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There are plenty of shortcomings when examining research and development for the nation’s wine and grape industry-funding cutbacks, a disconnect between industry and researchers, areas of research insufficiently funded, and inconsistent focus on research priorities. But a diverse industry group is working to strengthen wine and grape research in America.

The U.S. wine industry has watched its competitive advantage shrink in the last decade. Though wine consumption in the United States is rising, so are wine imports.

"We’re losing market share across every price point," said Nancy Irelan, former vice president of enology and viticulture technology for E & J Gallo Winery. Since the 1990s, wine exports from the United States are flat, but there’s been a huge increase in imports. "That’s quite a dilemma. We need to be more competitive."

Irelan, who left her Gallo job in January to start her own technical consulting business and develop a winery in the Finger Lakes wine region of New York, is chair of the research committee of the National Grape and Wine Initiative. She recently updated Washington State’s wine industry at a statewide meeting on the wine initiative and the organization’s efforts to develop a national plan and infrastructure to support regional and national research and outreach.

Making significant investment in research and extension has paid off well for the Australians, she said, noting that the research investment that began in the early 1990s was followed a few years later by a sharp rise in exports.

"We need to have a unified platform and a common vision of research endeavors," Irelan said. Public and private sector partnerships are needed, as well as a strategic plan for extension needs and priorities, and development of strategic networks.

"All of these needs have led to the development of the National Grape and Wine Initiative."

Wine initiative

She describes the wine initiative as a diverse group from industry, academia, state and federal governments, aligned to represent the U.S. grape industry, from wine and juice to table grapes. Organized in 2004, the group’s main objective is to support a partnership of industry and research funding agencies to get research into practice.

"The Northwest grape industry was involved from the very beginning," she added. Initiative members share the vision that by 2020, the American grape and wine industry will triple the economic impact from $50 billion per year to $150 billion annually by increasing market share and becoming the undisputed world leader in grapes.

In two short years, members of the initiative have developed a strategic plan that identifies national and regional research needs and timelines. The group members have also organized a governing structure.

The research priorities fall into four areas: quality, consumer, products and processing, and sustainable practices.

A list of seven key research projects, each identified as an immediate need, has been developed and shared with legislators and funding agencies to demonstrate that the industry is united and working together. The research identifies 12-month "deliverables" for each project area that will provide rapid adoption by industry.

"We want to show that we can all agree on research goals and projects," Irelan explained. "That’s a very powerful message."

Industry champions or teams of industry representatives serve as leaders for each research theme to guide and drive the short-term deliverables and encourage industry communication.

Research themes

Examples of the 12-month deliverables for the four research themes include:

  • literature review and applications paper to help growers understand the influence of viticultural practices on the attributes of wine quality targets;
  • national registry or catalog of U.S. grape planting materials;
  • national trial of varieties and clones;
    economic impact study of the nation’s grape and grape products;
  • literature search and practical application on mechanization;
  • Web site knowledge base for pests and diseases;
  • development of a checklist and criteria for best management practices, similar to the risk management checklist developed by the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers.

Members can monitor the progress of the initiative by visiting the group’s Web site at www.ngwi.org.