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Natural predators help vintners go organic

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California is not only home to many of the world’s finest wines, but also to some of the industry’s most progressive vineyards. So why isn’t organic California wine more common? An increasing number of vintners are investigating ways to meet the demand for organic, but for many of them, the use of pesticides to alleviate crop-damaging bugs is tough to avoid.

That may soon change. Researchers from the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management are working with growers in Napa and Sonoma Counties to perfect the art of vineyard “biocontrol” — promoting communities of natural predators to thwart harmful insects like leafhoppers and vine mealybugs.

Professor Miguel Altieri and Cooperative Extension Specialist Kent Daane, along with agroecology graduate students Albie Miles, Houston Wilson, and Paul Roge, are investigating a variety of biocontrol strategies, such as intercropping flowering groundcover with the wine grapes to promote natural predators.

If David Gates, vice president of vineyard operations for Ridge Vineyards, is any indication, once growers see the effects of increasing biodiversity in the vineyard, they will be sold. Gates has already begun to implement what he’s learned from the research plots in Sonoma County in his vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains, turning, as he says, theory into practicality. And that’s exactly what the Berkeley researchers have in mind.

-Cyril Manning

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