The Washington wine industry’s viticulture and enology research program is stronger than ever. The Washington State Wine Commission allocated a record amount of nearly $1.2 million for research this fiscal year (July 2020 to June 2021), up nearly 15 percent compared to last year. The increase is a direct result of more financial support from the Auction of Washington Wines for viticulture and enology research at Washington State University and new research grant programs funded by the Wine Commission. With stable and sustainable research funding in place, researchers are able to tackle many of the industry’s research priorities.

Program stability brings continuity to research projects, the ability to support multiyear studies, and supports “outside-the-box” concepts that have some risk but big payoff for growers and winemakers, if successful. Some of the most important priorities are new and continuing pest challenges, including phylloxera and grapevine viruses; the development of labor-saving tools for growers; dialing in irrigation strategies in a changing climate; and addressing winemaking challenges from smoke and freeze exposure. 

Of the 25 projects currently underway, the majority are focused on vineyard challenges. However, plenty of research is happening on the winemaking side as well, or on projects that mix the two. About 40 percent of the funds target winery topics: microbial spoilage, tannin management, wine flavor precursors, mitigating the effects of smoke and freeze exposure on wine quality, and more. 

For the first time, three short-term trials comparing fermentation vessels, wine clarification techniques and a native habitat teaching garden were approved at Yakima Valley College and Walla Walla Community College as part of the Washington wine industry’s new research grant program. Unfortunately, acceptance of two grant awards had to be declined due to the pandemic and the uncertainty with student enrollment and teaching procedures this fall.

Washington wine industry research projects, July 2020 to June 2021. (Courtesy Washington Wine Commission)
Washington wine industry research projects, July 2020 to June 2021. (Courtesy Washington Wine Commission)

Dogs, UVC light and the Flash 

One of the more interesting studies this year is a pilot project to learn if rescue dogs can be trained to sniff and detect grapevine viruses and phylloxera. Similar work is being done in Washington’s tree fruit industry to detect little cherry disease and by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to detect citrus greening disease. In the citrus research, dogs detected the virus in citrus trees months before detection by lab analysis. Additionally, dogs may be able to alert growers of phylloxera presence and help them better target root digging for confirmation of the root-feeding insect.

Another innovative project is a nighttime gizmo to zap grapevines with ultraviolet light. Preliminary work by WSU’s Michelle Moyer last fall showed that the UVC light “sprayer,” developed by Cornell University, has potential application for Washington grape growers because of our low powdery mildew pressure. Applying the treatment at night kills the single-cell fungal pathogens without damaging the grapevine. Support from the industry’s research program will help Moyer further study the sprayer to evaluate its effectiveness as a tool to manage fungicide resistance, which could be a game-changer to reduce the use of fungicide sprays. 

Several projects aim to bring precision tools to viticulture. Markus Keller, WSU viticulturist, heads research to optimize vine nutrient sampling protocols, an important step in the quest to develop nondestructive, real-time measurement of the nutrient status of grapevines. Data collected this summer from Washington vineyards will help further study crop estimation through remote sensing using technology and artificial intelligence called the Flash. Bloomfield Robotics is working to commercialize the remote sensing system originally developed by Carnegie Mellon University. A related project is in its final months this summer as WSU engineer Manoj Karkee works to develop a smartphone app for crop estimation.

Hoe and grow

Traditional vineyard research projects are also underway. Examples of such projects include: 

Soil health — determining the effect of mycorrhizal inoculants on grapevine growth and nutrient uptake; evaluating rootstock and preplant fumigation to manage nematode decline; and using a trap crop and fallow period as management strategies.

Pest management — monitoring and managing grape phylloxera; understanding insecticide resistance of grape mealybug; determining economic impact levels and action thresholds for a new grape leaffolder found in Washington; monitoring fungicide resistance and alternative strategies for grape powdery mildew; and developing innovative management strategies for grapevine leafroll disease.

Irrigation — understanding variety versus environment for irrigation management; developing new strategies to mitigate the impact of high temperatures on grape and wine quality; optimizing irrigation strategies for high-quality white wine grape production; and using deep rootzone subsurface irrigation to enhance replacement vine growth and reduce competition for water when planted in an already established vineyard.

One of a kind

Washington’s viticulture and enology research program is unlike any other wine research program in the United States. It’s supported by all wine grape growers and wineries, and staff (me!) is dedicated to research. We work closely with WSU, the industry’s research partner, to bring research results to you through newsletters, trade publications like the Good Fruit Grower, presentations at WAVE (Washington Advancements in Viticulture and Enology) seminars and webinars, and by making research reports and articles accessible on the industry’s website.

The following unique components ensure that the research program remains effective and relevant to industry needs:

—Industry driven: Research priorities are established by growers and wineries.

—Industry guided: Research funding recommendations are approved by industry.

—Accessible to all: Regardless of size, all growers and wineries have access to research results.

—Strategically planned: The program follows an industry-developed strategic research plan.

—Unique funding: Support comes from public, private and industry sources, including: Washington State University, Washington State Wine Commission, Auction of Washington Wines, and state liter taxes collected on all wine sold. About 25 percent of the Washington Wine Commission’s budget is allocated to research. 

We look forward to sharing research results with you in the near future! •

by Melissa Hansen