Why organic farming isn't enough: a conversation with Graham O'Rourke

Graham O'Rourke - proprietor and winemaker of Tightrope Winery on the stunning Naramata Bench - believes there is a need to move beyond farming organically. "In some cases, organic farming is not necessarily sustainable. Some of the organically registered pesticides are very damaging to beneficial insects, corrosive to equipment and even neighbourly relations."

Graham is the sort of man who leaves an impression. A ferocious passion coupled with an outspoken nature embodies his wealth of knowledge and experience in farming grapes.

Having participated as a panellist at my recent Sensory Symposium wine conference, Graham left many of the attendees captivated with his unapologetic statements.

An old world approach to making wine defines his vision - spontaneous fermentation, minimal tractor use, next to no spraying - buzzwords in the hot category of natural wine today. However, Graham isn't concerned with trends or what's cool - they do not market themselves as natural or minimal intervention - even though they could.

The quietly noble O'Rourke family are making honest wines and doing what is right - as opposed to what is convenient.

I had the opportunity to chat with Graham recently, and below is our conversation.

What's your approach to farming in the Okanagan?

My approach to farming grapes in the Okanagan is a simple one. Only do what is necessary for the wine. If it doesn’t make the wine better, it’s not required. 

You've mentioned that you use drone mapping - what is it, and why do you use it?

We use the normalized difference vegetation index - NDVI imagery - to help with irrigation changes, compost application and harvest decisions. The image is basically a vegetative index of the vineyard, high vigour versus low vigour. 

Why should we go beyond organic farming?

Spraying vineyards with lime sulphur is a great example of why: very broad spectrum in the damage it causes to spiders and other beneficial insects, extremely corrosive to anything it comes in contact with, and is poison to our respiratory systems. This, plus other things organic doesn’t explain very clearly to the consumers that it actually means more is required: more spraying of sulphur to control mildew, more tractor time (causing more soil compaction), more fuel to run the equipment, more wear and tear on sprayers and other equipment. What people don’t understand is there are pesticides being used in organic farming. Most people believe it means spray free - which it doesn’t at all.

Can you talk about biodiversity and why it's so important? What current practices or measures are you taking to reflect it?

Biodiversity helps the natural environment around a vineyard setting balance itself out. We use cover crops here to help attract beneficials as well as provide those same beneficials a food source when no pests are actually around. An example is our cover crop - phacelia, alyssum, and chicory in the mix for the flowers to attract. Also, different clovers to help break up the soils and provide nitrogen fixing properties. Our use of compost and other organic fertilizers helps us build the soil health so the plants can be slightly resistant to some pests and then a threshold for those pests that has allowed to find a good balance here. We haven’t used any insecticides here since 2009 and that was a very small targeted area of cutworm control that was absolutely necessary as 2009 was the year we were establishing our vine trunks.

Do you have any experience with or can you comment on the importance of fungi and fecundity in soil?

Not directly. I sort of rely on the scientists and all the work they do during their research for the answers. Pacific Natural and compost are used here to help build positive soil health, plus greatly reduced herbicide usage over the last 5 years is showing some benefits as well. We have wild fermented our Pinot Noir here so I have to always be conscious of anything I apply in the vineyard to not disturb this balance.

What is your approach for dealing with climate change?

Climate change is happening and it’s real but as for my practices I just use the science to match the current season with my viticulture approach. I agree that changes are happening but other than our 1/2 acre of Barbera, I will let the others experiment with different varieties.

Is dry farming possible in the Okanagan?

Short answer is no. Some older, more mature vineyards in wetter years can get away with not irrigating or at least very little irrigation, but it is too hot and dry here to establish a new vineyard without supplemental irrigation.

How do you limit machine use in your vineyards? Is a future without tractors a possibility for you or are the labour costs associated too high?

Tractors are required due to the equipment we need to use to complete tasks. Spraying requires tractors due to the weight of and power required to run them accurately - I am talking mowing and fungicide spraying. All other tasks can be completed without a tractor, ie leaf pulling, vine trimming (if necessary) and harvest. The important thing is timing, don’t drive when soil is wet to avoid compaction and have the tire pressure set so that the weight is better distributed across a larger area. Also, only drive a tractor in a vineyard when necessary. A vineyard is a farm and can be a little messy, some people just mow their vineyards to the romance of a beautifully landscaped piece of dirt.

What's your approach for spraying?

Spray what works and when needed, nothing more.

You can find Tightrope Winery on the Naramata Bench. Learn more here: https://www.tightropewinery.ca/


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