Viticulturitis

There’s a manual used by professional psychologists and psychiatrists to diagnose their patients, and the list of disorders and syndromes in it gets longer every time they publish it.  I am completely certain that a

t some point in the future, it will include a syndrome in which an individual firmly believes that she or he can make a reasonable living by growing and harvesting crops.  This will probably be around the time that Earth’s population hits 10 billion and governments around the world take over food production as part of national security.

If and when this happens, there will be special attention devoted to the particular form of insanity known as viticulture:  growing grapes.

Grapes are not vital to human life in the same way that wheat or corn are — no one would die if they disappeared from the planet tomorrow.  And yet, millions of acres of vineyard are planted across the globe.  This is particularly incredible given how incredibly difficult grapes are to grow compared to other crops.

Grapes don’t like cold weather — frost kills the new shoots in the spring, and destroys the flowers that make fruit.  And while the vines themselves like hot weather, the fruit is easily burned by the sun and shriveled by excessive heat.  Rain at any time during the growing season causes problems, especially just before or during harvest.  Even simple humidity is bad, as it creates ideal conditions for the multiple fungal diseases that infect grapes — particularly Powdery Mildew.

At this point you are probably thinking that humanity’s persistence in growing grapes is due completely to the fact that they are used primarily to make wine, which is essentially a drug.  And I’m sure this is part of it.  But growing grapes — even for wine — is not always profitable.  As recently as 8 years ago there was a global glut, and prices were below break even.

Growing grapes requires tremendous attention to detail, even before you plant them.  You need to choose the right varieties for the area, the right rootstock for the soil in the location, and plant the rows in the direction that provides the best ventilation for both hot and cold air given prevailing wind and topography.

There is tons of hand labor involved, most of it requiring skill and experience.  Vines are pruned in the winter, but once they begin to grow the work continues.  If there is too much fruit, some must be taken off.  Excessive foliage must be removed to improve airflow and keep the grapes from rotting.  But if bunches of grapes are exposed, vines must be trained to cover them better to avoid sunburn.

In May of 2010, grape growers throughout California were frantically stripping leaves and shoots off their vines in response to cool, wet weather that was causing perfect conditions for powdery mildew.  Just a few weeks later, temperatures soared into the high 100s, scorching millions of pounds of grapes left exposed to the sun.  We lost about half our crop that year at Terra Firma.

And yet there is something about growing grapes that is immensely satisfying — and not just at harvest time.  Perhaps it is because the plants respond so obviously and quickly to tending.  Like a small child or a pet, grapes need human attention.  And tending them over the years — at least on a reasonable scale — you get to know the vines.  You develop a relationship with them, although it has its ups and downs.  Or maybe, in the language of the DSM, it’s really just co-dependence, writ large and expressed over millenia.  Viticulturitis.

Thanks,

Pablito

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