Lodi grapegrowers are uneasily waiting to learn if their vines are damaged and whether they can legally harvest their grapes after a cloud of unexpected herbicides drifted across their vineyards in May.
The vines are casualties of the escalating struggle for water in drought-stricken California. The herbicides were used in an attempt to secure more water for farmers this year, but had the opposite effect, as that water can't be used for anything now.
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Moreover, it's possible that some Lodi and other San Joaquin County grapes may be rejected this year if they show residue of the broad-range herbicides Roundup Custom and Polaris SP.
Private company Delta Wetlands Properties acquired four low-lying islands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta 25 years ago to store excess water that falls or washes onto the islands during the winter, and sell it in summer. General manager Dave Forkel says Delta Wetlands is still going through the permitting process for the project.
This year, Delta Wetlands leased one of the four, Bouldin Island, to public agency Semitropic Water Storage District, which wanted to harvest groundwater from the island and sell it in a year when agricultural water has been hard to come by.
Ordinarily, the island is farmed with summer crops of corn, milo and alfalfa. Semitropic wanted the fields fallow all summer, because weeds absorb water, so it sprayed them with Roundup Custom and Polaris SP, provided by San Francisco-based agricultural company Wilbur-Ellis.
However, something went amiss and Wilbur-Ellis issued a letter in June saying in part: "We understand that some of these chemicals may have drifted east and north of the target fields, onto crops for which they may not be labeled." The letter does not say how far the herbicides may have drifted, but some reports say it could have been more than 30 miles.
There will be lawsuits, according to Bronco Wine CEO Fred Franzia. But untangling exactly who will be sued is more complicated than usual. Delta Wetlands blames its tenant, Semitropic. Wilbur-Ellis blames a third-party applicator. Semitropic did not return calls seeking comment.
"Everyone's in a holding pattern, trying to figure out what's going to happen," says Kevin Phillips, vice president of operations for Michael David Winery.
Franzia says that some Lodi growers are already seeing deformities in their grapevines, and no one is sure if the damage will linger past one growing cycle. "We're checking to make sure there's no residue inside the grapes."
The deal really went awry for Semitropic when the state water board rescinded approval for transferring the water a week after the spraying incident, leaving the company with fallow fields, unsellable water and a host of potentially litigious grapegrowers.
Polaris SP is usually found in timber farms, not vineyards, but Roundup is already used on more vineyards in California than the wine industry would like to admit. In fact, it's allowed by the California Certified Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
However, Phillips says that it's usually applied at ground level, not whichever way the wind blows, and usually long before May.
There's little risk to people from the exposure, says Paul Verdegaal, farm advisor for University of California in San Joaquin County. But all crops, not just grapes, that were in the way of the wind are in trouble.
"These compounds are so safe for people and the environment. That's why they were chosen," Verdegaal says. "But they're very effective on commercial crops, unfortunately, and they've very effective even at very low concentration. They went straight to the shoot tips (of grapevines). There was damage and we're in unknown territory about whether it will have an effect next year."
It's worth pointing out that no Lodi wines in stores are affected and, thanks to the early warning, none are expected to be in the future.
For now, more than 200 growers who might be affected can only wait for the results of county tests. Franzia, one of the largest growers in California, pointed out that even the worst of news won't have a big impact on the state's harvest in 2014.
"It's only affecting 5 percent of the industry," Franzia said. "It could be a big deal for some, but not in the overall picture. That's why people have insurance."