Thursday, July 8, 2010
A bit of background is needed. Over the past several years, the Humane Society has been sponsoring petition drives to put livestock care initiatives on the ballots in several states. The purpose for these initiatives is to outlaw certain practices common in confined animal feeding operations (CAFO's), colloquially known as factory farms. These practices include extreme confinement of animals for their entire lives, among other rather dreadful practices. They've won these initiatives in several states, most notably California, and Ohio was another state on their list of states to begin a petition drive.
Last year, the Farm Bureau succeeded in persuading the Ohio General Assembly to place its own initiative on the ballot. The legislature's proposal was to create a livestock care board made of several individuals involved in agriculture, including some farmers. The board would be chaired by the Commissioner of Agriculture and would set standards for animal care on all commercial farm operations. The voters of Ohio approved the initiative in last November's election, but many felt that the voters had had the wool pulled over their eyes--the Farm Bureau had simply asked the legislature to intervene to thwart the Humane Society's efforts. The campaign advertising emphasized animal care, but the Farm Bureau and its agribusiness allies outspent the opposition by thirty to one, so hardly any Ohioans heard arguments against the proposal. Many believed that the board, created and staffed by Big Ag personnel, would have no teeth and would simply rubber-stamp current CAFO animal care practices.
The Humane Society vowed to fight back, and early this year they announced sponsorship of a petition drive to place specific animal care requirements on the November ballot. Their petition drive was quite successful, and last week the Humane Society was prepared to turn in half a million signatures to Ohio's election officials--more than enough to place the issue on the ballot.
Thus this brokered agreement between the two sides came as a total shock to most of us, who were expecting a real knock-down-drag-out fight during the upcoming campaign. That the two mortal enemies--the Humane Society and the Farm Bureau--had suddenly come to an agreement was so unexpected that Columbus Dispatch writer Thomas Studdes suggested in an opinion column last week that maybe Gov. Strickland should be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
Looking at the details of the agreement, however, it appears quite clear that the Humane Society achieved just about all of their goals and then some. The agreement includes:
-permits will not be issued for new farms to use battery cages for housing hens;
-gestation cages for sows will be phased out;
-elimination of confinement for veal calves;
-humane euthanasia procedures for sick or injured farm animals;
-keeping "downer" ill or injured animals out of the food supply; and
-several animal issues not directly related to farming: making cock fighting a felony; prohibiting the keeping of exotic animals like lions and cobras as pets, and cracking down on so-called puppy mill dog breeding operations. These changes would have to be enacted by the General Assembly.
So what was in this agreement for the Farm Bureau? The chief thing they won is that the Humane Society agreed to withdraw their petition drive; therefore, the issue will not appear on the ballot in November. The voters will thus be spared the promised fight over the initiative.
Both sides, predictably, claimed victory. One can go to their Web sites and read their press releases, where both sides put a positive spin on the agreement. (Here's the Ohio Farm Bureau president Jack Fisher's comments.) But it's hard to see that the Farm Bureau came out on top. And indeed, some of the comments from members on the Farm Bureau site indicate that many feel they gave in, caved in, gave up, surrendered, or expressed similar sentiments. Some asserted that the Humane Society is associated with "terrorist" organizations.
But Thomas Studdes' column speculated that the reason the Farm Bureau agreed to this settlement is that they knew their cause was already lost. In May, an animal rights group known as Mercy for Animals released an undercover video they had made at a dairy farm northwest of Columbus. The video (linked here--WARNING: some content may be disturbing to watch) gave graphic displays of animal abuse. Studdes thinks that perhaps the Farm Bureau realized they couldn't fight the video, so they called the Governor and agreed to meet with the Humane Society.
Perhaps. Whatever the reason, the agreement seems like good news for those of us who have become concerned about the quality and safety of food from CAFO's (not to mention the horrific animal treatment typical of these operations). We'll have to wait and see.
I'm just glad that the two sides agreed to get together and talk, whatever the motivation was. I've been saying all along that this is what they should do. Maybe during their discussion, they began to realize that the people on the other side of the table were normal human beings and not the monsters that they had come to think they were. Imagine that.
NOTE: The farmer who owned the dairy farm shown in the video was exonerated yesterday when a court declined to press charges against him. His own actions, though they might seem abusive in the video, were not considered to be so after the video was viewed by experts. But one of the employees, shown in the video abusing a calf, was fired.
Sunday, June 27, 2010
Advantages I see for home wine production include the following. First, we’re by no means limited to Concord and Delaware; we have many, many more choices than Gene Logsdon’s immigrants did (Logsdon 78). Many of these newer choices have a fair degree of disease resistance, and they include a much wider variety of wine types and flavor characteristics. Second, the home winemaker can rely on his/her own wine tastes in choosing vines to cultivate; he/she is not restricted to what will sell commercially. Third, it’s easier to practice organic soil maintenance on a small scale, and this could prove very important in maintaining vine health in an era when fungicide sprays may be difficult to obtain. Fourth, growing one’s own wine as part of a household economy means minimal carbon footprint and possible long-term sustainability. Finally, for those who have the attention to detail, the interest, the patience, and the space to raise and test hundreds of grape seedlings, breeding one’s own grapes for wine quality, better disease resistance, and suitability for one’s local conditions remains a possibility.
We have many more possible grape variety choices in the east and Midwest than just about anywhere else on earth. I have listed a mere few of them at the end of this post. There are so many others that one could try, with new varieties being released every few years or so, that it can be almost overwhelming. The key is to pick vines that ripen well in one’s climate, that have at least some disease resistance, and that can produce the kind of wine that one’s household enjoys. And another key is not to pay attention to what the wine snobs say.
Antidote to Wine Snobbery
Leon Adams defined wine snobbery as “drinking the label, not the wine” (13). Snobbery occurs when people turn up their noses at a wine someone else enjoys just because they don’t like it (or think they don’t like it). Wine, for some strange reason, seems to encourage this boorish attitude. Here in the eastern US, a kind of wine snobbery has arisen against the French hybrids—especially the red ones—among those who enjoy the vinifera wines grown and produced here and elsewhere. Growing the kinds of grapes that make the kinds of wine one likes, and then making the wine oneself, is perhaps the best preventive to snobbery, since the wines can be enjoyed at home without disparaging comments from others.
Furthermore, grapes that aren’t widely grown by commercial operations can often be good choices for home winemakers. I’ll talk about a few of these in my comments on specific grape varieties. The home winemaker is free to experiment with unusual varieties since there’s no bottom line to keep in mind.
Organic Grape Growing
Organic agriculture has made significant strides in recent decades. The key to organic growing is building, maintaining, and protecting the soil structure, including the complex soil ecosystems of microorganisms and other soil dwellers. We are learning more and more every year about the vital importance of maintaining and encouraging good soil ecology, as it provides direct benefits to the plants we are trying to grow, including increased disease resistance. Lon Rombough, in his excellent book on organic grape growing (see the Works Cited list at the end of this post) gives a detailed discussion of the benefits of organic soil maintenance. I highly recommend Rombough’s book, not only for the organic techniques themselves but also because it provides all the basic information one needs for successful grape growing—not just the basics of organic soil maintenance, but also the fundamentals of grape growing such as training and pruning.
One of the most interesting and helpful discoveries about soil maintenance is the importance of micorrhizal fungi. These fungi live in the soil and develop symbiotic relationships with the roots of many plants, including grapevines. The fungi provide soil nutrients to the plants, and the plants in turn provide sugars to the fungi through photosynthesis. This symbiotic relationship can help keep vines from becoming stressed, making them more resistant to disease and insect damage. Lon Rombough provides detailed information about micorrhizae in his book; he also posted this article online. Micorrhizae inoculant is available online and is easy to use.
Many techniques for organic soil maintenance exist; one of the best known is the French bio-dynamic system. Lon Rombough recommends that anyone interested in growing grapes look into this system (Rombough 72). I don’t know much about bio-dynamics specifically, but it and similar organic techniques (I think of John Jeavons’ and Toby Hemenway’s books) seem to be ideal for home and small producers. They will likely become vital in an age when fossil fuel inputs are not available or are extremely expensive.
Growing one’s own grapes and making one’s own wines with them, just like growing and canning one’s own tomatoes, can be a valuable support to a household economy. And it can eliminate most of the carbon emissions caused by industrial-scale wine production, distribution, and retailing. Here’s a simple example: a home winemaker can clean and re-use empty wine bottles much easier than a commercial operation could. One can even learn how to culture wine yeast strains and keep them viable from year to year.
Creating New Grape Varieties
I won’t go into detail about this because Rombough devotes an entire chapter to the topic. Anyone interested in the topic should consult Chapter 13 of his book. All who are interested in maintaining the cultivation of good wine grapes in the eastern third of North America into the future will be interested in breeding efforts, whether they actually want to participate in it or not. The goal for breeders would be a vine that reliably produces grapes capable of making high-quality wine, is well-adapted to one’s locality, and that is so highly resistant to the indigenous diseases and insect pests that it can be grown successfully in a given location without chemical spray. Those who have the inclination, the patience, and the space to engage in breeding grapevines will help carry the tradition of quality wine into the future.
Musings about Specific Grape Varieties
I don’t know this, of course, but my guess is that the immigrants Gene Logsdon mentions did not spray fungicide on their Concord or Delaware grapes. Neither of these varieties is immune to fungus attack, but if the vines were planted in a favorable location with good air circulation and trained to take best advantage of that circulation, they would have been less likely to contract disease. If they did, the grower might have picked off diseased leaves, shoots, and/or clusters and burned them. Active and meticulous grower attention to how the vines are doing, along with removing and disposing of any infected plant material, can go a long way toward maintaining vine health. Add to that solid, organic soil building and soil ecosystem maintenance techniques, including the cultivation of micorrhizal fungi, and the grower can increase odds that the vines will stay healthy most of the time.
But the vines themselves come first. Choosing vines that have natural resistance to infection is the first line of defense. It isn’t infallible, but it’s the best place to start here in the humid east and Midwest. I’m going to end this discussion with some thoughts about specific wine-grape varieties, including a few that are not commonly seen in commercial vineyards, if they are grown there at all. I’m basing these choices primarily on disease resistance and wine quality.
These are NOT recommendations, however. These are mostly observations. The varieties one should try depend on one’s local conditions (including such factors as disease pressure, winter cold, length of growing season, air circulation, and soil type and drainage) and one’s personal tastes in wine. One may or may not wish or be able to consider any of the varieties mentioned here. Nevertheless, readers might use my descriptions as a guide to the things to look for when choosing grape varieties to grow.
I did not include any vinifera varieties here, since they are all well known—if you live in a favorable location (such near the shore of one of the Great Lakes) and want to try Riesling or Cabernet Franc, by all means go for it. Just keep in mind that you likely will be committing yourself to rigorous and systematic spraying against disease. Also, I didn’t discuss most of the standard labrusca varieties—Concord, Catawba, and Niagara, not because of snobbery (if you enjoy wine from these grapes, by all means grow them!) but because they usually need sugar amelioration. I’m assuming that refined sugar, just like fungicide chemicals, may be in short supply in a future without cheap energy, so I think it’s best to include only grapes that are capable of obtaining adequate sugar levels on their own.
For Red Wine
Baco Noir—this French hybrid is a good choice for beginners. The vines are easy to grow and it’s easy to handle in the wine cellar. It can make a good red wine. Vines are quite vigorous—secondary shoots with secondary clusters need to be pinched off. Grapes ripen quite early and must be protected from birds. A friend in southeast Ohio told me it is susceptible to black rot there, but the vines were always healthy for me in Bowling Green. Baco tolerates heavy soils.
Chambourcin—Considered one of the best red French hybrids. Productive, moderately disease resistant, Chambourcin produces a balanced dry red wine that is often highly rated. But it needs a long growing season to ripen fully. The other common French hybrid reds—Chancellor, Chelois, and De Chaunac—ripen earlier than Chambourcin and have similar wine qualities. Of the three, Chelois, perhaps, is the most disease resistant. Some commercial operations blend two or more of these four varieties for a proprietary red.
Corot Noir—A new variety from the Cornell breeding station in Geneva, New York. The release notes claim that Corot makes a vinifera-like red wine with lots of tannins and none of the grassy, herbaceous character that some dislike in the red French hybrids. They also claim good disease resistance.
Frontenac—Developed at the University of Minnesota breeding program for cold resistance, Frontenac produces a uniquely flavored, more vinifera- than hybrid-charactered red wine. I’ve tasted wine from Frontenac and it had a luscious, cherry-like aroma and flavor. It lacks the typical red hybrid herbaceousness. Frontenac vines should be highly disease resistant.
Marechal Foch—A very early ripening French hybrid, originally from Alsace and named for Marshall Ferdinand Foch, the French World War I hero. It’s highly resistant to cold and disease. It ripens well in cool growing seasons. Ron Lombough indicates that in the cool coastal Oregon climate it can be grown without spray and the cool nights help it develop a deeply-colored, complexly flavored wine (188). It’s grown successfully here in Ohio, too, though it usually ripens with perhaps less complexity. A sister variety, Leon Millot (from the same cross as Foch), ripens a week earlier and produces a very similar wine. Millot was disease free in Bowling Green, but I had to protect the ripening clusters from the birds. Foch and Millot might be good choices for home growers the northern Great Lakes regions.
Marquette—A new variety from the University of Minnesota breeding program, Marquette is supposed to be capable of producing a vinifera-like red wine with lots of tannins and without red hybrid herbaceousness. Marquette should be quite disease resistant and very cold-hardy.
Noiret—From the Cornell breeding program, Noiret is a newer variety that, like sister release Corot Noir and Minnesota’s Marquette, promises to produce a high quality, vinifera-like red wine with none of the red hybrid herbaceousness. One commercial winemaker recently told me he’s very excited about offering it when his first crop is ready for release in a couple of years. Noiret may be a bit less resistant to disease than Corot.
Norton—An old American variety, also called Norton’s Virginia and Virginia Seedling in the east and Cynthiana in Missouri and Arkansas. Thought to be pure or mostly Vitis aestivalis, Norton can produce a high-quality red wine with no off-aromas or flavors. It needs a very long growing season to ripen properly. It may not be a good choice for beginning winemakers, as it requires expert handling to make good wine. Norton vines are said to be virtually immune to fungus disease.
For White Wine
Beaumont—The late Byron T. Johnson of Cincinnati bred grapes for both disease resistance and wine/juice quality and released several named varieties. Lon Rombough claims that Johnson’s varieties can be grown “in much of the central Midwest” without fungicide spray (242). Unfortunately, of the varieties Johnson released, only Beaumont and Kee-Wah-Din (a Baco Noir cross) are available commercially, so far as I know. (Someone who is interested in starting a grapevine nursery and who likes to do detective work might want to track down and obtain cuttings of other Johnson releases like Scioto, Beaufort, Joyous, and Chief Wauwautan [Rombough 242], propagate them, and begin offering them to the public.) Beaumont is descended from Delaware; the clusters are similar to Delaware in appearance, but the vine is more disease resistant than Delaware. Johnson thought that it made an excellent white wine with a slightly musky or spicy character, similar to Delaware. Beaumont certainly is worth experimenting with at home.
Cayuga—From the Cornell breeding program, Cayuga (often labeled Cayuga White) was their very first wine grape release, and it immediately became popular among growers and winemakers in upstate New York and beyond. Cayuga makes an excellent, fruity white wine that some have compared to Riesling. The vine is vigorous, easy to grow, and quite resistant to disease. Cayuga has Zinfandel and Seyval in its ancestry.
Chardonel—From the Cornell breeding program, Chardonel is a cross between Seyval and Chardonnay and is supposed to have wine qualities similar to its more famous parent. It isn’t widely grown in Ohio, however, possibly because Chardonnay itself grows well along the Lake Erie shore, but it’s popular in places like Missouri where summer heat and humidity are simply too much for Chardonnay. Moderately disease resistant.
Delaware—Among the old labrusca varieties, winemakers considered Delaware the best for wine quality. And it’s still worth growing, in my opinion. My favorite wine from the old Steuk winery in Sandusky, Ohio, was a dry Delaware. Unfortunately, Steuk went out of business about fifteen years ago and I haven’t found another source for dry Delaware. Unless grown in deep, fertile soil, Delaware vines should be grafted to increase their vigor. It’s not a heavy producer, but in most years, Delaware develops enough sugar not to require amelioration. The vine is not as disease resistant as Concord.
Horizon—Cornell’s second wine grape release (Cayuga was first), Horizon has not become commercially popular. Horizon comes from the same cross as Cayuga. Lon Rombough says the fresh juice has a strong apple aroma and flavor. He also says the clusters are prone to botrytis bunch rot, like Seyval, one of its parents, if wet weather coincides with ripening (Rombough 187). The vine is vigorous and productive. Experimental home growers might wish to try it out.
Melody—Another release from Cornell’s breeding program, Melody has also not caught on among commercial winemakers (maybe it was the name). But it’s a heavy producer and might be ideal for a home wine making operation. Melody has Pinot Blanc and Seyval in its ancestry and is said to produce a wine with Pinot Blanc character. Disease resistance is supposed to be moderate.
Seyval—Considered the best of the French hybrids for wine quality. Well made Seyval, or Seyval Blanc, compares favorably to Sauvignon Blanc. Not highly disease resistant, Seyval is also susceptible to bunch rot (botrytis) if cool, wet weather coincides with ripening. Cayuga might be a better choice for a home vineyard, unless local growing conditions are favorable for Seyval.
Steuben—From the Cornell breeding program, Steuben was bred as a table grape, not a wine grape. The grapes are quite tasty: very sweet and juicy, with a unique spicy tang (though they are not seedless). Steuben also makes great unfermented grape juice. However, if the juice is pressed out and fermented at low temperatures, without contacting the dark blue skins (the way “white Zinfandel” is made), and a small percentage of residual sugar is retained, German style, Steuben creates a unique, spicy, slightly pink wine that is the only wine I know of that really can complement the sweetish-smoky taste of ham. I don’t know whether any commercial winery makes wine from Steuben grapes today; Dr. Tom Wykoff’s Cedar Hill Wine Company in Cleveland Heights made it and sold it in his Au Provence restaurant back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Unfortunately they’re out of business. His Steuben wine was very tasty. Making Steuben wine might be the perfect project for a home winemaker who wants to do something unusual. It also helps that Steuben is a very healthy and vigorous vine. It’s also one of the relatively few vines that develop attractive autumnal colors. Ron Lombough says Steuben would probably do very well trained on an arbor (191).
Traminette—A Cornell cross between Gewürztraminer and a French hybrid, Traminette is the latest big hit among growers and wineries. It’s much easier to grow than its vinifera parent, and it can produce a spicy, aromatic wine very similar in character to Gewürztraminer. Doing well with it, though, probably requires some winemaking expertise. I’ve tasted Traminette wines that ranged from very excellent (try the 2008 Traminette from the Meranda-Nixon winery in Ripley, Ohio!) to good to so-so, and one example tasted downright medicinal. The vine is moderately disease resistant.
Vidal—Vidal, also labeled Vidal Blanc, is probably the most popular and widely grown French hybrid, at least here in North America. One of its parents is one of the most widely grown grape varieties in Europe, known as Trebbiano in Italy and St. Emilion or Ugni Blanc in France. Vidal is easy to grow, very productive, and versatile, so it’s a good choice for beginning grape growers and winemakers. I grew Vidal in Bowling Green and could regularly count on a yearly harvest of at least five gallons of juice from four vines. The wine is pleasing to excellent, with a slight herbaceous aftertaste if finished dry. The best wine I ever made came from Vidal juice fermented in a cool place with Epernay yeast. Wineries make a wide variety of wine styles with Vidal, including an unusual sweet wine called ice wine (the sweet juice is pressed from frozen grapes that are left to hang on the vines until a deep freeze). Aside from that, wineries typically make Vidal into an off-dry, aromatic, German style wine (try Farmers White from Troutman Vineyards in Wooster, Ohio; it was so aromatic I even asked them if there wasn’t a bit of Traminette blended in. They assured me it was 100% Vidal). However, I once tried a dry, barrel-fermented, malolactic, sur lie Vidal labeled St. Mary’s Blanc from Rockbridge Vineyard in Virginia that was also quite excellent. My Vidal vines in Bowling Green were somewhat susceptible to powdery mildew but otherwise healthy. Vidal needs a fairly long growing season to ripen properly.
Vignoles—A French hybrid, Vignoles has gained some popularity, mostly for sweet dessert wines, though a few make a dry table wine from it. I have never tried wine from this grape. Moderate disease resistance.
Much more could be said. I hope that these musings spark further discussion among those concerned about coping with the end of cheap energy. I believe that wine will become an important part of the future home and local economy as we begin doing more and more things for ourselves.
Adams, Leon. The Wines of America. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
Logsdon, Gene. Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol’ Demon Alcohol. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1999.
Rombough, Lon. The Grape Grower: A Guide to Organic Viticulture. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2002.
Thursday, June 24, 2010
First, it will be helpful to discuss the current state of the commercial wine industry in the eastern states. Since I’m in Ohio and am most familiar with Ohio, I’ll concentrate on Ohio; what applies to Ohio is probably largely true in other eastern and Midwestern states.
Commercial Wineries in the East and Midwest
Ohio has well over 100 operating commercial wineries. I have seen numbers from 125 to 145, and two or three new ones seem to open every year. Wineries can be found in all parts of the state, which means that no Ohio resident is very far from an operating winery. Wine operations are concentrated, however, in the north, along the shore of Lake Erie, and in the southwestern Ohio River Valley region.
Not all of these wineries are doing what I’m talking about here: making wine primarily from grapes they grow themselves. Some make wine from fruits other than grapes (one in the Columbus area specializes in different kinds of mead). Some make wine from California grapes. While these wines are often very good, they are, like fruit wines, outside the scope of this discussion (and probably not long-term sustainable once energy costs get too high). And many of them, whether they grow their own grapes or not, seem to be more in the entertainment or tourism business than the wine business. (To be fair, some, though not all, who operate restaurants and wineries manage to deliver both good food and excellent wine.) The commercial operations I think have the best chance for surviving the end of cheap energy are mixed farming operations that make wine from grapes they grow themselves as an “added value” commodity, but sell other farm products as well. (A good example is the Smith-Berry Winery in New Castle, Kentucky. Mary Berry-Smith, who founded the winery along with her husband Chuck, is the daughter of noted agriculturist Wendell Berry.) Purchasing wine from such mixed farm operations reminds us that good table wine is essentially a farm product, produced by farmers and consumed with food.
The eastern and Midwestern wine business today has several advantages, going into energy decline, over the huge industrial operations of the west coast. Most operations here are small, family-run farms. Although they can’t compete with California’s economies of scale, they’re far less dependent on industrial-scale machinery and equipment. Yes, most use tractors, of course, but one won’t, for example, find very many mechanical grape pickers in Ohio; in most of Ohio’s small vineyards, that work is done by hand. And some use temperature-controlled fermentation tanks, but one can make good wine without them—it will just have a different character. Our vineyard and wine operations operate on a more human scale here.
Another advantage, I believe, is rooted in the unique history of grape growing in our region. We grow and produce wine from a very wide range of grape varieties originating in different grape species. The old V. labrusca varieties are still popular and still grown. Great strides have been made in growing V. vinifera, and wines from these “noble” grapes are more widely available. The French hybrids have expanded the variety of wine flavors and characteristics. New crosses from the breeding operations I mentioned in the last post not only have extended the flavor characteristics of regional wines but also have expanded the geographical range in which it is possible to grow wine grapes successfully. Winegrowing is now taking place in such unlikely-seeming places as Minnesota, Vermont, Nova Scotia, Nebraska, and Quebec. The wide variety of grapes of so many different types increases the chances for would-be organic and small growers to discover a variety or two particularly well suited to their local conditions.
These advantages are partly offset by some disadvantages, going into the future.
One of the biggest concerns going into an age of energy decline is distribution. Wines from small, family farm wineries simply aren’t picked up by the normal distribution methods that larger operations enjoy. That means that in many cases, small producers must be their own distributors. I know one premium operation in Ohio that makes the rounds to retail outlets around the state in their own vehicle after every new release. This is costly, not only in dollar terms but also in carbon footprint. In some cases, those who enjoy a particular winery’s products must drive to the winery or have it shipped to their home by UPS or Federal Express. If fuel becomes too expensive for customers’ winery visits and/or local delivery services, some wineries may lose the market for their products.
Lack of distribution leads to the second concern: the wine business in Ohio and other eastern/Midwestern states is largely dependent on tourism, an industry that won’t be sustainable in an era of high fuel prices.
Unfamiliarity is another problem. Many people simply don’t know about local and regional wines and are often afraid to try them. They frequently are pleasantly surprised when they do, but it’s just so much easier to reach for a California, Chilean, or Australian bottling than a local offering. This unfamiliarity is often compounded by retailers who segregate the local wines on a separate shelf (usually reserved also for the sweet wines, fruit wines, ports, and sherries) instead of shelving them with wines from other regions that share similar characteristics, thus treating them as afterthoughts not worthy of serious attention.
A disadvantage everywhere, not just in the east and Midwest, results from the lingering effects of Prohibition, including its attitudes and hypocrisies. Prohibitionism has made it difficult for small producers to sell their wine simply as an agricultural product like, say, eggs or maple syrup. To sell wine legally, one must jump through regulatory hoops that vary in each state. The claim, of course, is that these restrictions are intended to discourage alcohol consumption, but in reality they do nothing whatsoever in that regard; rather, they reward vested interests and reinforce bureaucratic domains. These regulations probably make it prohibitive, for example, for a CSA to include a bottle of farm-made wine in the box along with the week’s produce distribution.
Finally, for the would-be grape grower, the fungus disease pressure simply doesn’t let up around here. Seasonal weather conditions create variations in that pressure from growing season to growing season, and some geographical regions have more pressure than others, but the inoculum is always present, ready and more than willing to grow and spread whenever conditions are right. Neglecting preventive treatment for disease can cause the fungi to build from season to season, making re-infection more likely and more severe the following year; this is one of the factors that led to the demise of the Ohio River vineyards 150 years ago. Although I love the wines from vinifera grapes that are now being made here in Ohio, I have to wonder about the long-term sustainability of cultivating these varieties, which are really not at home here, once chemical fungicides become too expensive or not readily available. Perhaps if local sources for disease-fighting agents can be found and/or cultivated, we can maintain vinifera cultivation, but that’s a big unknown. (Most hybrid varieties also need preventive or curative treatment, even though some varieties are more tolerant of the fungi than others. More about that later.)
A Way Forward
This brings us back to Gene Logsdon’s comment about home wine making operations. Growing grapes and making one’s own wines may be a partial solution to limits on cheap energy. While I encourage everyone to support local and regional wine operations to whatever extent is possible, wine made at home keeps things as local as they can be.
The federal government allows a household consisting of a single adult of legal age to produce up to 100 gallons of wine every year for his/her own use. If two or more legal-age adults share a household, they can make up to 200 gallons per year. (Some states restrict home wine making beyond what the federal laws do; check your state’s regulations before making any wine.) Two hundred gallons is a lot of wine—it amounts to more than 1,000 regular-sized bottles—enough for almost 20 bottles per week. I doubt whether Liz and I go through more than 1/8 that amount in a year. To make that much wine, one would probably need about 250 vines, covering 1/5 of an acre, depending on their productivity. Federal restrictions on home winemakers: homemade wine is strictly for household consumption, although one is allowed to take a bottle to a friend’s house to share with them. Homemade wine cannot be sold; I assume that it also cannot be bartered.
Within these restrictions, though, making wine at home is a great idea. It’s not difficult to learn how to do it; as I said in an earlier post, it isn’t any more complicated than some other food preservation methods. I’m not going to talk about how to make wine here; several excellent books on the topic are available, and local winemakers’ supply shops can give plenty of advice as well. But I do want to talk a bit about cultivating grapes at home and especially about overcoming diseases, since historically disease has been the biggest stumbling block to success here in the eastern third of the continent. We will discuss these topics in my fourth and final posting in this series.
Logsdon, Gene. Good Spirits: A New Look at Ol’ Demon Alcohol. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 1999.
Wednesday, June 16, 2010
What happened to the Ohio wine industry, and the unique challenges facing grape growers in the eastern part of North America, is the subject of this post. (Warning: some of this information may be tedious, but please bear with me. It’s important. I’ll try to be as brief as possible.) In the third post, we will explore what these challenges might mean to would-be grape growers and winemakers in the twilight years of the fossil energy glut.
Failures and Successes
When Europeans first arrived in North America, they encountered “the greatest natural grape-growing areas on earth. More species of the genus Vitis, the grapevine, grow wild here than in all the rest of the world combined” (Adams 4). Grapevines climbed the trees of the forests and lined the riverbanks. Vines were all over the place. Naturally, in view of all this abundance, the settlers thought this North American climate which supports so many wild grapes surely would be an ideal place to grow European wine grapes (all descended from the Old World vine species Vitis vinifera). So they imported cuttings and planted them, figuring that soon, they would have productive vineyards producing good wines like those of France or Italy.
All efforts to grow the European vinifera in the English colonies failed. Totally. The vines would grow, flourish for a while, but then, inexplicably, they would decline, wither, and eventually die.
The soil was blamed; so were the severe winters, which are colder than western European winters. Thomas Jefferson, who counted wine among his many interests, even imported some soil from Italy (along with Italian vineyard workers) in one of his attempts to establish wine grapes at Monticello. This attempt failed just as completely as the other attempts.
Eventually, attempts to cultivate V. vinifera were abandoned and attention was turned to the wild grapes themselves. Perhaps some of them could be cultivated and make good wine. This is where Nicholas Longworth and his Catawba cuttings come in. The Catawba was found growing beside an inn in Maryland and was named for a river in the Carolinas because it was thought to have originated there (Adams 73). It produced a lighter, fruitier wine than most of the wild grapes themselves. It’s likely that Catawba was a chance cross between the wild Vitis labrusca that grows along the eastern seaboard and a European vinifera that someone nearby was trying to cultivate. So Ohio’s early success as a wine producing state was founded on a chance hybrid.
The Catawba vines grew successfully for a time along the Ohio River and the industry prospered. The vine-draped slopes along the river must indeed have reminded the thousands of German immigrants who settled in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky during the 1840s and 1850s of the vineyards along the Rhine. But the success was short-lived. Two indigenous fungus diseases—black rot, which turns the developing berries into empty skins, along with powdery mildew, which attacks the vine’s leaves and stems, caused the decline of the vineyards. The labor shortage caused by the Civil War doomed the southwest Ohio industry, and it never recovered.
The Ohio industry was reborn after the war along the shores of Lake Erie (and on those islands in the lake’s western basin that I mentioned in the first post). Lake breezes helped keep the vines free of disease. The industry flourished again for a while, despite growing competition from California, until Prohibition killed it off once again. When Prohibition ended, the nation was in the throes of the Great Depression, not a good time to re-establish an industry viewed by many as a luxury. After World War II when prosperity returned, California gained the upper hand in wine production and marketing. Ohio’s wine industry, along with those of other eastern and Midwestern states (except the Finger Lakes region in New York), became an afterthought.
California had (and continues to have) several advantages over eastern and Midwestern grape growing regions. For one thing, nobody had any particular trouble growing the European vinifera there. The fungus diseases that doomed the Cincinnati vineyards are less of a problem in California; they exist, but there they were imported. In the east they are indigenous and more virulent. Also, California’s milder winters are kinder to the vinifera than the more frigid temperatures back east. California vineyards are usually more productive, acre for acre. And California can more easily take advantage of economies of scale (think industrial-scale agriculture). The result is that California can produce quality wine more cheaply and in larger quantities than Ohio, New York, or Virginia can. And for now, because transportation costs are still relatively cheap, California can ship the wine east and still sell it for less than most of the local wines.
The Taste of the Fox
And of course the V. labrusca-based industry in the east and Midwest produced wines of a far different character than the European vinifera-based industry in California. Anyone who has ever drunk a glass of Welch’s Concord grape juice is familiar with the heady, powerful grapy flavor of V. labrusca. For most Americans, in fact, the unique flavor of V. labrusca is synonymous with “grape flavor” (Adams 8). This grapy labrusca flavor is called “foxy,” for reasons nobody is quite sure of, although one of the common names for wild V. labrusca is “fox grape.” To make wine of labrusca grapes like Catawba, Concord, and Niagara, one needs (usually) to ameliorate the must with sugar and water, similar to the way wine is made from fruits other than grapes. Unlike table wines from vinifera grapes, which are normally fermented dry (meaning that nearly all the sugar is converted to alcohol and carbon dioxide), labrusca wines are usually left with some residual sweetness, because to ferment them dry would make them bitter tasting. This is the reason Ohio and other eastern/Midwestern wines have a reputation for being sweet and cloying. (Think of the Concord-based kosher wines like Mogen David and you will get the idea what these wines were typically like.) Although many people like these kinds of wines (and I still enjoy Pink Catawba if it’s well made), those whose tastes in wine were informed by California or European table wines usually find them quite unsatisfying.
The Real Culprits
The colonists were partly right with their assessment of the failure of V. vinifera in the east: cold winters did help doom the tender vines. And the soil was also partly to blame. More precisely, a tiny insect that lives part of its lifecycle in the soil and feeds on the roots of grapevines, was one of the culprits. This insect is the phylloxera (Viteus vitifoliae), a close relative of the aphid but much, much smaller. One needs a good magnifying glass or even a microscope to see it. It’s no wonder that nobody noticed it for a long time; it was first identified during the 1850s, after cuttings of American vine species had been sent to Europe and the vines in Europe began contracting a strange new illness. Phylloxera had hitched a ride on those cuttings and began infesting European soils wherever grapevines were being grown.
As mentioned, phylloxera feeds on the vine’s roots, sucking the plant’s juices (just like aphids do). Susceptible vines experience root death and eventual decline and death of the vine. Over the next two decades or so, phylloxera spread throughout the European vineyards, with devastating results. The European wine industry might have been lost completely if not for some American viticulturalists, notably the Texan Thomas V. Munson and the Missourian Hermann Jaeger, who hit on a solution. They recognized that European V. vinifera roots are highly susceptible to the phylloxera’s root feedings. However, the native North American species’ roots were able to tolerate the insect. So the solution was to graft the European wine varieties to native American vine stocks that were highly resistant to phylloxera. Munson in particular devoted much time to breeding highly phylloxera-resistant rootstocks that were also tolerant of the various soil and climate conditions of Europe by crossing and backcrossing various American grape species. The French hailed Munson and Jaeger, as heroes for “saving the French vineyards.” Munson and Jaeger even received an award from the French government in 1888 (Adams 207).
Black rot and powdery mildew, along with a third fungus disease called downy mildew, like phylloxera, are also indigenous to eastern North America and, like phylloxera, also found their way to Europe. Vinifera are highly susceptible to them. The solution found was to spray the vines with sulfur and/or a mixture of copper sulfate and lime called Bordeaux mixture. These chemicals counteract the fungi, although buildup of toxic copper salts in vineyard soils has become a concern.
(Phylloxera, along with the three fungus diseases, has also invaded California; most California vines are grafted on phylloxera-resistant rootstocks. A few vineyard regions in the world, notably Oregon, Chile, and parts of Australia, are phylloxera free, and vinifera grapes in those regions don’t require grafting.)
The French Hybrids
The French were not completely satisfied with having to graft their vines, however. Many wanted vines that could be grown on their own roots, like during the good old days before the phylloxera invasion. So some of them began crossing their favorite wine grapes with the native American vines brought over as rootstocks. These rootstocks didn’t include V. labrusca, by the way: since Jaeger and Munson were working in the midsection of the continent, where V. labrusca does not grow, they used other species: Vitis rupestris, V. aestivalis, and V. riparia, among others. These species do not have the “foxy” flavor of labrusca. By the 1920s and ‘30s, and after a series of crossings and backcrossings, these French grape breeders developed various hybrid varieties that tolerated phylloxera and also produced decent, vinifera-style table wine. These varieties are known in France as direct producers; here in North America, they’re normally called French hybrids (or French-American hybrids).
During the 1950s and 1960s, a few individuals, most notably Philip Wagner, a newspaper editor from Baltimore, imported some of these French hybrid varieties to see how well they might grow in the humid, disease-ridden climate of the eastern seaboard. They found significant success: the vines not only possessed the phylloxera resistance they were bred for, but also had inherited from their American ancestry some disease resistance and winter hardiness as well. Wagner began a nursery, Boordy Vineyards, to propagate and sell hybrid vines to anyone interested in trying them out, and he also built a winery to demonstrate that dry, European-style table wines could be made in the humid eastern states. (I bought the vines I grew in Bowling Green from Wagner’s nursery.) Some of these French hybrid varieties have since become standard wine “varietals” in vineyards from New England to Ontario to Missouri and beyond: Seyval, Chambourcin, Vidal, Foch.
Breeding work continues, though not in France. This work is now being carried on primarily here in North America (but also in Germany). Institutional breeders include Cornell University’s Agriculture Experiment Station in Geneva, New York; the University of Guelph’s Vineland, Ontario, campus in Canada, not far from Niagara Falls; and the University of Minnesota’s grape breeding program. Another program at the University of Arkansas has focused on breeding seedless table grapes. Private breeders, most notably Elmer Swenson of Wisconsin and Byron T. Johnson of Cincinnati, have also carried on the quest of seeking of better wine quality along with better disease and winter cold resistance. We will discuss grape breeding in a bit more detail in the nest post.
Vinifera in the East
Finally, to round out the story of wines in eastern North America, we need briefly to discuss the modern successes in growing V. vinifera. Now that viticulturists know what caused the colonists’ failures, they have been able to counter the disease and winter tenderness problems and produce true European-style table wines like California does. The pioneer was Dr. Konstantin Frank, an immigrant from Russia who had grown grapes in the Ukraine, and who, in the 1950s, arrived at the Geneva, New York, Agriculture Experiment Station, where he scoffed every time he was told, “It’s too cold to grow vinifera around here.” His reply: “The winters in Russia are even colder and we did it there!” He was convinced that keeping the vines disease-free, which can now be done with modern chemicals, will help them survive winter cold spells better (Adams 132-33). He was allowed to demonstrate that it could be done, which he did. He eventually opened up his own wine cellar on Keuka Lake. Liz and I visited him in 1980 and had a fascinating time. He died in 1985.
In 1968, one of Dr. Frank’s students, an engineer named Arnie Esterer, moved to Conneaut, Ohio, along Lake Erie, and established Markko Vineyard. He grew Riesling and Chardonnay; thus, he was the first to grow vinifera successfully in Ohio. Others have followed suit throughout the eastern and Midwestern states: besides Esterer, most notable here in Ohio is Ron Barrett and Nancy Bentley, Oregon grape growers who in 1999 founded Kinkead Ridge Vineyard in Ripley, pioneering vinifera winegrowing along the Ohio River valley and sparking a revival of wine production in the very region where Ohio wine began with Nicholas Longworth 185 years ago. Vinifera table wines grown in the eastern and Midwestern states, including Ohio, are as fine as those grown in any other region of the world.
Next post: what all these facts might mean for winegrowing and winemaking at the end of the age of cheap energy.
Work CitedAdams, Leon. The Wines of America. 2nd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1978.
Tuesday, June 15, 2010
Of course, the carbon footprint of a bottle of wine can’t be measured by shipping method and/or distance alone. Wine, like almost all agricultural products of our industrial age, is produced with fossil fuel inputs from the get-go, beginning with the fertilizers and sprays used in the vineyard all the way to the temperature controls during fermentation and aging, and, finally, the industrialized bottling processes. The bottles themselves are also products of industrial production using fossil fuels, and they have to be transported to the wine cellar from wherever they were made, using even more fossil fuel.
The questions that trehugger.com raised regarding whether and to what extent wine can be considered a “green” product at all have raised some additional questions in my mind. As I have watched the imminent end of cheap energy unfold and contemplated what this will mean for agriculture, I have realized that the wine industry will similarly have to change: we will no longer be able to count on the ready availability “two buck Chuck” at Trader Joe’s or similarly inexpensive California wine in our neighborhood groceries. We will soon have to begin relying on locally produced wine, made with locally grown grapes, just as much as locally produced lettuce.
But Ohio wines, at least the ones available in the Giant Eagle store, are sweet, cloying, grape juice-like products, aren’t they? Yuck. They hardly deserve to be called wines! Give me a good sip of Cabernet or Pinot Gris any day over that syrupy stuff! California, Chile, and Australia produce the best wines, unless, of course, price is no object and one wants to pay the premium for fine French or Italian vintages. But Ohio wine? Fuggedaboudit! Is it even possible that local winemakers in Ohio and other eastern and Midwestern states can produce wine from locally grown grapes that will satisfy the palates of those whose tastes in wine were forged with Californian, Chilean, or Australian vintages?
I will be addressing that concern, as well as some others, in the next few postings. Along the way, we’ll explore the complex (and fascinating) history of wine in the humid eastern part of North America, especially the particular challenges faced by anyone who wants to grow good wine grapes around here. Before we begin our survey of wine history, however, I would like to explain my interest and background in wine.
But first, some assumptions:
· I’m limiting this discussion to wine from grapes. Yes, wine can be made from other fruits, or even from non-fruits like dandelion blossoms, and many of these wines are very good, but usually sugar and water need to be added to the mashed fruit (called must, by the way) to achieve the right sweetness-acidity balance and to produce enough alcohol to preserve the wine. Grapes are the only fruits normally capable of achieving this balance without additives or amelioration; this is why grapes are the traditional favorite for wine production.
· If the global production of petroleum energy has not yet begun its irrevocable decline, it will do so within the next few years. I’ve already detailed some evidence for this in my earlier postings; here’s another report, this time from British insurance giant Lloyds.
· This means that petroleum fuels will never again be cheap; shipping costs will become an increasingly large percentage of the cost of any commodity delivered from faraway places, if it makes economic sense to ship them at all.
· American wine lovers’ appreciation for and dependence on wine shipped from places like Australia and Chile is likely to end in the next few years. Even California wines may become too expensive to afford or may even be largely unavailable east of the Mississippi. As our food supplies become increasingly localized, the need for wines from local sources will increase, if we are to have any wines at all.
· Additionally, agricultural inputs, especially fungicides, that help make viticulture and wine making possible in the humid East, may be in short supply or unavailable because of energy depletion. (I will discuss the reasons for viticulture’s dependence on these materials in a later post.)
· Wine can and should remain an important part of our diet and culture and is useful for other things in addition to its use as a beverage: most notably as an antiseptic and as a food preservative (especially for fruit).
· Winemaking is similar in many respects to other forms of food preservation: canning, cheese making, pickling, etc., and is not a difficult skill to learn. I am assuming that an eventual return to home-produced wines will be not only possible but in some ways preferable to reliance on commercially produced wines.
· I certainly don’t claim to be an expert on wine; far from it. I wish only to present my thoughts in hopes of starting a conversation about wine, local food, and local resilience in the face of energy depletion. Please feel free to correct any errors or post additional thoughts, opinions, or contemplations, in the comments.
Okay, now for my story. As many who know me well are quite aware, wine has long been one of my interests. This interest began soon after Liz and I were married. Just before she began her graduate studies at Bowling Green State University, we took a field trip to one of the islands in the western basin of Lake Erie. When we arrived on the island, we rented bicycles so we could explore the island more easily than on foot. It was quiet that day because the main tourist season had ended and it was a weekday. One of our stops was a winery that offered a visit to a cave on the premises, throwing in a tour of the wine cellar for a single admission fee. All I can remember about the winery tour is that it felt rushed and I don’t think we learned all that much about the winemaking process. But we got to taste some of the wines, and when we left we had to bicycle past their vineyards. The air was full of the sweet, pungent aroma of ripening grapes. Adding to that, these wines were not readily available on the mainland at the time, so finding a source for them became somewhat of a quest.
I was hooked. I started reading everything I could get my hands on about wine. I also began purchasing wines from as many winegrowing regions as possible, wines made from different kinds of grapes. I can recall offering, out of my ignorance, some odd bottles and/or odd combinations of wines at dinner parties we hosted for friends. I’m sure they wondered at times what I was up to! We also hosted some wine tastings at our house.
A few years later, when our first child was on the way and we were ready to move into our newly purchased house, I ordered some vines from a nursery. I asked permission to plant the vines in the back yard before we actually closed on the house (the home we were buying was unoccupied). I grew grapes there for seventeen years, until we moved from Bowling Green to Columbus. The wine I made was mostly drinkable; little was memorable, though I recall two or three batches that I thought were rather good. I even won an award or two at the county fair’s homemade wine judging. I learned a lot about the winemaking process, even though I remained and am still a novice at the craft.
Although I don’t grow grapes now (though that will likely be changing soon), we still visit wineries on occasion, and I have maintained my interest in the subject by frequent readings and, of course, by sampling all kinds of wines.
From the beginning, I was fascinated by the geography of wine—the different regions of the world where wine was made, the kinds of grapes grown in each region, and the particular character that the local sun and soil imparts to the finished wine. I reveled in trying out wine from odd corners of the world. Yet for some reason, I always came back to Ohio and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the other eastern and Midwestern states. Perhaps it’s because Ohio wines don’t often get much respect, as I already indicated, but also perhaps it’s because of my recognition that local food products go best with locally produced vintages.
Yes, food and wine are partners and always have been. The French and Italians know this very well. And they also know that the local wines almost always pair best with the local food specialties. They have had centuries of experience matching the local cuisines to the local vintages. Go to a restaurant in France or Italy and almost all the wines offered will be local. But here in North America, our cuisines are largely imported—from places like France and Italy, not to mention China, Mexico, Thailand, etc. So maybe it should be no surprise that, except in California and the Pacific Northwest, Americans seem to think that a wine from an exotic location like New Zealand must be better (or at least more interesting) than a wine produced locally from locally grown grapes. For example, the largest winegrowing region east of the Pacific states is the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York. Yet how many restaurants in, say, Albany or Syracuse, offer any Finger Lakes wines on their wine lists, let alone specialize in them? You’re more likely to find Yellow Tail from, literally, halfway around the world. How many residents of Manhattan, I wonder, know that premium wines are being produced on the eastern end of Long Island and in the lower Hudson Valley, both regions only two or three hours’ drive from the City?
Premium Ohio wines are even harder to find in Ohio’s restaurants, groceries, or wine shops. This is a curious situation, but one that is likely to change in the next several years. One of the most important reasons for this odd state of affairs is the fascinating and complex history of wine in eastern North America. Some of that history will be the subject for my next post. (In the meantime, hold your glass up to the light to check your wine’s clarity, swirl it around, and then put your nose in the glass and take in the aroma. Until next time, enjoy!)
Wednesday, June 2, 2010
It seems that one symptom of our tortured age is the fact that government--at all levels--has a hard time doing anything productive. Majoring in minors seems to be the current modus operandi for our legislative bodies. Legislative paralysis and ineffectiveness is a sign of the times.
From where I stand, this is where we are at the moment: poison continues pouring unabated into the Gulf of Mexico; the economic crisis in Europe threatens to bring the worldwide economic house of cards crashing down around us; here in Ohio, the rate of home foreclosures continues to rise while more and more commercial properties exhibit "available for rent" signs; Ohio's main manufacturing industry--automobiles--is largely on life support, which means we've seen lower tax revenues and looming cuts as the next biennial budget is slated for debate, beginning next month. The only positive news right now is that enrollment at the two schools where I teach is at record levels. This record student population provides us all with a bit of job security, though it's likely temporary as we are to a great extent state-funded. What happens if higher education tax support and government student loan support goes away?
I don't know about the rest of you, but I have a foreboding sense that we haven't seen anything in the way of economic dislocation yet. I get the feeling that the other shoe could drop at any time. Where this will all end is unknown. It's truly a scary time.
So what is our state legislature doing? Well, last week the Ohio Senate passed a bill that would allow concealed weapon permit holders to bring their guns into places that serve alcohol. That's right. In the face of imminent economic, ecological, and social collapse, this is clearly the hot issue of the year that they've decided they needed to focus their attention on. Of all the harebrained ideas...???!!! (Apologies to the hares--I really think they would be smarter than this.) Of course, according to this bill, the person who comes packing heat into Joe's Pub is required to abstain from imbibing. But how could that provision be enforced? After all, the excuse given for allowing concealed carry in the first place was to make sure others don't know who's packing. Presumably bartenders and maitre d's would be included among the ignorant. Leading law enforcement figures in Ohio have testified against this bill, stating the obvious: firearms and pints of ale are a potentially dangerous combination. If this provision becomes law, they testified, we'll see bar fights turn deadly. But never mind; the senators, in thrall as they clearly are to the gun worshipers, ignored both the officers' testimonies and other pleas for sanity.
Hopefully the Ohio House of Representatives, and/or Governor Strickland, will keep their heads screwed on when this bill shows up on their desks, and prevent(s) it from becoming law. But I don't think I'd wager any money on it.
Meanwhile, the toxic goo continues spilling out into the ocean, with no end in sight. Neither BP nor government officials, nor anyone else, seems to have a clue how to stop it. And hurricane season officially opened yesterday, with meteorologists predicting a "more active than average" season. This means we have a rather good chance of finding out what one gets when a Category 3 or 4 hurricane--or two or three or four of them--mates with a fountain of petroleum.
To top it off for now, the Columbus Dispatch reprinted a column from Charles Krauthammer in which he blames environmentalists for the Deepwater disaster. Yep, that's right. Krauthammer asserts that because tree-huggers have blocked drilling in ANWAR and shallower offshore waters, they're the reason folks like BP have been forced to drill in these increasingly treacherous locations.
Sorry, Charlie, but it ain't so. The reason BP and other oil companies are drilling in deep water and other hard-to-reach and hard-to-protect-from-spill sites is because we've already tapped out all the safer places to drill. All the easy-to-reach oil reserves have been exploited, and many of those reserves are in declining production. And another thing Krauthammer and other so-called conservatives (Drill, baby, drill? What is it they're "conserving" anyway?) don't understand: Expanded drilling isn't going to do more than temporarily slake our thirst for petroleum. Even if we allow drilling in these so-called "safer" places like ANWAR--which we probably will do, sooner or later--the amount produced won't offset the decline in production from the depleting wells in other places around the globe. The end of cheap petroleum is at hand; any newly developed sources are going to be increasingly costly--in monetary terms, in ease of access, and, potentially, in environmental harm.
Krauthammer and his ilk fail to understand a simple fact: our continued addiction to petroleum is to blame, not BP, not environmentalists, not the lack of effective regulation. We have painted ourselves into a corner by building a civilization on a finite resource--one that we knew from the beginning would eventually, someday, run short. And one that, so far at least, has no replacement in sight that can do everything that fossil fuels can do. As the US Joint Forces Command reported this past February (here, beginning on p. 24), like it or not, we're likely to begin experiencing petroleum withdrawal symptoms soon, as worldwide supplies begin to decline and demand picks up when the worldwide economy tries to recover. The Joint Forces Command predicts the end of surplus petroleum by 2012 and severe shortages--as much as ten million barrels a day--by 2015.
The scenario pictured by this prediction is not a pretty one. We need to be prepared for it, but nobody's talking about it, let alone making plans. Instead, our so-called leaders are stalemated or dealing with side issues like guns in bars. The only thing--the ONLY thing--that can put an end to this madness is for us to end our addiction to the stuff and to leave as much of it as possible in the ground. Energy writer Richard Heinberg's latest newsletter explains this all better than I can. I recommend reading it all the way through.
But as the inevitable oil crunch and the implosion of the global economy develops, and as legislative paralysis continues, we can surely expect more scapegoating from people like Krauthammer.
An ancient Chinese curse reads, "May you live in interesting times." I believe we're there. Interesting indeed.
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Saturday, May 8, 2010
Friday, May 7, 2010
But times have changed. We seem no longer able to afford the luxury of keeping oil wells out of our continental shelves. The Deepwater Horizon disaster comes on the heels of the president’s decision to open our shorelines to oil exploration and drilling. And despite the presidential moratorium on new drilling leases imposed since the spill, and despite renewed calls for a more permanent offshore drilling ban, it’s unlikely that any new ban will be nearly as long lasting as the 1981 restrictions. What has changed?
In J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy masterwork The Lord of the Rings, we learn about a precious metal called mithril. Found only in the dwarf mines of Moria, this metal had almost magical properties. It was stronger than tempered steel but very light in weight. It had the beauty and the sheen of ordinary silver, but it never tarnished. It was easy to work and could be made into many beautiful and useful objects. While it was still mined, it fetched ten times as much as its weight in gold. It was no wonder that the dwarves in Moria sought new sources for mithril ore. According to Gandalf, the dwarves dug deeper and further underground to seek for and to retrieve the ore, until one day they dug too deeply and unleashed a horrific evil from the dim, forgotten past: a fire-and-shadow, demon-like monster called a Balrog. This monster drove the dwarves out of their historic dwelling place, Moria; thus they paid a huge price for their mithril lust.
Petroleum, although it is not a metallic substance, has many qualities in common with mithril. We take it so much for granted that most of us have never contemplated what a wondrous material it really is. But like mithril, it too has almost magical properties. It can be burned, releasing almost unimaginable amounts of energy. It can be made into many useful (though perhaps not beautiful) substances: plastics, fertilizers, pesticides, medicines. It has become indispensable to our way of life. And in our seeking for it, and in our burning of it, we have released our own Balrogs. This and earlier oil spills are an example. Air and water pollution, chemical contamination, solid waste contamination, cancers, and climate instability are others.
It’s almost impossible to overstate our dependence on petroleum. It is behind almost everything we do, and it (along with other fossil fuels) has powered and sustained the industrial and technological revolutions that our civilization depends upon.
But the last and possibly the most fearful and powerful Balrog that will emerge is the one that was easiest to foresee; indeed it had been foreseen as early as the early twentieth century. This is the fact that petroleum is a finite resource found on a finite planet, and that eventually, someday, the petroleum party would end. And long before we actually run out of the stuff, we would run out of easily accessible sources. We would no longer be able to increase supply to meet any increased demand. But for most of the twentieth century, we put these thoughts out of our minds. We were having too much fun, after all.
In recent years, however, we’ve witnessed evidence that our lust for petroleum is beginning to butt heads with its finite nature. In every year since 1981, for example, geologists have found less petroleum in newly discovered deposits than we have burned. Since 2005, world production has not increased, despite higher prices that would earlier have encouraged producers to pump more out. And despite the lowering of demand caused by the current recession and the crash in oil prices in September 2008, prices have once again been creeping upward again.
During the last few months, a couple of reports have surfaced that should make all of us concerned. This past February, the United States Joint Forces Command issued its Joint Operating Environment 2010 report. This report, issued about every two years, deals with strategic and national security trends. As the nation’s guardians, the US military forces need to be prepared for all probable and possible future threats to the nation’s security. While this report is somewhat speculative and deals with possibilities and contingencies, and while it does not represent official government policy, it does discuss trends that the military believes needs to be taken into account as they plan for future defense needs. This February report contains some sobering information about near-term petroleum supply. It predicts a possible end to surplus production capacity in 2012 and a severe oil shortage of as much as 10 million barrels per day by 2015. (One can access the report here; the discussion of energy security begins on p. 24.)
This is very sobering news; indeed it truly is news in every sense of the word. An end to surplus petroleum capacity by 2012—that’s only 19 months away. The curious thing, then, is why this report, dealing with something that will directly affect all of us, and possibly soon, has been largely ignored by the domestic media. The United Kingdom’s Guardian reported it (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2010/apr/11/peak-oil-production-supply), but that’s about it.
Another report surfaced recently. Near the end of March, a Department of Energy official named Glen Sweetnam, who advises the president on petroleum issues, gave an interview to a French journalist. This interview was published online, in French. Here’s a translation: http://petrole.blog.lemonde.fr/2010/03/25/washington-considers-a-decline-of-world-oil-production-as-of-2011/. In the interview, Sweetnam predicts worldwide production declines, beginning next year, if investment in new production doesn’t materialize. Again, this report was not picked up by the domestic media. One wonders why.
Is the last Balrog, petroleum depletion, loose? We can’t know for sure until after it actually happens. But the Deepwater Horizon disaster indicates that access to the easy-to-get-to oil is disappearing. New drilling projects are going to be increasingly risky and increasingly expensive. This can only mean higher prices for all of us, and there may come a point of diminishing returns where attempting to pump out the petroleum might simply cost too much—both in dollars and in environmental threat—to be worth doing. Like the dwarves of Moria, we have painted ourselves into a corner by building a civilization that is so dependent on a finite, limited resource. Yes, there’s plenty of petroleum left out there. But it’s going to cost us more and more to retrieve it.
One final thought about the Deepwater Horizon disaster. I don’t think it does us much good to blame British Petroleum, lax government regulation, or “Big Oil,” for this disaster. As President George W. Bush said in his 2006 State of the Union address, “America is addicted to oil.” The nation that contains six percent of the world’s population burns 25 percent of its petroleum production. And our addiction is complicated by our sense of entitlement. We’re all implicated in the fouling of the Gulf of Mexico. We contribute to the dead wildlife every time we get into our cars and drive when we could have walked, bicycled, or taken public transport. We help contaminate the Gulf’s beaches by buying and wearing clothing made from petroleum-based synthetic fibers. We add to the oil slick every time we buy bottled water, milk, or soda in plastic jugs. Our lifestyles are inextricably linked to this disaster. So long as this oil addiction continues, we can count on more disasters of this kind.
Fighting a real Balrog might have been easier than untangling ourselves from our oil fix.
Tuesday, April 27, 2010
Although I believe this law is truly unjust and discriminatory, I do understand the frustrations of Arizonans at the failure of the US Congress to pass an immigration law that they and the rest of us can live with. But I’m not going to discuss this law, its implications, or the likely upcoming challenges to its constitutionality. Others have spoken more eloquently about the terrible wrongheadedness of this law, so I’ll let them speak (see here, here, and here for examples). Instead, I would rather dig deeper and discuss the topics of human migration, US history, and how our nation’s immigration policies might prepare for the future.
In a book I read recently, I came across a fascinating thought. Writer John Michael Greer writes about what he sees as the possible future of industrial society as fossil fuel energy becomes more costly. In writing about the probability of large-scale, worldwide human migration in the near future, he writes:
“The first ripples of the future flood can be seen by anyone who travels by bus through the rural United States anywhere west of the Mississippi River or south of the Mason-Dixon line. Stray from the freeways and tourist towns and culturally speaking, as often as not, you’re in Mexico instead of the United States: the billboards and window signs are in Spanish, advertising Mexican products, music and sports teams and people on the streets speak Spanish and wear Mexican fashions. It’s popular among Anglophone Americans to think of this as purely a Southwestern phenomenon, but it has become just as common in the Northwest, the mountain states and large sections of the deep South. There are some 30 million people of Mexican descent in the US legally and some very large number—no one agrees on what it is, but eight million is the lowest figure anyone mentions—who are here illegally. As the migration continues, much of what was once the United States is becoming something else.The American settlement of the West was a failure? This is certainly not a thought that ever came to my mind. I haven’t traveled extensively in the West, so I have no first-hand knowledge of what Greer is describing. And the deep South? Is it true that many of the good folks of Yoknapatawpha County will be celebrating Cinco de Mayo next week? I don’t know.
“A great deal of angry rhetoric has flared from all sides of the current debates on immigration, but none of it deals with the driving force behind these changes— the failure of the American settlement of the West. The strategies that changed the eastern third of the country from frontier to the heartland of the United States failed to work west of the Mississippi. Today the cities and farm towns that once spread across the Great Plains are fading into memory as their economic basis vanishes and the last residents move away, while the mountain and basin regions further west survive on tourist dollars, retirement income or cash crops for distant markets—none of them viable once cheap energy becomes a thing of the past.
“Like the Mongol conquest of Russia or the Arab conquest of Spain, the American conquest of the West is proving to be temporary, and as the wave of American settlement recedes, the vacuum is being filled by the nearest society with the population and the cultural vitality to take its place. The same thing is happening in Siberia, where Chinese immigrants stream across a long and inadequately guarded border, making the Russian settlement of northern Asia look more and more like a passing historical phase. Such shifts are very common when the reach of a powerful nation turns out to exceed its grasp.” (Greer 44-45)
However, in the early 1990s, Kathleen Norris wrote about the ongoing depopulation of the high plains; for example:
“You will pass a few modest homes and farm buildings along the way, some in use, others in disrepair. The most recently abandoned, a classic two-story farmhouse, has boarded-up windows and an extensive but weed-choked corral. A house abandoned years ago is open to the elements, all its windows and most of its shingles gone. A large shelterbelt, planted in the 1930s, is now a thicket of dead trees. Once the trees are gone the house will lean with the wind until it collapses; but that will be a while.” (Norris 161)Reports I have read and heard about this region indicate that depopulation has only increased in the eighteen or so years since Norris wrote these words. Lands in the western Great Plains given to families under the Homestead Act are proving unsuitable for sustained agriculture and are reverting to short grass prairie as the farms are abandoned.
While it’s doubtless too early to tell for sure whether Greer is right that Anglo occupation of the West is temporary (the “temporary” Arab occupation of Spain that Greer cites lasted 800 years, after all), it does make one ponder the fate of Anglo-American settlements that grew in the wake of US policies rooted in the doctrine of Manifest Destiny, that nineteenth century, quasi-religious notion that the USA was destined by divine right to spread across the North American continent. One of those policies is directly relevant to the immigrant question: Manifest Destiny was used to justify going to war against Mexico in the 1840s. The most significant result of that war was the US annexation of large parts of formerly Mexican territory: Colorado, Utah, California, and most of the desert southwest, including Arizona. Opponents of the Mexican War, most famously Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, saw it as a land grab and an attempt to expand slavery into new territories; supporters used Manifest Destiny to justify it.
However we might feel today about US control of these formerly Mexican lands and how we acquired them, it’s important to note that the US/Mexico border is and always has been an arbitrary line drawn across the desert and never a complete cultural divide. It seems to me that much of the current acrimony over illegal immigration has tended to forget this. We want to believe that nation states (including the United States, while making allowances for its ethnic diversity) are neat packages of culturally if not ethnically distinct human beings living within well-defined, secure borders, and that’s the way it’s always been. Historically this has not been the case; the fact that it has been the case for as long as anyone alive can remember is due to some unusual historical circumstances that encouraged the rise of the nation state in late Renaissance Europe. The United States was born during this period of nation state ascendancy, so we tend to think of it as normal. Like all periods of history, though, this state of affairs is certain not to continue forever, though it’s anyone’s guess as to when this particular set of circumstances might end.
For most of human history, ever since our first ancestors began migrating out of Africa on their way to populating the remotest corners of the globe, migration has been a normal state of affairs. Most of us are familiar with migration stories from history and legend: the biblical Hebrews come immediately to mind; then there were the Anglo-Saxons, who left their homes in what is now northern Germany (called Saxony to this day) to settle in southern Britain, pushing the Celtic Britons west into Wales, Brittany, and Cornwall. The Aryans migrated from an uncertain location in the Eurasian steppes and established themselves in India over 3,700 years ago, and the Celts themselves probably migrated into the westernmost outposts of Europe from the central Danube basin sometime around 500 BCE. Ancestors of the Navajo nation of the Arizona desert lived in the northwestern portions of Canada near the Great Slave Lake; they have legends of a time when their people lived in the frozen north.
The reasons for migration can be many: overpopulation, lack of sufficient resources, war, drought or famine, social pressures, religious persecution. Greer believes, and I concur with him, that many of these pressures are going to increase in the future as world population continues to grow and as resource depletion, such as fossil fuels, water, and soil, forces people once again to make these kinds of choices. And I haven’t even mentioned the potential pressure that climate upheaval may bring to bear on human populations. Already we’ve seen climate change refugees in some parts of the world.
Most Americans view illegal immigration as little more than a trespassing and economics issue, but if migratory pressures are in play here, it’s a far bigger set of circumstances than that. Whether Greer proves correct about the temporary nature of Anglo settlement of the West, it seems that migratory pressures in Mexico and other parts of Latin America may be increasing. Some have pointed to US farm subsidy policy, coupled with “free trade” agreements that allow subsidized US corn to be sold in Mexico for much less than local growers can produce it, forcing Mexican campesinos off their land and giving them an incentive to try their luck in the USA. Others point to population pressure. In the future, climate change and population may play a far larger role than economics.
The bottom line is that Arizona’s new law will fail, one way or another. Securing the borders, to the extent that we will be able to, is a federal, not a state responsibility. Congress needs to rise to the challenge and pass a comprehensive immigration law that both provides for just enforcement and accommodates the realities we face in a changing world. The longer Congress displays lack of courage to tackle this tough issue, the more excuses their inaction will offer others to take matters into their own hands, like Arizona has done.
We may be able to secure the border with a just law. But it’s also possible that future migratory pressures may become a force we cannot stop. In that case, the best we might be able to hope for is to manage the influx of refugees and migrants. Whatever happens, one thing appears certain, though: Manifest Destiny seems at last to be dead.
Greer, John Michael. The Ecotechnic Future. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society, 2009.
Norris, Kathleen. Dakota: A Spiritual Geography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993.