GENEVA, SWITZERLAND – Emmanuel Giboulot, who has become a hero in the world of organic wines, was handed a €500 fine by a judge in Dijon, France Monday 7 April,for refusing to spray his wine grapes with a strong insecticide. He was ordered, along with other growers in the Cote d’Or region in Burgundy, to spray the vines last July as a preventive measure against leafhoppers. The otherwise harmless insect can be a carrier of an incurable vine disease called flavescence dorée.
The disease was first reported in 1949 in the Armagnac region in France and after nearly 65 years the only solution once it appears in a vineyard is to burn infected vines and use insecticide as a preventive measure. The product that is used has a broad impact, argue grape growers who are reluctant to use it, saying it kills useful insects as well as the leafhopper.
Giboulot has pointed out that the insecticides used haven’t stopped the march of the disease and that they weaken nature’s ability to fight it because it doesn’t precisely target just the leafhopper. Some of his fellow organic wine producers refer to it as napalm.
Giboulot’s fine is far smaller fine than the €30,000 one he risked, and a far cry from the prison sentence the judge could have slapped him with, but even the public prosecutor had called for only €1,000 with some of it suspended, in acknowledgement of widespread public anger over the case. The Burgundy grower’s appearance in court in February prompted protests and an internet petition to dismiss the case, signed by thousands.
Growing interest in organic, biodynamic in France fueling the debate
Organic and biodynamic (a philosophic step beyond organic) winemaking in France looked like a quirky fad 15 years ago but growing numbers of producers are turning to the method and rejecting the use of chemicals, sparking heated debates over their use. Public enthusiasm for the wines has grown, but many wine producers privately say they favour it for their own health: they don’t want to work with insecticides such as the one used to kill leafhoppers. “I’m sorry, but we’re not against this just for the sake of the public’s health,” a French wine producer told me last week at a Swiss wine fair where he was showing his wines. “It isn’t safe for us!”
The case has been watched closely in Switzerland, where far fewer chemicals are used in the vineyards than in France. The Federal Agriculture Office last month cautioned grape growers to be extremely vigilant if they want to avoid a similar decree because the leafhopper is slowly spreading in Switzerland.