boast about how they restrict yields on their vines by dropping lots of fruit to the ground so that the vine can "concentrate" on ripening the remaining few clusters fully. Apparently this practice has no scientifically measurable impact on wine quality.

2. Complex vertical vine training does not inherently mean higher quality fruit. Not only does this sort of trellising not seem to have a consistent effect on the quality of the fruit produced, it's also a heck of a lot more expensive.

3. Deficit irrigation (restricting watering of vines during certain periods of growth or maturity) works at some points but not at others. Apparently this technique (used primarily in the New World) is overused, having positive effects early in the season, but little or even detrimental effects late in the season.

Makes me shake my head in wonder at all the times I've heard folks talk about stressing their vines and dropping fruit and the effort and time they put into their trellising. I'm sure some of that effort and faith is not misplaced, but I'd sure like to know how many more high effort, high cost, high faith vineyard and winemaking practices don't bear up to the scrutiny of a little scientific investigation. Anyone want to do a control against a buried cow horn?

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