In the coming weeks, children will eagerly prepare their wish lists for Santa Claus in hopes of discovering that special bike, doll or toy under the Christmas tree. The Washington wine industry, too, has a wish list for research. The Washington State Wine Commission’s research program aims to turn that research list into real solutions, tools and technologies for the state’s wine grape growers and wineries.

Viticulture and enology research in Washington is industry driven and guided. The Wine Commission uses a research priority list, developed with broad industry input, to ensure that research is relevant to industry needs.

Melissa Hansen
Melissa Hansen

The priority list serves as a research wish list and reflects current industry challenges, emerging problems and overall goals to improve wine quality. A research survey is conducted annually by the Wine Commission to obtain industry feedback on research priorities and program direction.

There is no shortage of research topics of interest to Washington’s wine industry: More than 100 suggestions were shared by 175 wine grape growers, winemakers and other industry members who participated in the 2019 research survey conducted in the spring.

Those suggestions were in addition to the 35 research topics already on the current priority list. Here’s a sampling of the topics suggested by survey respondents:

—Rapid field test to identify grapevine virus.

—Vineyard nutrition that contributes to improved wine quality.

—Scalable mechanization and solutions for small wineries.

—New products to control grape mealybug and scale.

—Mitigate heat wave impacts in the vineyard.

—Alternative varieties for warmer environments.

—Mechanical harvesting for vineyards in Western Washington.

—Continuous measurement of the fermentation process.

—How to deal with high sugar musts.

—Winery mechanization and automation.

—Weed control strategies.

The statewide grape and wine research program currently funds 21 research projects at Washington State University, totaling more than $1 million. The competitive grant program, funded by WSU, Auction of Washington Wines, Wine Commission and state wine liter taxes, has resulted in a strong, effective research partnership between WSU and the wine industry.

But we’re about to do even more.

Fulfilling the wish list

The Wine Commission has significantly scaled up its research program — by 300 percent — to support and fund an estimated $5.5 million of research in the next four years. An updated strategic research plan, approved by the Wine Commission board of directors in June, serves as the road map to carry forward the industry’s research objectives.

In addition to the ongoing statewide research program, the Wine Commission will launch its own competitive grant program in 2020. This program will complement the research efforts of WSU viticulture and enology scientists and extend the industry’s research reach by funding:

—Short-term research: one-year demonstration wine and vineyard trials that serve as proof-of-concept projects and are open to students and faculty at Washington community colleges and universities.

—Collaborative research with other wine regions: facilitating cooperative projects with institutions outside Washington.

—Strategic research initiative: fund innovative research that targets an identified priority.

Drive the research portfolio

The Wine Research Advisory Committee, a subcommittee of the Wine Commission, recently identified “precision viticulture and enology through mechanization and innovation” as the focus for the Wine Commission’s first strategic research initiative.

As part of that initiative, the Wine Commission will sponsor a research summit in 2020 to engage the research and development community and encourage innovation, new learning and new technologies. The summit participants will develop a research plan and proposals that address the initiative focus.

A majority of the 2019 survey respondents identified mechanization/precision viticulture and enology as the research initiative that “could transform their business.”

Growers and wineries alike feel the current shortage of skilled workers. They seek labor-saving, mechanized and precision technology to maximize productivity, maintain economic sustainability and improve overall quality.

The goal of the 2020 strategic research initiative is to develop nondestructive, labor-efficient tools and technologies to track fruit quantity and quality in the vineyard. The initial effort will explore research to address these areas:

—Crop yield estimation.

—Fruit quality metrics of color, aroma, sugar, acidity and phenolics.

—Detection and quantification of fruit quality inhibitors such as pests, diseases, viruses and smoke exposure.

Other key precision and mechanization needs identified for the vineyard include mechanized canopy management, precision irrigation and vine nutrition.

Precision and mechanization needs for the winery include analytical tools that can relate fruit, must and wine phenolic metrics to ultimate wine quality and characteristics, as well as a rapid, nondestructive tool to measure fruit quality attributes to aid in harvest decisions.

Wineries also want remote monitoring and data collection of fermentation and winemaking processes, along with approaches to reduce labor costs and improve winery water use efficiency.

Today’s online shopping makes it nearly effortless for Santa to fulfill the wish lists of children. No doubt, it’ll take more than surfing the Internet to transform the industry’s research list into tangible vineyard and winery tools and technologies, but we have a strong research foundation at WSU and a well-defined plan to guide the industry’s scaled-up research commitment. •

—by Melissa Hansen