'No Sex in the Vineyards!' Winery Tells Moths

What you can't see in this photo of Ruffino's vineyards in Italy: dispensers of female moth hormones that cause sexual confusion in male moths and protect the vines from the moths' larvae. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

My first "house" wine, the one I began to buy regularly about 15 years ago, was Ruffino Chianti. It was the Friday night pizza wine and the wine bought for special occasions. I didn't know much about wine back then, and I mistakingly thought Ruffino was a place and Chianti was a grape.

My wine knowledge has increased since then, and now I know that Ruffino is a wine producer and Chianti is a region in Tuscany. Chianti wine is mostly made from the Sangiovese grape, a variety grown extensively in Tuscany (as well as other regions in Italy and around the world).

As I learned on a recent trip to Tuscany to visit Ruffino's estates, the Sangiovese grape has an enemy: a European grapevine moth called Lobesia botrana, known to the Italians as the Tignoletta moth.

Small moth, big damage

lobesia botrana, moth
This small moth can devastate vineyards when its larvae damage grapes that leads to rot. (Photo: gailhampshire/Flickr)

The female moth lays her eggs on the vines, and when those eggs turn into larvae they become destructive to the grapes. The larvae can pierce the grape skins, creating ruptures that lead to botrytis, a fungus that can cause rot in humid conditions. Because Sangiovese grapes grow in very tight bunches, botrytis can be particularly devastating as the fungus spreads quickly from one grape to the next.

For a long time, the method Ruffino and other wine producers used to protect the grapes from the Tignoletta moth was to spray chemical pesticides. But as I learned during my visit, Ruffino now employs a more sustainable method to control the moths.

Sexual confusion in the vines

Ruffino Beppe Dandrea
Ruffino's senior brand ambassador Beppe D'Andrea explains 'confusione sessuale' while standing among the vines on which the method is used. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

The Italians call the method "confusion sessuale." It's a mating disruption technique that confuses the male moths. Here's how it works. Dispensers of the female Tignoletta moth's pheromones are put along the rows of vines — about 400 to 500 dispensers per hectare. The male moths are attracted by the female "flavors," but as they wander from dispenser to dispenser looking for the females, they become confused. They never find the female mates, so there are no larvae to damage the grapes.

Beppe D'Andrea, senior brand ambassador for Ruffino, explained to the journalists in my group that these moths have a life of about eight days, and only one of those days is dedicated to mating. So from the Tignoletta moth's point of view, this method is probably incredibly unkind, ruining their one and only chance at having sex.

Sexual confusion is not an uncommon method in deterring agricultural pests today, but Ruffino was one of the first to try the method in 1990 when research began at a nearby university. Ruffino has vineyards throughout Tuscany and other parts of Italy so it made sense for them to help the university with the then-innovative research.

Innovation becomes tradition

ruffino chianti
Best known for Chianti, Ruffino employs sustainable practices in the vineyards for all the wines it produces. (Photo: Robin Shreeves)

"Sexual confusion is expensive," said D'Andrea. Spraying pesticides is easier and less expensive than installing dispensers on the wires of the vine rows. But eliminating insecticides does more than benefit the environment.

"Innovation today must be tradition tomorrow," D'Andrea told us. He spoke of the Italian mindset of respecting the original project. One hundred and forty years ago, Ruffino's founders had a vision to create a company that would last for generations. Stopping the use of insecticides is one of the ways to ensure success for generations to come.

"We are just here working for the next generation so they can be proud," said D'Andrea. In agriculture, working for the next generation must include sustaining the land so it continues to be healthy and produce well.

There's another benefit to respecting the land.

"Respect pays us double in quality," said D'Andrea. As I discovered over my week in Tuscany, Ruffino produces many quality wines in respect to their price range. In fact, over 65,000 bottles of Ruffino wine are opened in the world each day, from the $10 entry-level, drink-now Ruffino Chianti that was my house wine 15 years ago (pictured above) to the more expensive, highly ageable Greppone Mazzi Brunello di Montalcino.