USDA SCRI Grant: Improved Grape And Wine Quality In A Challenging Environment

Virginia Tech’s Alson H. Smith, Jr., Agricultural Research and Experiment Station in Winchester, VA., received funding for its project, “Improved grape and wine quality in a challenging environment: An Eastern U.S. model for sustainability and economic vitality.”

Project director: Tony Wolf

GP: What’s the problem?

Wolf: The research addresses unique challenges of quality grape and wine production in the East, including unpredictable but often excessive rains during the growing season, frost and winter injury problems, unique grape varieties, and high costs of grape production that result from the relatively small scale of operation associated with most Eastern vineyards. This is coming at a time of rapid increase in the number of small farm wineries and associated vineyards, often in places that have little or no prior experience with grape and wine production. The research also explores consumer buying preferences and perceptions about eastern U.S. wines relative to other domestic and foreign brands.

GP: How do you plan to solve it?

Wolf: We will develop research-based recommendations to:
• More efficiently and precisely manage vine vegetative growth with the aim of increasing grape and wine quality, reducing canopy management labor, and reducing the use of herbicide inputs and nitrogen fertilizer losses from vineyards.
• Reduce the occurrence of environmental stresses (such as winter cold injury) through better matching of varieties to the place (vineyard site) where grown
• Reduce costs of grape production
• Provide learning resources for producers, workforce labor, and consumers
• Help establish a reputation for consistent, high quality grape and wine production, and ultimately increase market share by eastern US wines

GP: When do you hope to achieve it?

Wolf: Some short-term, educational resources, including refined metrics to evaluate vine ‘balance’ will be developed within first three years. Variety recommendations, interactive Geographical Information System vineyard evaluation tools, and refined techniques for wine-making of unique eastern US grape varieties will emerge in three to five years.

GP: Are there any ancillary goals?

Wolf: Our specific goals target and are intended to primarily benefit eastern US grape and wine producers; however, they will also benefit producers in other humid climates, such as the Midwest. While aimed at fostering increased growth and development of a primary industry, attendant benefits could be realized by allied service sectors, tourism, and states’ tax bases. Environmental benefits include a reduced reliance on herbicide inputs, increased soil organic matter, and reduced soil erosion through prudent use of vineyard cover crops. Vineyards and wineries strengthen the economic fabric of rural communities through employment, while offering alternatives to non-agricultural development.

As a result, five years from now, Grape and wine producers in all eastern US states — not just those in states that have land-grant universities involved in viticulture and enology research and Eextension — will have unprecedented access to site-specific recommendations to improve the profitability and sustainability of their operations.

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