Food & Drink

The ‘go-to guy’ for sick grapes

GEOFF HALE looks at some of the vines at Burbank Ranch in Templeton. He provides nutrient consultations to grape growers from Mendocino to Santa Barbara.
GEOFF HALE looks at some of the vines at Burbank Ranch in Templeton. He provides nutrient consultations to grape growers from Mendocino to Santa Barbara.

In 2010, Ruben Nodal noticed gaps in his grape bunches where berries had dropped off. The phenomenon known as “shattering” was happening just two years after the vines had been planted at Burbank Ranch in Templeton, where Nodal is ranch manager.

Commiserating with others in the industry repeatedly yielded the same piece of advice: Call Geoff Hale.

Hale is a technical manufacturer’s representative with Nutrient Technologies, a Dinuba-based company. Although he lives in Paso Robles, he provides nutrient consultations to growers from Santa Barbara County to Mendocino County, as well as portions of Hawaii.

Originally, Hale was headed toward an entirely different scientific field. He grew up in Hawaii, then Arcata, Calif. After a stint in the Navy, he attended the University of Arizona in Tucson, with plans to become a marine biologist.

“The demand for marine biologists was pretty low, so we were being counseled that there was a real need for people in agriculture,” he said. “I took a few ag classes and found that I really liked them.”

He graduated with a bachelor’s in plant science in 1977, first working with Sunkist growers, then as a consultant for a pest control company in the Tulare area of the San Joaquin Valley. Although he was primarily focused on insect infestations, he was nurturing a growing interest in plants’ nutritional needs.

Hale, who has been with Nutrient Technologies since 2001, likens his work to that of a physician.

“Plants have a basic ratio of needs of nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, calcium, iron. You don’t want to be too high or too low in any element,” he said. “It’s akin to all of us deciding every day whether to eat well-balanced food or junk food. And the result may be you come to the doctor with various symptoms if you’re not eating right.”

Although Hale tends to all manner of vegetable and fruit crops, his specialty is wine grapes, and for good reason. Wine grapes tend to have more nutrient deficiencies than other crops. Whereas vegetables are usually grown in areas with rich soil, wine grapes are often grown on hillsides in the tradition of European vineyards. Although hillsides yield better colors and flavors in wine, the soil tends to be less nutrient-rich.

When the nutrient ratio is off for grapes, it can result in a host of problems for the crop and the resulting wine, one of the most problematic being a late harvest. The longer grapes hang on the vine, the greater the chance that they will be exposed to mildew-inducing rains or withering frosts.

Severe deficiencies offer up clues such as yellowed leaves or irregular growth, but often, in the early stages, there’s no way to know what nutrients the vines are lacking — unless you call in an expert.

Like a mystic reading tea leaves, Hale can foresee the outcome of a future harvest by examining grape leaves. In addition to visual inspections, he performs a“tissue test” by taking leaf samples, drying them and grinding them. The powder is sent to a lab, where it is processed and analyzed. When vineyards prefer to take their own samples, he enters the scene at the last stage, interpreting the final report much like a doctor examining a blood panel.

Sampling the soil is often less conclusive. Like vitamins to humans, nutrients in the soil may not be absorbed well by plants for a variety of reasons. Still, Hale looks at soil tests as another piece to the puzzle.

“There’s a great variability in California soils. You can go a couple miles away and the soil is completely different,” he explained.

Once a diagnosis is made, Hale writes a prescription, often in the form of foliar sprays. Today, foliar nutrients are widely favored over fertilizers applied to the soil, though Hale works with both.

“Modern agriculture in the last 25 or 30 years has discovered that you can put small trace amounts of the minor elements on the foliage at a much lower expense and with a very small impact on the environment, instead of putting hundreds of pounds of it on the soil to try to correct things, which is the old way of doing things,” he said.

Most vineyards call on Hale when they suspect a problem. Usually he can remedy that problem in the same growing season, often in a matter of weeks. That means as late as August, he can prescribe nutrients to bring a crop to a successful harvest.

“It’s like a runner in a marathon who might need one last drink of Gatorade in order to cross the finish line,” he said.

Once deficiencies are corrected, Hale continues to perform regular visual inspections as well as tissue and soil samples, tweaking the nutrient program as needed. This type of ongoing maintenance has staved off problems for vineyards such as San Miguel’s Twin Fawns Vineyard, which has used Hale for 10 years.

“It took a couple of years to fine-tune a program, but it’s still working for us,” said owner Bob Krivacek. “I know we’d have problems if we weren’t staying with it.”

Hale’s client list has grown to include numerous small and medium-sized vineyards, most of them in the Paso Robles AVA. He also has acquired a few larger clients, including Scheid Vineyards in King City, J&L Farms in San Ardo and Clos Du Bois in Sonoma.

Over time, Hale has tailored his expertise to the needs of his wine industry clients. Does the wine need a certain brix or acidity? He knows how to get there. Do the titratable acids need a tweak? That’s doable as well.

He also realizes that many factors go into the quality of the final product, many of which can’t be controlled in the field.

Still, the effect of Hale’s work can’t be denied. The year Burbank Farms implemented his nutrient program, the shattering was corrected, and its 2010 wines have won a host of awards including a bronze, a silver and three golds at this year’s San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Nodal keeps the program in place — and he has passed along his new resource to other vineyards.

“Especially among ranch managers — when we find something good, we like to share it,” he said.