Tony Wolf, center, is director of the Alson H. Smith, Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, a 124-acre site in Winchester, Virginia, devoted to research plantings.

Tony Wolf, center, is director of the Alson H. Smith, Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center, a 124-acre site in Winchester, Virginia, devoted to research plantings.

More Americans are drinking more wine every year. As with many fruit crops, there are more consumers in the East and more producers in the West. Almost 90 percent of U.S. wine comes from California. Washington, the second largest ­producer, adds about 3 percent.

Not content with sharing the remaining 7 percent, eastern wineries want a bigger piece of the market. They think they can get it. Besides the growing desire of consumers to experience new tastes and thus support more wineries making distinctive wines in unique styles, the “buy local” movement promises more customers.

Wineries themselves are colorful destinations, and most eastern states have established wine trails promoted by state and local governments. Would-be wine connoisseurs can educate their palates and enjoy the conviviality of wine tastings by visiting several wineries on a weekend afternoon. There are several wine trails along New York’s Finger Lakes and ­northwest Michigan’s Lake Michigan peninsulas.

In many eastern and Great Lakes states, the number of wineries has exploded in recent years.

Major effort

Now, a major new effort aims to boost the eastern wine industry still further. Last fall, the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Research Initiative awarded a $3.8 million, five-year grant to fund research and extension efforts to mitigate some of the challenges to making high quality wine in the East.

Some of these challenges include abundant but unpredictable rainfall, variable soils, many of them too fertile to contain vine vigor, diseases favored by humidity that rot grape clusters, cloudy conditions that reduce sunlight, winter cold damage, and a general lack of information about good vineyard sites and which varieties of grapes do best on them.

The overall project director is Dr. Tony Wolf, a professor of viticulture with Virginia Tech based in Winchester, Virginia. But the list of coprincipal investigators is a who’s who of academics in eastern wine grape production, enology, and marketing. Besides Virginia Tech, participating institutions include Cornell University in New York, North Carolina State University, University of Maryland, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, Ohio State University, and Pennsylvania State University. Cornell played a key role in planning the proposal and contributes five of the 20 investigators on the project.

The “East” is defined in the project as eastern seaboard states from New England to north Georgia and inland to include Pennsylvania, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

The title is “Improved grape and wine quality in a challenging environment: An eastern U.S. model for sustainability and economic vitality.”

In the grant proposal listing industry needs, the writers state that to sustain further growth, eastern U.S. wine grapes and wines must be of consistently high quality, and they must be produced on a cost-­competitive basis. Two recurring features of the East’s climate—variable, but often excessive, growing season precipitation, and winter cold ­damage—pose significant challenges to sustainable and profitable wine grape ­production, they note.

Abundant soil moisture can translate to excessive vegetative vine growth, leading to increased labor needs for canopy management, more fungal diseases, and decreased fruit and wine quality.

Cold damage reduces crop, causes additional vineyard variability, and ultimately erodes profitability, they wrote.

The project, as awarded, has four objectives, Wolf said:

  • to promote grape quality; matching varietals to sites
  • to develop a Geographic Information System-based approach to vine location
  • to disseminate study findings to users

Teams have been formed around each objective.

A multistate project, NE-1020, is well under way to evaluate the performance of wine grapes under different climatic conditions. The GIS component of the study will help to better match grape varieties to appropriate vineyard sites.

“Not only will users be able to review the climatic and physical ­attributes or liabilities of their site, but we’ll be able to offer recommendations on which grape varieties could be grown at the property, based on length of growing season, summer heat, and winter low-temperature considerations,” said Wolf.

Research won’t all be in the vineyards. Dr. Anna Katharine Mansfield, an enologist at Cornell, said her research will focus on the varieties and production methods common to the region. The goal is to develop recommendations that will improve wine quality through appropriate fruit processing. She will experiment with winemaking techniques to minimize the flaws in wines made from red hybrid grapes—the low tannins and phenolics that can make them seem thin on the tongue—and enhance the signature aromas of such regional whites as Riesling, Traminette, and Gewürztraminer, which are grown around the Finger Lakes and other cooler areas of the East.

Several Finger Lakes wineries are cooperating in the project.

This project will be successful, Wolf said, if there is improved perception of Eastern wines, if growers can exercise better choices in matching varieties with their vineyard sites, and if wine and grape sales and ­profitability improve.

“Historically, there has been a stigma associated with the quality of eastern U.S. wines and some of the unique varieties that are common to the eastern wine industry,” he said. “Improving the grape and wine ­quality in the region will go a long way towards dispelling that stigma.”