Teodulo Jimenez supervises the skilled crews at Inland Desert Nursery.
The strength of Washington State’s wine industry is due in part to what isn’t often seen or appreciated—the roots of clean planting material that so far have kept the state’s vineyards free of devastating pests like phylloxera or widespread diseases.
The late Dr. Walter Clore, a Washington State University horticulturist who pioneered vinifera wine grape growing in the state, had the foresight to establish a grapevine foundation block at WSU’s Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser in 1961. He recognized the importance of testing selections from other areas and the need to supply clean cutting wood to grape nurseries in Washington.
He also saw the need to establish certified nurseries in the state.
“It was mainly because of Clore’s recommendation that I got started in the certified nursery business,” said Tom Judkins, owner of Inland Desert Nursery in Benton City. Judkins, with help from his two sons and daughter, supplies Washington State certified grape planting material to growers. He learned how to work with grape cuttings when he was a teenager as part of a high school Future Farmers of America project—about the same time that Clore was planting the WSU grape foundation block.
“I learned how to propagate grape cuttings in FFA and found it was something I could do in the winter to make money,” Judkins said, adding that when he returned home from the military service several years later, he started the nursery.
At the heart of Judkins’s program are mother or registered blocks that were propagated from cuttings of WSU’s foundation block. His 25 acres of mother blocks supply propagative material for him to grow into one-year rooted plants that he sells as certified grapevines.
He also is licensed through the California Nova Vine nursery to sell patented clones from the Italy’s Vivai Cooperativi Rauscedo (VCR). The California-certified VCR clones are raised in Judkins’ nursery on their own roots. But because the parent material is not part of Washington’s certified program, the rooted plants cannot be classified as certified.
“The VCR plants are kind of in limbo,” he said. “Though the material I received was California-certified, I can’t put a tag on them as Washington-certified.”
Washington’s grapevine certification program involves indexing and testing material for required viruses before it is planted in the foundation block of the Northwest Grape Foundation Service, a program of WSU. Vines in the foundation block are routinely retested so they can be maintained in the block free of virus and crown gall bacteria.
Washington Department of Agriculture officials must approve field nurseries before certified material is planted. Inspections of the mother blocks are made twice a year; growing nursery stock is also inspected twice a year.
Lack of certified planting material for new clones and minor varietals in Washington State has led some vineyardists to buy vines from out-of-state, Judkins said. “But just because there is no certified wood available doesn’t mean you have to go to California. Sometimes, a reputable Washington grower with a vineyard known to be disease-free can provide good, clean material even if it’s not certified.”
Judkins is planting a small, certified rootstock block at his nursery to mirror what’s planted in the WSU foundation block. This will help him learn more about the rootstocks and their growth habits and provide a ready source if the industry begins planting more rootstocks. Nearly all of the vineyards in eastern Washington are on own-rooted vines, although western Washington is beginning to experiment with rootstocks.
Marcus Freepons got into the grape nursery business about eight years ago by doing a favor for a friend. He was asked by a grape grower to try growing potted grape planting material under greenhouse settings to see if the time involved in propagating grape stock could be shortened.
It has been a steep learning curve, said Freepons, owner of Northwest Vinifera in Grandview, but through trial and error, he’s found innovative ways to make the greenhouse procedure work. He will have capacity to grow 160,000 plants this year, more than doubling his current greenhouse space of 15,000 square feet. Even with the additional square footage, he said he will still turn business away.
All the propagative material Freepons uses comes from certified or reputable vineyard blocks. “I never own any plants,” he said, noting that his work is done on a custom basis for growers. Sometimes, the wood may come from the grower from a block with a known history of being virus-free. “I will source the wood if they want, but the customer can also source the wood.”
Freepons has found a niche in the nursery business with the greenhouse plants. By using a greenhouse to grow potted plants, he can take a year out of the standard nursery process, giving growers a little extra time in their decision-making process. After sourcing wood in January, the callused material can be planted in plastic cell trays in February, with a green plant ready for planting in the vineyard by mid-May.
There are several reasons why vineyardists should consider sourcing plant material from Washington.
Lack of dormancy can be an issue with material from California. Freepons said California wood must be handled differently to prevent early bud breaking.
Additionally, growers and nurserymen can visit the vineyard if the wood is sourced in state to monitor the vineyard and track disease and other issues. “You can’t look the nurseryman in the eye if you buy from out of state,” said Judkins. “Sometimes, it’s out of sight, out of mind.”
Crown gall prevention is another reason to buy Washington material whenever possible. The insidious disease, which causes problems in Washington after winter injury, is not a problem in California vineyards, and is not screened for at the nursery level. All Washington-certified grape planting stock are indexed and screened for crown gall and specific diseases.