TRAVERSE CITY — Winemaker Jay Briggs rolled the dice on a unique experiment this year on a small plot of grape vines at the Forty-Five North Winery and Vineyard in Lake Leelanau.
His test involved eschewing pesticides and spraying grape vines only with water laced with ozone. The theory is that naturally occurring ozone could help prevent the onset of pests and molds on plants while reducing the need for pesticides.
“We tried it out on a pretty neglected block of grapes … we sprayed the vines every six or seven days,” Briggs said.
Afterward, Briggs took careful note and found no new bugs or molds.
“We saw some pretty neutral results, which is good,” Briggs said. “It’s a no news is good news type of thing.”
Spraying grape vines with ozonated water not only captured Briggs’ interest, but also that of researchers and winemakers as far away as California and Nebraska.
Traverse City businessman William Siegmund, managing director of local business Pure Water Works, is interested, too. He’s working with the Nebraska-based inventor of the technology, Ernie Wilmink, to promote the idea locally.
“We’ve gotten a real solid response from people, especially those people looking for more organic pest controls,” Siegmund said.
Ozone spraying technology is being sold under the business name AgriOzein. Wilmink invented the technology by building a machine that sucks in air and runs it through a compressor and what he calls an “oxygen concentrator.”
Nitrogen is removed and ozone is generated, then forced through a sprayer. The device is pulled by a tractor through vineyard rows and sprayed manually on plants.
Wilmink said he came up with the idea to help reduce the use of chemicals in vineyards while pursuing “absolute cleanliness in the world of winemaking.”
“Ozone is a lot more effective than chemicals,” Wilmink told the Record-Eagle. “Everyone is excited about this, especially when you look through all the usage of chemicals in the agricultural industry. There are millions of gallons (of pesticides used), and everyone knows it’s not good for the environment and it’s not good for the water.”
But whether the technology works and can be used on a commercial scale is still up for debate. Wilmink said vineyard operators in Colorado, Kansas and Europe tried the technology and like what they see.
Local MSU Extension officials said they didn’t know enough about the process to comment. Mark Johnson, winemaker at Chateau Chantal, echoed those officials.
Johnson said he also wants to reduce the use of pesticides in vineyards, but he doesn’t know enough about the use of ozone to say whether it might work. He’s concerned that using ozone may require more spraying, and he questions whether ozone can prevent disease.
“I don’t like driving through the vineyard with a tractor more than I have to because of soil compaction,” Johnson said. “The rows are narrow and we drive in the same spot every time.”
Dr. Paul Read is a professor of viticulture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said he’s definitely intrigued by the idea and is studying it.
“It (ozone) clearly has value in the winery for cleaning tanks and hoses and maintaining and achieving a microbe-free environment, which is extremely helpful,” Read said. “The jury is still out regarding its use in the vineyard.”