How Sexual Confusion May Be Responsible for Your Favorite WinePhoto by Alex Gorbi/Unsplash Drink Features wine
In the past several years, the consequences of climate change have started to become more and more apparent to more and more of the world. But for many who work in agriculture, the disastrous effects of climate change have already been apparent for decades. Farmers have had to alter their practices to ensure their crops’ success in rapidly warming fields as the water supply dwindles, and some of them have done so in… interesting ways.
In the wine world, fostering sustainability in the vineyard often means cutting down on or eliminating synthetic pesticides. While health concerns about consumers ingesting pesticide residue have been found to be largely overblown, these synthetic pesticides often take a toll on a winemaker’s land—not to mention the fieldworkers picking the grapes. The use of these chemicals can cause a reduction in biodiversity in the vineyards, which, in the age of organic and biodynamic wine, can be problematic for many reasons.
Therefore, some winemakers are turning to a different form of insect control called sexual confusion. No, it’s not that feeling you got in the locker room on the first day of middle school gym class. Rather, it’s a clever way of preventing insects from infesting vines and wreaking havoc on a vineyard.
While biodiversity in the vineyard is generally regarded as positive, there are some exceptions: notably, some species of moths that enjoy making grapevines their own. When these moths invade a vineyard, the female moths lay eggs that, in time, hatch into caterpillars. These tiny pests present a big problem: When they eat the grapes and their vines, it causes damage to the plant and can expose the grapes to disease. If it gets bad enough, this process can ruin a crop. And since winemakers only harvest a single crop a year, an infestation can destroy an entire year of a winery’s revenue.
This is where sexual confusion comes in. Winemakers practicing this technique essentially crush up male insects and then place their powdery remains into pouches that are distributed throughout a vineyard. When the (living) male moths find their way to the vineyard, they are met with what must be the undesirable odor of male moth pheromones. This actually may be closer to the feeling you got in the locker room on the first day of middle school gym class. Because it smells like a sausage fest, the male moths head out, assuming that there are no female moths to be found. No moth action means no moth babies, which means no vine damage from hungry baby insects.
Fascinating and effective as this technique may be, it hasn’t caught on everywhere. In fact, VinePair reported that only 3 percent of French winemakers used sexual confusion as a method of insect control as of 2017. Many of the French vineyards that do employ sexual confusion, though, are responsible for the most iconic sparkling wine: Champagne. As of 2017, 40 percent of the region’s vineyards used sexual confusion for insect control.
As winemakers and other agricultural workers attempt to find ways to preserve their land as climate change grips the ecosystem, sexual confusion can be a method and a model for a new agricultural standard in the wine world and beyond. Cutting down on insecticides that damage the land and put farmers at risk of disease is essential if we want to move toward a more ethical and sustainable agricultural future. So is sexual confusion as fun as it sounds? Maybe not. But if it helps continue to feed us (and provide us wine) as the world burns, I guess it’s still pretty cool.