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Jean Paul’s Vineyard, Australia – William de Castella

February 10, 2012

It was 1994 when I decided to go into the wine industry after reading books written by my great grandfather and grandfather about their experiences in the industry. A glowing picture was painted by their words as to the greatness of growing grapes and the virtues of wine. I was enthusiastic and wide eyed.

We bought our block in 1988 and lived in the shed on 12 volt power. The alternative lifestyle was an attractive incentive to move to Yea as we were interested in living on solar power. The block of land was on a dirt track in a farming district, mostly sheep and cattle and away from the hustle and bustle.

We decided that the only way to grow the vines was to be organic.  We already had our own veggie garden growing organically and we bought organic food when we could, so it was both a lifestyle and moral choice that lead us to that end, after all who wants to move to a beautiful place and spray chemicals everywhere not to mention all the other things that are so commonly used in agriculture.

I told others, some already in the wine industry, what I was going to do. The looks on their faces were priceless; some simply said you can’t do it organically, you will lose your entire crop, and on they went.

When I planted the first acre of Shiraz we had no water for irrigation, but had plans for a dam to go across the front of our property, only catching water that had fallen on our clean slopes.

During the first year it rained and the vines planted on their own roots took off and grew well. The next year it rained a little less they still grew but were slowing. Construction of the dam was in progress. I think it became a race between the lack of water and the slowing growth of the vine.  By the third year the vines were struggling.

The dam was finished and the dripper system had been completed by the fourth year so off they grew again. With the help of the irrigation, the vines reached the wire and out across the cordons the arms spread.  In early years a whipper sniper was used to keep the grass down between vines, but getting to close to some of the vines meant injury as the cord would wrap around the trunk and strip it of bark. Once asked the variety of a particular vine with beautiful red leaves in the middle of the season I replied, “Whipersniperusringbarkus”.

Today the only mowing that is done is between the rows, and natural grasses grow amongst the vines. The cut grasses are thrown under the vines as natural mulch. From my observations I can see that this is the best way to go. The insect life in the decaying matter is great and the humus helps keep the newly forming soil moist. For the past three or four years the irrigation has not been used, even  over the last few years of the drought due in part to this build up of quality humus. Mind you I still think that whilst the vines are young it’s not a bad idea to have irrigation available, and we did set up the irrigation prior to planting the next acre of Shiraz and four acres of Cabernet, although only used judiciously.

Having never sprayed copper or sulphur in the vineyard, my job is a little more challenging. The past 14 Years or so in Victoria have been fairly dry due to the drought, but we have had some wet times during vintage, and it was during one of these time that we had an outbreak powdery mildew and botrytis started to develop in amongst the ripening grapes.  Keeping a cool head in these situations is important, and with some research into biodynamic methods (milk and biodynamic teas) and by implementing them I was able to save the crop.


European Wasp

The insect world also poses some challenges mostly the European wasp, not only do they bite the kind hearted folk that come to help me with my vintage, they will devour the crop, leaving a vineyard of grape skins – so lots of walking and hunting down the nests.  But I think it’s impossible to find them all, so with my trusty battery operated vacuum cleaner I started sucking the little pests of my fruit!! Some modifications such as a longer nozzle, and a 12 volt motor so I could connect it to the ride on mower saving on down time due to battery failure, I became unrelenting, and by the end of a couple of days I had buckets of dead wasps.  The combined effort of me vacuuming and my wife looking for the nests saved the crop. There is a great theory behind that story, when you catch the wasp not only do you stop it in its tracks but you also stop it from feeding the young in the nest, and it has no chance to return and tell its friends where the best grapes are, and you can make a biodynamic pepper from them to help deter the return in the future, pretty good all round.

In 2006 a bushfire came raging through destroying two-thirds of my vineyard, a very heart breaking experience and it has taken me till now to pull it all back together. I did take the opportunity to remove some rows adjusting the width some and lowering the cordon height for others I have even changed the method of pruning for some Shiraz, so not all bad but an opportunity to try something different.

The 2009 black Saturday bushfire also surrounded us but did not reach us directly but the smoke did, and as a subsequence I am releasing a new wine for us – a Spice wine or a Mulled wine. As it is impossible to remove the smoke taint from the wine, and as we know wine is a matter of balance, the added spice blends harmoniously with the wine, creating something that is very nice, and yes another opportunity.

When I started there were less than a handful of people doing things the Organic way, and others told me I couldn’t do it the natural way. Now it seems to me that Organics and Biodynamics are the buzz words/methods of the Viticulture industry today and if I have helped to encourage anyone to go down the better environment path, well wouldn’t that be great!

There have been millions and millions of people before us, and there will be millions and millions of people after us, we all have a responsibility to at least respect the environment in which we live, and ensure that the one we pass on is in as good a condition as it was when we got to enjoy it, and if we can improve it then we should. If we do this then every living creature will benefit.

Young Shiraz



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