Raccoons and wine would seem, at first blush, as compatible as fish and bicycles. However, there is a connection. Raccoons actually love wine grapes, and even like to drink wine!
Hurricane Irene in late August didn’t do a great deal of damage in our vineyard, other than to break three vineyard posts, topple over dozens more posts at a 45° or even lower angle, uproot a willow tree and leave our residence without power and water for seven days. The ripening grapes and leaves were largely unaffected, snugly enwrapped by the bird netting, which had fortuitously been installed just a couple of weeks before the hurricane.
Irene did, however, cause breaches in the fencing surrounding the vineyard, letting deer, raccoons and woodchucks in undeterred. The day after Irene, my husband and the vineyard worker were distracted from their normal vineyard work by having to clear four trees that had fallen down on our private road, so we lost at least 30% of this year’s Cabernet Sauvignon crop to the predators.
Last year, 50% of our 2010 Sauvignon Blanc harvest was decimated by raccoons, and some of our Merlot. We trapped numerous raccoons “blue-handed,” their paws literally stained blue from grabbing grapes through the bird nets.
Well, it could be worse, they could be “Nazi Raccoons.” In 2005, Decanter magazine and other publications reported that thousands of marauding “Nazi Raccoons,” descendants of those imported in 1934 by Nazi air force chief Hermann Goering to “enrich” the natural German fauna, wiped out a large portion of the grape harvest in central Germany. With no natural predators, the raccoon population in Germany exploded to an estimated 1.5 million.
Said one article in Vinography: a wine blog, “These are troubled times for wine growers around the world. If it’s not too hot, it’s too cold. If it’s not too rainy, it’s the biggest drought on record for centuries. Maybe there’s somewhere that grape growing is always idyllic with no problems (Thailand? oops, no, they have tsunamis), but I haven’t heard of it. Some of the most severe and vexing problems facing modern winemakers are the ones that seem to come from out of left field (no pun intended). In the American West it’s the glassy winged sharpshooter which rears its ugly minuscule head every once in a while; in South Africa it’s massive flocks of starlings that eat a lot of the grapes; in Italy it’s biblical plagues of locusts devouring fruit. And now, the perfect villain. A black mask, a swastika in its past, and a penchant for ripe Riesling. The Nazi Raccoon.”
Well, we’re lucky it’s raccoons and not baboons – a problem for grape growers in South Africa. “Baboons go ape over South Africa’s wine crop,” said one recent headline on msnbc.com. “Marauding primates gobble up succulent grapes ready for harvest.” According to the article, the baboons are choosy. They only take the ripest bunches, dropping sour bunches on the ground. They prefer Pinot Noir grapes, which sell for a higher price, to Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Though often used, electric fencing is largely ineffective, as baboons are able to dig or climb their way into the vineyards. The South Africans also try scaring off the baboons with “vuvuzelas,” traditional noisemakers internationally popularized when the country hosted the 2010 FIFA World Cup.
Placing rubber snakes in the vineyard canopy apparently helps.
However, a more high-tech solution could be on the way. The Baboon Research Unit in Cape Town is working to potentially outfit members of baboon troops with a collar and sensor. The collar is able to alert someone, via text message, if the baboon passes a particular point close to the vineyard.
Maybe that’s an approach that can work for the herds of deer on the East End.
Theresa (Tree) Dilworth, a resident of Manhattan and Mattituck, is an international tax lawyer, winemaker and restaurateur. She is the owner of Comtesse Thérèse vineyard and Comtesse Thérèse Bistro, both in Aquebogue.