Australia’s grape and wine research and extension, viewed by many as a model program, sets the standard for putting research into practice.
For the last 14 years, Australia’s wine industry has teamed with government and research organizations and taken a coordinated and cohesive approach to viticulture and wine research.
Dr. Jim Hardie, chief executive officer of the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture, was recently in Washington State at a statewide wine convention to share information about the cooperative research centers. From 1992 to 1999, the focus at the Cooperative Research Centre for Viticulture was on developing pesticide screens for residues and contaminants in wine to help remove trade barriers for wine exports, he explained. At the vineyard level, better pest and disease management practices were identified.
Previous Australian wine exports had problems with pesticide residues, especially iprodione, a fungicide used to control bunch rot and mildew.
The second seven-year term, initiated in 1999, concludes this year. The research goal for the second term is to accelerate quality viticulture management from vine to palate. Research objectives include grape and wine quality, sustainable vineyard management, vine performance, and professional skills. The objectives are managed as four integrated programs and housed at four research centers.
Cooperative research centers, of which there are 70 in Australia dealing with six different business sectors, are joint ventures between industry, government, and research organizations. The centers were initiated in 1992 as part of a federal research program.
"It’s a very competitive process," he said of the research application and selection process. More than 50 research applications were received by the viticulture cooperative center for the 15 to 20 research awards made.
The program is designed to be very inclusive-11 different industry organizations and universities are partnered together under the viticulture cooperative center. Additionally, 22 individual businesses and other agencies participate in the research efforts.
The viticulture center is run like a business, with six individuals serving on the management team. Each individual comes from another organization and spends half their time coordinating center research and activities. The other half is spent on their own organization duties.
Wine grape growers are a key part of the strategy to improve grape and wine quality, Hardie said. Much of the research and extension efforts are to "transform grape growers into wine growers."
Growers need to understand wine style requirements, specified grape attributes, how to meet grape quality specifications, and the business aspect of grape growing, he explained.
Researchers are working to identify grape quality attributes and develop rapid and convenient tools and technologies that growers and winemakers can use in the field to measure wine attributes. They have identified 53 grape-derived wine flavors, key types of tannins, and are studying the biosynthetic path of tartaric acid. Rapid tests for powdery mildew levels and pesticide residues are currently under development.
"Tannins have always been considered too hard for involvement with research, but we have made progress and have developed a total tannin test," he said. "We are learning when tannins are formed in the grape and will look in the vineyard to see what can be done in the field to manage tannins."
Hardie noted that the center has a better understanding of acidity and tartaric acid by identifying a key gene that controls the pathway for acidity. Researchers have found that fruit exposure at flowering can have an important "fix" when it comes to tartaric acid.
DNA tests are being used to determine powdery mildew fungal levels on grapes upon arrival at the winery, he said. Scientists have already defined what levels of powdery mildew are acceptable in wine grape deliveries. A technology using molecular imprinted polymers is under development for measuring iprodione, an important grape fungicide used in Australia, and other pesticides.
The center is also working to develop a model contract for wineries and growers across the country to use for wine grape purchases and sales. The grape price received by growers is a hot topic in Australia, he said, adding that there is huge tension between wine grape growers and winemakers. They hope that a model contract can serve as a template for all parties.
Another area of research is using gene technology for improved grape quality and management. Gene technology could lead to genetically improved vines, resistance to powdery mildew, and relating the expression of grape quality genes to vineyard practices.
"In the future, we might have ‘gene informed’ vineyard management," Hardie said, adding that knowing when and how different genes express themselves should lead to better vineyard management decisions.
Putting research into practice is a high priority of the viticulture research center. Two complementary approaches are taken to accomplish this: extension and commercialization.
Through the work of a coordinated extension and industry program, some 7,000 Australian grape growers receive communication and training from 24 Viticare networks and participate and visit 37 Viticare field trials. Three groups are developing environmental management systems for the wine grape industry.
Vitinotes, which cover a wide range of pest, disease, and viticulture topics, are used to deliver updated research to the industry. The Vitinotes are short fact sheets designed to assist decision-making in the vineyard that can be downloaded from the Internet and are published in the Viticare newsletter. More than 2,200 people subscribe to the monthly Viticare eNews, according to Hardie.
The service and supply sectors are kept involved in the research to facilitate commercialization of new technology and services. As a result of the research projects, several vineyard software tools have been developed and are commercially available, as well as vineyard equipment.
"Research to practice" workshops also are held, highlighting topics such as grapevine nutrition, integrated pest management, wine grape quality management, and water management.
Expanding the professional skill base of the wine industry is a spin-off of the research centers. Thirty-five research students working on their doctorates are involved in the research projects, which help provide scholarship and career opportunities.
After completion of the second seven-year term, Hardie noted that the wine industry would not be requesting another from the government. "We will keep the best parts, but the industry needs to fund such research in the future," he explained.
He believes that the Australian research model has application to Washington’s wine industry. To be successful, industry leaders must value research as the driver of technical innovation, aspire to bring technology across the whole of industry, foster cooperation, and be committed to building the research and extension capacity.