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A team of Washington State University researchers and technicians are chip budding grapevines as part of a rootstock trial.

A team of Washington State University researchers and technicians are chip budding grapevines as part of a rootstock trial.

The wine industry research gap is being debated at a national level as spending on wine research in the United States lags far behind the well-heeled efforts of countries like Australia. Washington State, grappling with its own wine research problems, is struggling to support growing industry research needs and to find ways to close the gap.

This issue of Good Fruit Grower takes a close look at Washington’s viticulture and –enology research program—from the program’s organization and oversight, funding and history, to its strong points and weaknesses—and what industry is doing to strengthen its program. A wide variety of views are represented in the following stories, including those of growers, wine producers, and –Washington State University researchers and administrators.

Through the years, Washington’s grape research program has addressed important industry issues. A number of viticultural and enological successes have stemmed from research projects (see "Research Successes" below).

In terms of federal dollars, the industry has done well the last five years garnering support for its plant improvement program, a program revitalized to improve access to certified, virus-free grapevine planting material. The recently approved omnibus federal budget bill contained $225,000 earmarked for the Foundation Block at WSU. The Foundation Block is the cornerstone of clean planting material, providing certified grape stock for the Pacific Northwest grape industry and serving as a repository for private selections.

Patchwork system

Dr. Markus Keller, WSU viticulturist, said there are several funding sources for researchers to tap into. Researchers can submit proposals to the Wine Advisory Committee; the Northwest Center for Small Fruits Research; the Concord Research Council; Washington State Pesticide Registration Commission; American Vineyard Foundation; the Viticulture Consortium, a federal research grant program administered jointly by Cornell University and the University of California; and others.

The Northwest Center for Small Fruits is a joint research program established by –Congress in 1980 that includes Oregon State University, Washington State University, University of Idaho, and the Agricultural Research Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"A strength is that we do have a lot of funding sources, and we can keep trying to find funds," Keller said. "But it ends up being a patchwork system. When you’re forced to apply to multiple sources, it can work against you. Groups don’t want to fund the project because they saw the same proposal elsewhere and think that someone else will fund it."

Submitting research proposals and writing research updates and progress reports all take time, he added. "A big problem for us [researchers] is that we spend so much time applying for all these different grants, writing grant proposals and progress reports to obtain $20,000 in –funding here, and $25,000 there."

It would be much more efficient if researchers could submit one large grant proposal that would last multiple years, he said, eliminating much of the paperwork.

Long-term projects

One of the biggest weaknesses of the grape research program is the industry’s inability to fund long-term research. Projects like variety, rootstock, clonal, and trellising trials are not funded because they require numerous technicians to collect data and tie up funds for long periods of time.

"We have to take on more immediate concerns," Grandview grape grower Dick Boushey said. "We’re able to hit the really key problems, but we’re not doing things like clonal trials." Boushey, co-chair of the Wine Advisory Committee, added that there is some small work being done on a few rootstocks but it’s more for insurance against phylloxera, not to determine the optimal –locations for rootstocks, clones or variety interactions.

Dr. Wade Wolfe, viticultural consultant and owner of Thurston Wolfe Winery in Prosser, Washington, has been on the Wine Advisory Committee for many years. He noted that although variety trials were conducted during the early years of grape research in the state, shifts away from such long-term research were made because of the cost and length of time involved. A variety or clonal trial involves multiple locations—cool and warm sites—and can involve different trellis systems. It generally takes about ten years.

The Wine Advisory Committee must make sure they are not dedicating too much funding to long-term projects; few projects last longer than three to four years.

"The reality is that researchers have to publish their work," Wolfe said. "Unless they are tenured, they can’t afford to get involved in research that takes ten years."

Catch-22

In the last five years, WSU’s viticulture and enology program has evolved into a full-fledged education program, complete with faculty, researchers, and a new facility at the Prosser research station. The program now has more than 20 faculty involved with teaching, research, and extension, and one USDA-Agricultural Research Service scientist at Prosser who works on grape research.

"The program is growing, and so is our capacity for viticulture and enology research at WSU," said Ralph –Cavalieri, head of WSU’s Agriculture Research Center. He added that the program will be able to grow as the wine industry does.

"We’ve been successful in getting a bunch of talented researchers," said Kevin Corliss, director of vineyard –operations at Ste. Michelle Wine Estates.

But the growing team of researchers is a Catch-22. With more researchers aboard, it takes more money to fund them.

Corliss, who also serves on the Wine Advisory Committee, believes the answer is a more stable and secure funding source. "We’ve expanded the size of the research group, and now we need to support them."

The researchers are all submitting proposals, said Wolfe. "At the same time, we’re looking at finite, if not diminishing, research funds. We have to be very selective in funding research projects."

Boushey agrees that WSU has put together a good research team. He adds that it’s critical to keep the team strong so it is ready to meet unforeseen challenges.