by Eileen Weber
My family and I just returned from a long-awaited two-week vacation in France. A few lovely days in Paris bookending a stay at a country house in the middle of the Champagne region was just what the doctor ordered. The house was surrounded by vineyards consisting of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier, and Chardonnay grapes. What could be more bucolic than the pure essence of “green” Europe?
That is, until I saw the pesticide spraying. They sprayed the fields using farming equipment reminiscent of Transformers, the alien robot toys manufactured by Hasbro. The U.S. may have Extreme Sports. But France, apparently, has Extreme Farming.
These tractors have wheels large enough that, if placed on their side, would seat a party of 12 comfortably for dinner. Add to that a tall compartment where the driver sits and these “arms” that fold up like stork wings when not in use. (These contraptions provide some extra fun when passing them on winding, hairpin turns. Just so you know, a few well-placed hand gestures can transcend any language barriers.)
But it isn’t just the tractors. One balmy evening, my family and I sat outside to eat dinner on the stone patio adjacent to the open kitchen. It was exactly what I had come to the French countryside for: a light, soft breeze, the dimming rays of sunlight, mussels in white wine sauce, a mesclun salad in a light vinaigrette with a crusty baguette and a bottle of bubbly to wash it all down.
All was well until a helicopter flew past and began to crop dust. With precision and skill, the pilot darted around the vines like a pollinating bee. So much for eating à la terrace. Bon appétit!
Europe has made great strides to be environmentally friendly—so much more so than the United States. Their efforts to Reduce-Reuse-Recycle have preceded us by several years. We are sadly lagging behind them in so many ways. Because of that, I was surprised to see such wide-spread pesticide use.
I’m not entirely sure what I expected, though. Perhaps a dark-haried man lovingly tending each neatly sown row of sun-drenched fruit, his beret cocked jauntily to one side. He’d whisper softly to the vines in rapid Français tweaking his Hercule Poirot mustache with nary a chemical in sight. But no, organic practices for these tender shoots were not readily apparent.
When my husband and I took a tour of the Moët & Chandon champagne house, I asked what their farming practices were and told them what I had seen in the fields on the way there. The company’s effervescent tour guide said they proudly practice sustainability and organic farming. Mais oui, the farmers of vineyards in adjacent fields might spray. They have no control over that or the fact that the pesticide used in another field might contaminate their own.
Much the same thing happens to anyone of us in a suburban neighborhood looking to take care of our lawns organically. You may practice natural methods, but your neighbor may not. A good stiff wind, and Neighbor Dave’s pesticide is all over your property.
According to a January 2, 2008 post on Wine & Spirit web site, France is the third largest user of pesticides and much of that is focused on the thousands of hectares of vineyards. Pesticides have been found in over 90% of the country’s water systems. This undoubtedly prompted the country in February of last year to ban certain pesticide chemicals in an effort to reduce their usage by half in the next 10 years.
Part of the problem with champagne is that it is a blended wine. The signature taste of each champagne house comes from a master blender’s keen palate. He or she will determine the right combination of wines from different grapes as well as different vintages to maintain product consistency. But while one farmer might supply the house with grapes grown organically, another may provide grapes that are grown with the aid of pesticides.
In a New York Times article dated as far back as September 23, 1987, vintners were concerned about the effect pesticides had on their wine. In the Bordeaux region, Xavier Gardinier, owner of the Phelan-Segur label, filed a $57 million suit against the Chevron Chemical Company, a subsidiary of the Chevron Corporation. The winemaker charged that the company supplied them with an insecticide that made the 1983, '84 and '85 vintages ''undrinkable and unmarketable.''
Pesticides were first introduced in the 1940s. As here in the U.S., there is a growing trend in France to abstain from the use of chemicals. Within the next 10 to 15 years, we may see winemaking across the globe return to its grassroots. It may just be time for winemaking to become what it was originally—organic. Sometimes what is old becomes new again.