Whose Good Is Greater?

Winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair (PHOTO:  domaine thibault liger-belair)

Winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair (PHOTO:  domaine thibault liger-belair)

"It is for the greater good" is a phrase often uttered when a person (or, just as likely, a government entity) wants someone to do something they don't see is in their best interests. For wine lovers, there is a very clear case of this in the news today when a French court case was settled, sort of.

Our role is to observe, understand and act to meet the needs of the vines and so help them reach their full natural potential. At all times, it is essential to remain humble before the magic of our soils.
— Winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair

The story actually began two years ago when the provincial office of the French Ministry of Agriculture instructed winemakers in Saône-et-Loire to spray pesticides on their vineyards to help eradicate a tiny insect called a leaf hopper. This particular leaf hopper (there are many types) carries a bacteria that infects grape vines with a disease called "flavescence dorée," a particularly debilitating disease that turns leaves yellow and eventually kills the vine, and for which there is no cure. The only way to treat it is to rip out infected grape vines or, as the French wanted to do, proactively eradicate the leaf hopper, the carrier of the disease before the disease got to their region.

The issue of greater good came up when winemaker Thibault Liger-Belair refused to spray. He is a visible and highly praised proponent of biodynamic agriculture who argued that the use of the proposed pesticide is not permitted in biodynamics. Biodynamics relies on a healthy and cooperative eco-system in which beneficial organisms help restrain the harmful organisms, and the pesticide would indiscriminately kill all the bugs, the good along with the bad. So, Liger-Belair basically said, "No way. I'm not spraying. So sue me." And the French did. They sued him in local court, and this week, they lost.

A vine infected with flavescence dorée (Photo: Josef Klement  [CC 2.0]  )

A vine infected with flavescence dorée (Photo: Josef Klement [CC 2.0] )

As you might imagine, Liger-Belair's position has had mixed reviews but, thanks to his visibility as a top producer in both Beaujolais and Burgundy, he got a lot of attention. Supporters of biodynamic and organic agriculture applaud him and those following conventional agriculture revile him because their pesticide efforts mean nothing if someone refuses to use pesticides in an adjacent vineyard. The issues at the heart of this effort are hardly resolved, however - the court dismissed the suit on a technicality, and never ruled on Liger-Belair's position, though to him this still represents a victory. Quoted in Decanter magazine, he said he, "wanted to denounce the aberrations of an administrative decision that does not take into account agronomic reality."

The winemaker said, "This is not my own victory; this is a victory for all vignerons who have minds of their own and who adopt an environmental philosophy." But is it really a victory? Will a dialogue ensue or will the local government just take another run at the issue and this time avoid a technical foul?

What is clear is that there are merits on both sides of the argument and either side could claim to be in support of a "greater good." The specter of the phylloxera epidemic that wiped out most of France's vineyards in the late 19th century (and many vineyards in the U.S. 20 years ago) looms over the debate, and I expect this issue will come up more and more as organic and biodynamic agriculture grows in popularity.