Today, Christian Ress is more of an entrepreneur in the wine industry than a winemaker. But even as a young boy, he was fascinated by plants. What started with a small herb garden in a cut-open wooden barrel, was later expanded with a small greenhouse as a big Christmas wish, and finally resulted in a respectable vegetable garden on a neighbor's property, from which the family was henceforth supplied with lettuce, tomatoes and zucchinis, among other things. Even then, Christian Ress was reluctant to use poison in his own garden. As early as elementary school age, he experimented with biological plant protection and sought advice from his grandfather's experienced sisters, who had been cultivating fruit and vegetables in their own garden for decades. At age 7, he goes to the nearby gas station and comes back with a six-pack of beer, which likely caused concerned frowns in the neighborhood. He uses the beer in the garden against slugs and the nettle decoction against aphids.
In preparation for working in his parents' winery, Christian Ress works in the vineyards of his own winery as well as friendly French wineries and in a Rheingau nursery during his school years. During and after his studies, he became involved with large wineries in Franconia and Bordeaux. Nowhere does organic farming play a role. Christian gets to know viticulture over many years as "conventional agriculture" - in his own winery as well as in the wineries of friends - and gets used to this way of working, which continues to be "standard" in viticulture all over the world to this day.
In 2009, a year before Stefan Ress had long planned to hand over management of the winery to his son Christian, the journal "Chemical Research in Toxicology" published a study on experiments with various pesticides containing glyphosate and human cells. Administered in sufficient concentrations, it causes cell death. The authors of the study conclude that there are possible health risks for humans. Christian Ress reads about it in the press. In view of the upcoming assumption of full, even formal responsibility for all actions in the winery in 2010, he is concerned. The thought of having to instruct the use of potentially carcinogenic weedkillers in the coming year as managing director, which could endanger not least his employees, worries him greatly and fuels his interest in alternatives - just as it did 30 years ago in his vegetable garden.
As general manager, one of his first groundbreaking decisions in 2010 is to immediately abandon this poison. There is a switch to mechanical wild weed control instead of chemical. The term "weed" gradually disappears from the team's vocabulary.
Christian Ress is looking into the idea of taking further steps, possibly in the direction of holistic ecologically certified viticulture. Lacking his own experience in organic viticulture, he changes the composition of the viticulture team and brings in employees with organic experience to deal with the issue calmly and under consideration of all risks - including the economic ones. The renunciation of glyphosate clearly shows that the new way of working has its price, namely higher production costs. In order to work sustainably, sufficiently high profits are needed: without profit, there is no investment and thus no future. And so, over the course of several years, Christian Ress and his team are approaching the issue plot by plot, the resulting extra work, the costs involved, the impact on yields and the wines themselves, and the reaction of customers, from whom they hope to see a willingness to gradually pay higher prices for Balthasar Ress wines.
In this process, Christian Ress and his team draw courage from the many positive experiences and do not allow themselves to be distracted from their common goal by setbacks that also exist. Over time, you can see in the vineyards that nature has regained a little more influence. You can literally smell and feel that it is less suppressed than before and that, contrary to popular belief, agricultural monoculture is also possible in greater harmony with nature.
In 2016, the team finally felt ready for the conversion of the entire farm of then already about 45 hectares. No farm of this size in the state of Hesse had previously dared to take on this task. Vineyards that convert to organic farming receive financial support for 3 years to at least partially offset the costs of conversion. And so the application for certification and funding as an organic farm is made - in 2016, of all years. The weeks of rainfall this year coupled with warm temperatures lead to a historically high infestation of peronospora, downy mildew, one of the major challenges in organic viticulture. Ernst Büscher of the German Wine Institute says that "the infestation pressure has not been this high for decades." There is no turning back: the year 2016 will be a baptism of fire. When this unusually complicated vintage with its crop failures is survived and worked through, Christian Ress's team is more equipped than ever for the new way of working.
Organic vineyard management promotes a self-regulating ecosystem that does entirely without synthetic chemical substances such as toxic herbicides or pesticides. The big goal in organic viticulture is to build and maintain a balanced ecosystem through a vineyard cycle.
"You can tell if a vineyard is organic or not. Organic vines have smaller leaves with a different structure. They are much rougher and thicker than leaves in conventional vineyards. If you compare the leaves, it feels like someone is eating healthy food or just eating fast food. The leaves are limp and very large, which is not typical of Riesling. In ours, the leaves are quite small because the vine has to work much harder to fight the fungal diseases. It is much busier, like giving an antibiotic comparatively. As a result, the vines naturally live longer and produce much better quality." Tim Knauer, field operations manager at Balthasar Ress, is convinced of this.
From now on, the daily routine of the Balthasar Ress field team will be shaped by the four important aspects of organic viticulture:
Fertilizer and compost management
A harmonious supply of nutrients is an important prerequisite for the health of the vine and the quality of the wine. Through measures such as year-round planting with various plants, the Balthasar Ress team positively influences the proportion of organic matter in the soil, thereby promoting natural communities and active soil life.
Soil fertility takes on a very special significance due to the absence of mineral fertilizers. The decisive role is played by the billions of microorganisms that control the constant building and rebuilding processes in the soil. A fertile soil has a good soil structure and thus also prevents erosion, which in turn protects water bodies and groundwater.
Tim Knauer vividly describes his idea of a good soil as follows: "The soil should be more alive than a Friday evening at the Wiesbaden Wine Week."
Species-rich, flowering greening is an elementary component of ecologically managed vineyards.
"We run the full gamut: herbaceous species like alfalfa, flowers, poppies, wild carrots, caraway seeds. Each flower blooms at a different time, so we always have flowers that bloom and fade. This makes for a really active and vibrant vineyard. The previous school was to just sow turf. If you imagine a soccer field, for example: how many bees and wasps are buzzing around there?! That's right, none at all!", says field manager Tim Knauer, explaining the greening management impressively and adding: "We are not only hosts for our customers, but we are also hosts for insects. In the vineyard, we have such a real halligalli, a little paradise."
The fact that insects feel at home in Ress's vineyards is evident from a very special guest: wild bees took up residence a few years ago. This wild bee colony has since been brought safely to the winery by the Balthasar Ress team, where the wild bees live to this day - supported by a beekeeper - and diligently produce honey.
The greening in summer is also used to compete with the vine, to slow its growth and direct the vine's "concentration" on the grapes. On the other hand, the winter greening, which is turned over in the spring, has the task of providing the vine with nutrients.
The basis of plant protection in organic viticulture is the promotion of plant health through natural self-regulation. In contrast to conventional methods, organic viticulture does more to prevent than to cure.
Balanced growth and an airy foliage wall structure help keep the vine healthy. Nesting facilities and flowering strips attract beneficial insects and contribute to a stable ecosystem. Rock meals, whey powder or plant extracts are used as plant strengtheners. The reproduction of the grape berry moth, a major animal pest, is suppressed without killing it using the pheromone entanglement method. The small brown ampoules in the vineyard testify to the use of this method.
Tim Knauer explains it again vividly: "If you're smart, you eat lemon and carrot to increase your resistance and take vitamins, and you don't take antibiotics when you have a cold. That's exactly how we do it in the vineyard."
However, organic viticulture is not entirely without plant protection measures. There is a very limited selection of agents approved for use in organic viticulture, and their use is strictly regulated. The main agents used to control fungal diseases are net sulfur, copper preparations and baking soda. "Although it must be said, of course, that copper and sulfur are not the perfect agents either," admits Tim Knauer, "but as things stand today, there is simply nothing else currently available that could be used instead. Copper and sulfur are two of the oldest preparations ever used in viticulture. Other agents are often no longer effective because fungi have built up resistance. There is no resistance to copper and sulfur, however."
Synthetically produced pesticides are completely dispensed with in organic viticulture - in the service of the health of people and nature.
Timely foliage work aimed at a well-exposed and loose foliage wall is of great importance. For this purpose, we remove shoots, water shoots, stem shoots and root shoots, and wrap new shoots in a wire frame instead of shortening them in order to prevent infections with pathogens. "For this, we go through a row in the vineyard up to four times in a season," says Tim Knauer, illustrating the scope of this work.
Too many leaves, which lead to compaction of the foliage wall and thus to reduced aeration of the grape zone, increase the risk of fungal diseases and thus also of rotten grapes. Therefore, defoliation is done both mechanically and manually. In the course of climate change, a lot of tact is needed. This is because, to avoid sunburn, only the east-facing side of the foliage is defoliated, which is hit by the morning sun. In the morning, the grapes are still cool from the night and thus less susceptible to sunburn, which must be avoided. The western side, on the other hand, tends to be left untouched for protection from the hot afternoon sun.
"The result of the organic approach is healthy and strong grapes with harder and firmer skins that have a better, more intense and concentrated aroma." Tim Knauer summarizes the result, "Everything you need for a fine wine is in and on the berries. Because directly under the berry skin, that is, between the skin and the pulp, are all the aromas and colorants, and on the berry skin are the yeasts."
Christian Ress now considers the path taken to be irreversible. "Not only are we finally dealing with a real and important global megatrend here," he says. "I simply think it's fundamentally wrong to produce a luxury product - and that's what wine is - for a privileged few consumers at the expense of the general public's natural resources." Even the entire Balthasar Ress team at his side, may not imagine any other way of working today. Working ecologically is a way of life. We want to work with nature, not against it. Out of respect.
And so, just in time for the anniversary year 2020 - the year in which the company celebrates its 150th anniversary - the first Balthasar Ress wine with the EU's organic seal will be launched on the market. Because only where it says "organic" is it really organic! Consumers can now rely on this from Balthasar Ress.
Who would have thought that the founder's maxim at the time, "Rein Sei Der Wein!" (Let the wine be pure), anticipated what generations later would again fit so perfectly.