Research – Protecting the Wine Industry From Constant Threats

and microscopic), diseases, mildew, and Mother Nature make it a miracle wine ever makes it onto the shelf.

Even as vineyard managers adopt Biodynamic®, organic or sustainable vineyard practices, there will always be challenges to maintaining healthy vines. The most recognized disaster of the 19th century for the wine industry was phylloxera; a disease in which a small bug feeds on the roots of vines. With no known totally effective preventative measures, research discovered there were ways to minimize the phylloxera impact; the solution was and is through grafting species onto rootstocks that are phylloxera resistant. This is just one example of the constant need for research to sustain the wine industry.

Most research today involving vines; farming practices; diseases and pest control methods, are conducted by universities throughout the U.S. However, there are some private research efforts too. In the winery there are many techniques that impact/imbue the characteristics of wine. But, research is ongoing to develop new varieties that will meet certain grower and winery specification for improved disease control, aromas, taste, yields and climate change adaptations. Additionally, there is ongoing efforts to develop vines that can withstand extreme temperatures, poor soil conditions (such as salinity), and altitude effects. University of California-Davis’ Dr. Andrew Walker is very involved with the issue of grapes grown in saline in soil.

As an aside. I recently tasted my first “Cotton Candy” table grape and it does taste like cotton candy. This grape was patented and became commercially developed in Bakersfield, California through a very complicated commercial vine breeding program, writes Michaellen Doucleff in “The Salt” August 6, 2013. This example of great research is not rare, it wasn’t that long ago when all watermelons had seeds. Today you can hardly buy a watermelon with seeds. New apple varieties having come to market over the past few decades also point to successful research and breeding results.

There are many wine grape research projects underway at major universities in the U.S. After talking to many university researchers in the field of wine grapes and vines, one impactful effort on wines are the research efforts at the University of California-Davis (UCDavis). There are professors at UCDavis, and other universities, doing research on many wine related projects. Some projects are about finding farming methods, rootstock, etc. what will preserve the health of vineyards. There is continuing work on Pierce’s Disease and ongoing research on a wide range of rootstock issues (nematodes, fanleaf, drought and salt resistance) and to a lesser extent on Powdery Mildew. This work will never become obsolete because plant DNA and pathogens will always evolve.

There are many universities doing wine grape research in addition to UCDavis. Some of the other great schools doing wine grape research are: California State University-Fresno, Cornell University, University of Arkansas, Washington State University, Oregon State University and Cal Poly State University-San Louis Obispo. With 125 years as a research university in enology and viticulture, UCDavis has the history behind them.

Remember, all 50 states have vineyards and a wine making presence. However, based upon the size of the vineyard/wine footprint, California is the elephant in the room. That said, each indigenous growing region in the U.S. has its own challenges in addressing vineyard/vine health, diseases and changes in consumer preferences. Regional nurseries and growers go to regional universities for research in solving regional wine grape issues and characteristics.

To put the subject of grape/vine research impact into an economic perspective, we need to look at what dictates the importance of California relative to wine. Using TTB data (Tax and Trade Bureau) they report there were 12,335 wine making operators in the U.S in 2017. (This number can be misleading based upon the way the TTB counts bonded wineries.) A more realistic number of active producing wineries is approximately 10,000, of which California is home to approximately 50% of all U.S. wineries. According to Beverage, California wine alone accounts for $71.2 billion in revenue.

Rachel Arthur reports the total economic impact of wine on the U.S. economy is approximately $219.9 billion and contributes $37.5 billion in tax revenue to the federal government. (Ms. Arthur says there are 10,236 winery facilities in the U.S. My estimates of wineries just in Sonoma and Napa Counties are: 1,300.) The Wine Institute reports, California accounts for nearly 85% of all U.S. wine production out of a total U.S. production of 807,000,000 gallons.

Here is another economic factor to think about. What happens if disease impacts a vineyard and plants are pulled out of the vineyard and the vineyard is replanted? Depending on vines planted per acre, (1,000 up to 3,000) and the new vines cost the grower $7.00 per vine, the losses due to diseases can be enormous. This does not include costs for labor, trellis’s, new irrigation system and the vineyard laying fallow land for 3 years. To add perspective, a few years ago, a vineyard planted in vines could command approximately $400,000 per acre in Sonoma.

Ultimately healthy vines and vineyards have a significant and direct impact on the California and U.S. economy, not to mention the livelihood of approximately a million workers. A repeat of phylloxera would have a major impact economically, not to mention desperate wine drinkers. Research is ongoing; no condition attacking the vine is ever solved in perpetuity.

“Phylloxera is again rearing its ugly head. Most recently, it has been found in the American states of California and Oregon, where years of grafting vines had somehow weakened them, allowing the pest to thrive. There is still no pesticide that can effectively eradicate the pest without harming bees or the environ­ment. Using resistant rootstock for vines is still the most effective treatment,” says Nellie Ming Lee, “Post Magazine”, Nov. 3, 2016. Dr. Walker however comments that, “No evidence of North American Vitis species-based rootstocks declining to phylloxeras. Need rootstocks for lots of reasons other than phylloxera resistance, but they must be phylloxera resistant in addition to new added traits.

As noted above, wine production in the U.S. is of significant value economically. Obviously, California is a powerful engine for the wine industry and it takes many universities and researchers to keep the wine industry healthy, growing and producing quality fruit and thus, wines. This also recognizes the diverse growing regions where wine is produced, all having unique issues. Simultaneously researchers also lead the way in developing new varieties that might interest the ever-changing consumer tastes.

There are new varieties being developed at research universities that may become the next great grape for blending or as a branded variety that offer growers natural resistance to diseases and mites. But, the underpinning of all solutions is that the new vine must deliver on great aromas, flavors, and production yields. That is what wineries demand.

Historically the U.S. has found the European grape varietal (Vitis vinifera) to be more acceptable and those varieties have been improved upon through research in DNA profiling, rootstock adaptation, and breeding. There are approximately 5,000 grape varieties and 50 species used today for wine worldwide. In the U.S., there are only about 20-30 varietals used extensively.

In a recent USDA study, it was found that 75% of cultivars are closely related (sibling or parent-offspring) to at least one cultivar, says Tim Martinson of Cornell University. “Cultivar” is defined as-a variety of plant that originated and persisted under cultivation.

“The native American species of wine grapes are known by its botanical name-Vitis labrusca, however, in the early 1700’s that species proved not to be a great quality for wines-relative to aromas and flavors. Today the most prevalent grape species for wine is-Vitis vinifera,” say Dr. Andrew Walker of UCDavis. Vitis vinifera is planted all over the world. It might be a surprise to realize that the U.S. is the sixth largest in area/acreage of planted vines. It is amazing that the U.S. has so much acreage in planted vines in such a short period of time.

The U.S. is the sixth largest in planted grape acreage in the world; behind France, Italy, Spain, China and Turkey. As a relatively young country and industry, it is amazing how fast it has grown. This is due in part to benefits of research. Note: Cabernet Sauvignon came from the marriage of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc. (The first traces of attempts at making wine in the New World however date back to 1556.)

How did research become so important to the wine business? There are always newer challenges that come up. As a more recent example, nearly two decades ago Dr. Walker took on the task of finding a way to address Pierce’s Disease and step up the effort to control mildew diseases. Mildew diseases are such that current vines are not able to adequately defend against; if not addressed they can destroy vineyards and grape production. A major national effort with Pierce’s Disease (PD) has the disease mostly in control now. The research mostly evolved around finding rootstock that was Pierce’s Dis