Pinot Noir Veraison

August 2023 - Apocalypse

Unbeknownst to me as August broke, metaphoric storm clouds were gathering. In that blissful state of ignorance, we left July’s Chronicle questioning whether veraison (the last stage of grape ripening when the berries turn color) was in play for the Pinot Noir. The first few days of August proved it out. The timing seemed early for our valley from my observations and other growers I talked with, but no mind. Riesling, the always vigorous grower (envision hacking through the Amazon jungle as you work the rows), reverses its growth course for grapes as one of the later varietals to ripen, i.e., no show of veraison yet. 

Covered in previous Chronicle episodes, the greatest challenge this season involves unwanted pests. Other tasks kept me busy as well, including planting new grafted rootstock, funneling vine growth, keeping trellis wires tight, and weeding. The vines and resulting grape clusters were healthy and beautiful. Things were progressing nicely for our first year of grapes, for winemaking.

During early August with Pinot’s varaison underway and Riesling undoubtedly around the corner, the excitement of nurturing grapes to harvest and winemaking was now tasting wonderfully palatable. Along with the anticipation of what ripening brings, comes an interest from the local fauna in the increasing sugar level of the grapes.

Pinot Noir grapes behind netting

An often experienced problem after veraison is damage caused by birds. Ripening grapes are akin to sweet nectar globules for many bird species, a meal if not protected can’t be ignored. Vineyard growers may attempt several bird control approaches such as using shiny metallics, movement-activated loud noise devices, large owl statuettes, and even repellent sprays. But the single most comprehensive deterrent is netting—physically keeping birds and their pesky beaks away from the grape clusters.

As my preferred strategy, I needed to determine the type of netting for my situation. Common in commercial vineyards are nets covering the entire vine across the top and bottom, with an opening for the vine trunk. The other approach is side nets, which cover the sides of vines and associated grape clusters, which are clipped at the bottom and top restricting access. 

Side netting was an easy decision for me since it’s relatively simple to deploy given my one-person operation. Using the Gorilla Cart, I inserted a wooden pole in the sidewall, slid a roll of netting onto the pole, and worked my way down each row applying the netting between the trellis poles, clipping top and bottom.

Applying bird netting
Rolling out the netting clipping between trellis poles
Applied bird netting
Finished netting in place, with clusters well protected at the bottom

One morning during the third week of the month, I was blissfully working through the day’s news on the patio when I witnessed Bella—Airedale extraordinaire—shaking her head attempting to rid herself of a few harassing yellow jackets. Conceivably, she had come across a nest. Ehmmm…perhaps time to put out yellow jacket traps in the vineyard. Seeing yellow jacket traps around the valley hung at the end of vineyard rows or along fence lines is not an uncommon sight. Walking my rows didn’t produce many yellow jacket sightings but it was possibly a good idea to deploy a few traps. Better safe than sorry.

Deploying a few traps along my wildlife fence quickly changed the dynamics.

"Total annihilation has a way of sharpening people's minds" -
Yuval Noah Harari, 21 Lessons for the 21st century

Yellow jackets swarmed to the traps (good) but also picked up on the now fully red and ripening Pinot Noir berries (bad). After a day or two of observing the ever-increasing number of yellow jackets around the grapes and traps, I questioned whether the traps prompted the onslaught or if the deployment was perfectly timed to it. As I watched the Pinot grapes begin to unravel, I leaned towards blaming the traps but by now, it was emotional—and it didn’t matter the cause, the plague was upon us.

Pinot Noir grape cluster
The untouched cluster side
Grape cluster ravaged by yellow jackets
The other ravished cluster side

Time for enhanced action. I purchased every trap in the valley. I borrowed four. I found bag traps at the local Earth Friendly Supply store (think stinky bag fly traps), which appeared to be the most effective. The water in the bag traps evaporates within a week losing effectiveness, so I’d refill the traps with a a sugar and cider recipe. I began a twice-daily spraying program using PyGanic, an organic contact insecticide. Janine researched and found spearmint oil as a potential deterrent. She deployed spearmint-soaked cotton balls and ends of swabs guarding the clusters attached to the netting. I also spoke with two valley growers, who graciously provided advice.

Within a week after the yellow jackets took interest in the Pinot, they turned their attention to the Riesling, now well into veraison. 

The exercise was akin to thwarting the zombie hordes in World War Z—near impossible. Would we ever get over the hump?

Good state of unaffected Riesling end of month
Poor state of affected Riesling end of month

Whether our yellow jacket strategies were working remained an open question by the end of the month. Much of the Pinot Noir was decimated—50% +? Though Riesling was hanging on. Seemingly hundreds of yellow jackets had been captured in the traps or killed by daily spraying. Yet, they kept coming. 

Having begun their eating frenzy in June, grasshoppers were also not letting up. They munched on grape leaves, which due to strong new vine and leaf growth are better suited to withstand the onslaught. But many of the vegetables in the garden beds had succumbed. 

2023 might go down as the year of insect apocalypse. 

I was also coming to realize some of the grape damage might not be all yellow jacket-related. As covered in July’s Chronicle, I significantly cleared the lower grapevine leaf canopies facilitating air circulation but exposing the clusters to a lot of sun. I worried leaf plucking may have been overdone, a rookie mistake. There is a chance a percentage of the grape shriveling and darker copper Riesling hues might be from sunburn. A mother nature double whammy.

We now briefly interrupt our regular programming for a weather report, a tamer subject with no impactful events involving rain, wind and storms—we should count our blessings.

The diurnal shift is the difference between the average daytime high temp and average low temp. Large diurnal shifts greater than 30 allow grapes to maintain higher acidity.

August was reasonably mild, with more moderate temps and less wind than July. The weather data between 2023 and 2022 varies little. While the dry trend continued, the last half of August experienced .8 inches of rain. The amounts of each rain event were low, on average .08 to .12 inches—with the resulting impact on the overall dry trend experienced since mid-May barely breached.

2022 to 2023 rain amount comparison—2023 dryness since May easily seen

I dislike leaving the month in a negative tone. We must see through the challenges and recognize their value. Next year can and will be different. 

Deploying a comprehensive yellow jacket program beginning with trap deployment in April should kill most of the queens, which in turn produces the workers now being killed en mass. Finding and destroying nests is another effective approach, though challenging in our landscape context surrounded by fields, rocks, and an adjacent ravine with open water. Yet in the spring with the vegetation less plentiful, we hope for success. The use of small woven bags with a drawstring, which can be easily deployed around grape clusters to stop insects in their tracks is another tactic—no sugar for you! 

Yellow Jacket on grape
Little yellow and black bugger
Grasshopper on grape cluster
The grasshoppers are in on the act

Should the new strategies prove less impactful than hoped in 2024, small weave netting may be in the cards for 2025. As the name implies, the small weaving serves in restricting smaller pests, including most incests and birds.

A vineyard’s third year or third leaf as the professionals refer to it, is the first year with grapes. Challenges should be expected and welcomed. How else are we to learn, grow and prosper in the next, and future years? We must continue the march, for the season is not complete. Birds have not yet shown an interest in the grapes and they’re a couple of rungs higher on the intelligence ladder than insects! 

See you next month in the vineyard…

2 thoughts on “August 2023 – the Apocalypse”

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your “ diary”….wow what nature brings! I love your writing and your spirit to learn more and to keep moving!

    Beautiful grapes! You have accomplished so much in three years…

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