Jeff Sample has more than 70 grape selections of clones and varieties in his Terroir Nouveaux Nurseries in Sunnyside, Washington.
Pinot Noir 106 is the same as UCD 29 (University of California, Davis), while Pinot Noir 71 is the same as the French 777. Malbec clone 12 is the cleaned-up version of Malbec 8. Tempranillo 06 was 01, but 01 had Rupestris stem pitting virus and has since been cleaned. Jeff Sample rattles off wine grape clone numbers (and their new numbers) like a walking, talking Wikipedia.
And if Sample doesn’t know the details of a particular clone or wine grape variety when queried, he knows where to find the information. He’s got a variety of sources to check, from copies of clonal/varietal catalogues, Web site links on his computer, and research reports, to hard copies of French catalogues and other publications.
Since 2003, when Sample began planting registered grape material for a side business called Terroir Nouveaux Nurseries, his small collection of registered vines has grown to include more than 70 different wine grape clones and varieties on nearly three acres. He has plans to eventually fill out the ten-acre site that’s located in Sunnyside, Washington, with more registered, mother vines.
With 25 years of horticultural experience working in the tree fruit industry as field representative for grower-shipper companies and crop protection and nutrient companies (G.S. Long and Simplot Soilbuilders), Sample’s first experience with grape varieties and clones came in the early 2000s when he started working for Alder Ridge Vineyards. John Farmer put him in charge of the registered block and experimental varieties. From there, he joined Milbrandt Vineyards and was involved with planting new vineyards. At Milbrandt, he learned about evaluating and sourcing clonal material. In 2009, he joined grapevine supplier Inland Desert Nursery as nursery sales representative.
Sample saw a need for registered grape material in the early 2000s when the Northwest Grape Foundation Service, managed by Washington State University, was being reorganized, and the WSU H-14 foundation block was to be abandoned, with newly virus-indexed material planted in the new H-20 block. At the time, state regulations were changed to allow registered mother vines to come from foundation material if it was sourced from an approved source like Foundation Plant Services at the University of California, Davis. Previously, only in-state foundation material could be used in a registered block.
“At the time, when the regulations were changed, it seemed like good opportunity to bring in registered material from an approved Foundation source to develop my own registered block,” he said during an interview with Good Fruit Grower. “I thought it would take WSU way too long to get the new program up and running with new material indexed and planted, but they’ve been amazingly fast and have come up to speed very quickly.”
Most of his registered material has come from the Foundation Plant Services, which is one of the few state-approved foundation sources. Sample raises the mother vines; Inland Desert Nursery sells the propagated, certified cuttings.
Though it sounds like Sample’s nursery would be a competitor of his employer, he explains that the relationship works out quite well. By attending annual meetings of the Northwest Grape Foundation Service, he knows what selections are on the request list to be brought into the state and planted in the H-20 block. Inland Desert has made a commitment to use only Northwest Grape Foundation level stock for its registered material, so Sample knows that Inland Desert will eventually receive H-20 material.
“In my block, I focus on what the Northwest Grape Foundation block might not have in the immediate future,” he said. “I can move faster and bring it in right away. For instance, if I read an interesting clonal evaluation and see that it’s not on the Northwest Grape Foundation list, I can probably find it at UCD’s Foundation Plant Services and bring it right in.”
So many choices
Sample tries to stay a step ahead in sourcing varieties and clones that will be in demand and suited for the industry’s diverse needs. While a few customers ask for a specific clone, for the most part, they look to him to provide recommendations.
He stays up on the latest clonal and varietal trends by having a good understanding of viticulture needs in the state, reading a wide swath of trade publications, and listening carefully to key industry leaders.
“What’s colored the lenses that I look through when choosing selections is the great group of people that I’ve worked with,” he said.
Viticulturists like the late John Farmer, Kevin Corliss, Colin Morrell, and winemakers Gordy Hill and Kerry Norton. These people are so well versed and knowledgeable that they’ll say things about grapes or wine in casual conversations, and they don’t even know they’re telling me something about varietal or clonal choices.”
There have been no clonal trials publicly conducted in the state, so Sample has had to learn how to decipher cryptic catalogue notes to obtain information about a selection’s characteristics. He filters information with his field experience, adding that while he doesn’t know exactly how clones or varieties new to the state will perform in Washington, trends within a given selection generally hold true.
“Trends of things like maturity, yield, and such, reported in a clonal trial from California, do seem to track up here and generally act very much like we would expect it to,” Sample said. “Once you learn how to read the French catalogue and understand the categories, you can have a good idea of what to expect from the clone or variety.”
The soil and topography are quite uniform in his small nursery, making evaluation of clonal differences meaningful. He records things like bud break dates, cold hardiness, cluster structure, yield, maturity dates, and vine characteristics. Terroir Nouveaux is a very cool site for the Yakima Valley, he said, adding that he’s lucky if he gets 2,500 growing degree-day heat units in a year. Before each winter, he hills the vines (mounds dirt at the base) for extra protection against cold temperatures. Sprinklers are used for frost control.
Because each stick of dormant wood brought in from UCD’s Foundation Plant Service is a $3 investment, he cuts the wood in half to multiply his cuttings and grows them in small pots in a greenhouse. The greenhouse gives him better control than field planting. He works with groups of 60 sticks, which yield about 100 vines to plant outside in the nursery block. When adding to his nursery block, he tries to plant an entire row of 400 vines.
When deciding what selections to bring in, he considers traits that are important to Northwest growers. Following last November’s early fall freeze, cold hardiness is top of mind for many growers.
Other traits he looks for in new selections are things like early maturity, loose cluster structure for varieties susceptible to bunch rot, and clones that may have later bud break or bloom dates, thereby avoiding spring frost damage.