Due to high humidity and the constant pressure from pests and diseases, it’s often said that growing grapes organically (without conventional chemicals) is impossible in the state of Virginia. I contacted Rachel Caggiano, Early Mountain Vineyards’ Marketing Manager to learn more about their initiative that challenges this assumption.
Rachel and I joined EMV’s Wine Maker and Vineyard Manager Jonathan Hollerith for a chat and a stroll along the neat rows of vines to talk about the reality of growing grapes in humid Virginia. Jonathan is uniquely qualified to speak about un-conventional winemaking – his family has a vineyard in Germany, where organic and biodynamic grape growing practices are more established.
Early Mountain is gradually increasing vines grown organically, starting at 60%, then 80%, and today with 90-95% organic. “Next year we’ll go all out and try to get them to 100% organic,” he said, cautioning that success is far from assured, and that if they experience setbacks, they’re fully prepared to tweak the program.
“Grapevines are a product of the environment they’re grown in; the combination of soil composition, water, slope, and weather form what is known as “terroir”. Jonathan went on to explain that Early Mountain Vineyards’ goal is to carefully build the quality of terroir so that the vines will be able to resist pests and threats with their own immune systems.
To build soil, Early Mountain plants cover crops between the rows of vines that increase soil biomass (a very good thing). They also apply biodynamic sprays, that “…contain natural plant extracts, some with anti-fungal capabilities, and others containing invigorating qualities that stimulate the immune system and vigor of the plant.”
Why should wine drinkers care about improved terroir, grapes grown in more “environmentally benign” ways? Jonathan puts it simply, “That’s the secret behind great wine. If you improve the soil, that’s the rising tide, and the vines are the boats. It’s going to lift up the vines, lift up the fruit, and it’s going to lift up the wines.”
After leaving Jonathan and Rachel, I headed to the Early Mountain Vineyards elegant tasting room with gorgeous Blue Ridge mountain views visible through the windows, to sample (and bring home) some Early Mountain wines.
And by the way, “impossible” tastes delicious!
By Steven Swartz