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Vineland Estates unveils Niagara-made sustainable grape growing breakthrough

By Rick VanSickle

In the fall of 2021, Niagara grape growers were hit with a devastating blanket of grape-killing mildew that spread quickly and effectively from vineyard to vineyard.

Winemakers did what they could to save the harvest, but in the end up to 5,000 tonnes of fruit — or in more relatable terms, five million bottles of wine — was impacted by the mildew and rot caused by wet conditions in 2021. I was there in the vineyard as Vineland Estates winemaker Brian Schmidt, seen in the top photo with Joe Symons, general manager of Clean Works, and his team tried to save what they could of the infested grapes. It wasn’t a fun sight and, unfortunately, one that is repeated often in Ontario.

Ninagara wine
Grapes impacted by powdery mildew.

On Monday, that same winery on the Twenty Mile Bench unveiled a breakthrough technological innovation in sustainable grape growing that will benefit winemakers around the world. This made-in-Niagara technology protects grapevines from mildew and other pathogens without the use of synthetic chemical pesticides.

“This technology is the greatest breakthrough in natural sustainable food preservation since the discovery of pasteurization over 150 years ago,” said Allan Schmidt, president of Vineland Estates.  “It’s a quantum leap forward in sustainable grape and wine production that will provide cost savings and environmental benefits to wine regions all over the world.”

Utilizing a patented process developed by St. Catharines based Clean Works, a combination of ultraviolet light, ozone and a small amount of hydrogen peroxide mist provides more than 99% protection against powdery mildew, downy mildew, black rot and other pathogens which are significant threats to grape vines.

Vineland Estates partnered with Clean Works and developed and tested machinery that is fitted to a grape Harvester (with help from Lakeview Vineyard Equipment Inc.) to apply the process in the field to grapes while growing on the vine.

“This breakthrough will greatly reduce the need for synthetic fungicide sprays, which are very costly for the grower and not as effective. There is no chemical residue in our process – the only by-products are oxygen and water. This is a seismic shift in sustainable grape and wine production,” said Brian Schmidt.

The technology breakthrough stems back to 2016-17 when Paul Moyer of Niagara’s Moyer Farms sought help due to a listeriosis outbreak that threatened his significant candy apple production. He turned to Dr. Keith Warriner, a University of Guelph food scientist, for a solution involving ultraviolet light, ozone and a small amount of hydrogen peroxide mist, which killed the virus impacting his candy apples. As the technology improved over the years, Allan Schmidt approached Moyer to see if the process could possibly work on wine grapes.

Riding shotgun on the re-tooled harvester with Vineland Estates Brian Schmidt.

In 2021, Vineland teamed up with Clean Works to find a way to adapt the ground-breaking discovery for grape production. “Even if we could eliminate the chemical impact by 50% it would be successful,” Brian Schmidt told me Monday as he showed Wines in Niagara the re-tooled Harvester in action in one block of Vineland’s St. Urban Riesling vineyard.

Vineland Estates has been testing and verifying the process in the greenhouse and their vineyards over the past two years. Earlier this month, Clean Works (in research partnership with Vineland Estates) was named a Grand Prize winner in Agriculture Canada’s Food Waste Reduction Challenge for the development of technological solutions to food waste.

Vineland Estates winemaker Brian Schmidt, left, and Allan Schmidt, president of the estate, right.

“The Clean Works technology is a proven solution,” said Denise Vanderveen, director of business development at Clean Works. “The technology has been commercial for several years in decontamination and protection of fruits, vegetables, production lines and in health care. By taking it into the vineyard, this new application method of the technology will change grape and wine production around the world for the better.”

The most common solution for battling mildew in the vineyard, up until now, has been an application called the “Bordeaux mixture,” a combination of copper sulfate, lime, and water. It’s an effective fungicide and bactericide that has been used for decades to control diseases of fruit and nut trees, grapes, and ornamental plants. One downside is using copper in a sustainable vineyard. Another detriment for using the Bordeaux mixture is the extreme use of water, explained Brian Schmidt. “It’s water based and uses a tremendous amount of water — 20,000 litres of water every day.”

Schmidt and Vineland want another year of experimenting before determining best practices in the estate’s vineyards. To be effective, he says, he wants the tricked-up Harvester that has the UV lights, ozone and hydrogen peroxide mist on board and sprays the vines as the tractor straddles the row to be test at a speed of 5 km/h while treating multiple rows at a time. “Based on last year, we believe it was 100% effective,” he said. “But just to make sure, we’re testing for one more year.”

Schmidt calls it “the most sustainable innovation in grape growing in 100 years. It’s a made in Ontario solution that solves a global problem.” He sees this innovation as being embraced world-wide to solve a wide range of agricultural products.

About Vineland Estate Winery

Established in 1984 and located in the Niagara Peninsula with over 100 acres of estate vineyards, this winery produces over half a million bottles of Ontario VQA wines annually. Vineland Estates is one of only a few dozen wineries in Ontario that are Sustainable Winegrowing Ontario certified.

About Clean Works

Clean Works is a St. Catharines-based technology company. Clean Works’ patented process from pre-harvest to post-harvest solutions, an award-winning gas-phase homogenous technology has demonstrated its effectiveness in eliminating up to 99.99% of pathogens and food-spoiling organisms, Clean Works has successfully commercialized its technology in six countries, making a global impact.