Organic Vineyards Recycle Grape Skins and Scraps

For more than two years the massive piles of dried grape skins have been mixed with landscapers’ leaves and grass clippings and waste fish from the local fish distributor and left to cook like a giant organic stew in a back lot of a Peconic vineyard.

As the buds begin to break on the vines of Pindar Vineyards in Peconic, N.Y., this spring, the product of that composting process will be spread on up to 60 acres of grape vines. It’s an important first step by the region’s largest grape grower to move away from the commercial herbicides and fertilizers that growers in the region have long relied on to limit weed growth and keep their grape crop stable and healthy.

Now, with concerns about chemical runoff spoiling groundwater and with rising costs of industrial mixtures, even the largest commercial operations are coming to understand the benefit of what is termed sustainable agriculture.

The compost, dark and rich in nutrients and essential microbes, will be spread in 6- to 8-inch-thick layers along scores of long rows of Chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon vines at Pindar, to both enrich the soil and provide a thick mulch to inhibit weed growth. If all goes as planned, said vineyard manager Pindar Damianos, the composting operation will be expanded. That would help the vineyard save potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in costs for herbicides and chemical fertilizers.

The vineyard has been amassing grape skins from the winemaking operation since the 2005 harvest and grape pressing – which has left 300 tons of the leathery flakes. It also has been allowing local landscapers to drop off leaves and grass clippings on the property, adding manure from local horse farms, and trucking in free fish waste from Braun Seafood in Cutchogue, the latter to provide a vital nitrogen boost to cook the compost. The heaps must heat to an internal temperature of more than 200 degrees to break down the grape seeds.

Pindar isn’t the first local grape grower, or East End farmer, to turn to the methods. Macari Vineyards of Mattituck is recognized as one of the most committed organic farming pioneers in the region. It maintains a herd of 25 longhorn cattle to provide both manure and a horn additive as part of its adherence to so-called biodynamic farming methods.

Joe Macari Jr., co-owner and manager of the vineyard, said his combination of composting, biodynamic sprays and compost-tea applications are not only good for the ground he grows on, but also show in his wines. “I believe you have to put back into the soil,” he said.

“The proof is in the bottle of wine,” Macari said. “It shows in my wine.”

Macari said he still sprays fungicide and pesticide once a year, but he has managed to avoid applying chemical nitrogen and herbicide for the past 10.

Joseph Gergela, executive director of the Long Island Farm Bureau, an agriculture advocacy group, said Macari’s long history in sustainable farming and efforts by others such as Jamesport Vineyards provide ample evidence for larger operations like Pindar’s that the system can work.

Gergela said farmers in general on Long Island have been increasing their use of sustainable farming techniques, though he acknowledged, “Certainly when an outfit like Pindar does it, it’s significant because they are so large.”

Numerous farms, he said, have worked out partnerships with Long Island Compost, the large regional compost provider, in a program to host compost windrows on their properties in exchange for a share of the material.

Damianos of Pindar said placement of his compost heaps on a remote corner of the vineyard away from neighborhoods has helped him avoid complaints about odors that sometimes hound composting operations.

While he’s certain the composting will prove beneficial to the health of the vineyard, Damianos said the first year’s application will probably break even financially. That’s because he bought a new machine called a side-dresser to apply the thick layer of new black compost to the rows. In future years he expects to see savings by reducing chemical purchases. Beyond that there’s the aesthetic value.

“I like seeing all the rows of vines covered with black compost,” he said.

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