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November 2013 Issue of Wines & Vines
 
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Improving Eastern Industry Profitability

USDA Specialty Crop Research Initiative aims to boost grape and wine quality and consistency

 
by Tony Wolf and Tremain Hatch
 
 
Winegrowers in the eastern United States are accustomed to farming wine grapes under a variable climate and challenging conditions. Spring frosts, winter cold, extremes of summer precipitation, possible hurricanes during the ripening season and a wide range of disease and insect pests are all familiar adversities. Despite the risks, the wine industry in the eastern U.S. is experiencing remarkable growth. Vineyard acreage, wine production, wine-quality benchmarks and total economic impacts are trending upward, due in part to states’ marketing efforts and consumer interest in local wines and wineries.

But for the eastern wine industry to realize continued growth, wine quality and consistency must improve and production costs must decrease. Recognizing that many eastern states face similar constraints to wine industry growth, faculty at several land-grant institutions began discussing a coordinated research and extension initiative in 2009. The springboard for discussions was a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) planning grant to Cornell University researchers Anna Katharine Mansfield and Justine Vanden Heuvel. The planning grant facilitated meetings of viticulture and enology researchers from across the region to discuss industry problems and issues that might have researchable solutions. It also allowed the researchers to convene several industry meetings to gather feedback about stakeholders’ perception of industry research and extension needs. Seventy industry members attended the stakeholder meetings held in North Carolina, Virginia and the Finger Lakes region of New York.
    Tool for evaluating eastern U.S. vineyard sites
     

     
    One objective of the five-year research and extension project funded by the USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative is to develop a web-based geographic information system (GIS) model incorporating climatic, topographic and soils data to assist with site-cultivar evaluation. The team leader for this objective is Peter Sforza of the Center for Geospatial Information Technology at Virginia Tech.

    Vineyard site and cultivar decisions are often driven more by emotion and market perception than by research-based information, and fruit quality and consistency of production often suffer as a consequence. This objective proposed an ambitious synthesis of the cultivar performance data collected in variety evaluations with contemporary climate, topographic and soils data sets into a GIS and decision-support platform. Our goal is to develop the next-generation GIS-assisted viticulture decision aid for many states in the eastern United States.

    Virginia Tech’s Center for Geospatial Information Technology was given the task of developing the eastern U.S. vineyard site-evaluation tool. The website will be functionally very similar to the existing Virginia tool but will include additional data layers such as time to bud break with key varieties for sub-regions of the East, potential for spring frost after bud break and risk of both abiotic threats (e.g., cold injury) and biotic risks (e.g., Pierce’s disease).

    A research prototype of the website is running, and rollout of the first phase of the publicly available website is anticipated in January. The GIS tool uses a web-based interactive map that allows the user to define an “area of interest,” which is typically a site currently owned or being evaluated for purchase as a vineyard site. Once defined, the user requests a site report, which provides a detailed assessment of the following characteristics:

    Aboveground features: Elevation, land cover type (e.g., pasture vs. forest), slope and aspect.

    Soils: Soils data are obtained from the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s SSURGO database and include series name(s), pH, organic matter content, internal drainage, depth to bedrock and available water-holding capacity. The report interprets the soil parameters and specifies soil characteristics that might be improved through addition of lime or other amendments, or the use of tiling to improve internal drainage.

    Biological threats: Threat of Pierce’s disease based on occurrence of specific winter temperature thresholds.

    Climate/weather data: Length of frost-free growing season, anticipated time of bud break with cardinal varieties, accumulated seasonal heat units, average summer maximum temperatures and winter minimums, frequency of benchmark winter minimum temperatures, precipitation averages and average growing season temperature. In addition to the site-specific climate features, the GIS report also will provide the user with state-specific recommended varieties including recommendations for “new” varieties coming out of the Viticultural Consortium’s NE 1020 plantings, which a number of the participating states are involved with. (Search NE 1020 at winesandvines.com for more information about that project.)
    T.W.

Twenty-one individuals from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University (Virginia Tech), Cornell University, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station, University of Maryland, North Carolina State University, Ohio State University and Pennsylvania State University collectively crafted a grant application to the USDA’s Specialty Crops Research Initiative in early 2010. The proposed project, “Improved grape and wine quality in a challenging environment: An eastern U.S. model for sustainability and economic vitality” was selected for funding (Grant No. 2010-01183) and was awarded approximately $3.8 million over a five-year period (2011-15). The federal support is matched directly or in-kind by an identical amount of non-federal funding.

The project has four main objectives and a number of sub-objectives, all of which are aimed at improving the eastern wine industry’s production efficiency, productivity and profitability—as well as consumer perceptions of eastern wines.

The project’s main objectives were to:

• ?Develop applied means of defining and achieving vine balance under the variable environmental conditions of the eastern United States.

• ?Provide research-based recommendations for optimally matching grape cultivars with site-specific environmental conditions.

• ?Understand and capitalize on consumer attitudes toward eastern wines and wine grape cultivars though market exploration of consumer perception/demand, willingness to pay and assessment of wine quality-assurance programs.

• ?Implement a broad range of learning resources to improve grape and wine quality, inform vineyard site evaluation, decrease production costs, train trainers and workforce labor, and ultimately improve the competitive basis of the eastern wine industry.

The project objectives were derived from industry mandates that “vineyard practices to improve grape composition and wine quality” were of paramount importance. While pest management was recognized as a ubiquitous and dynamic concern, our project team primarily comprised viticulturists and enologists, and we chose to limit our objectives to these areas of expertise.

Objective 1: Develop applied means of achieving ?vine balance under variable conditions
While droughts sometimes affect grapevines in the eastern U.S., a more common situation is excessive seasonal rain and soil moisture, which stimulates vegetative growth of grapevines. Excessive vegetative growth can negatively impact fruit quality, aggravate disease management and increase canopy-management costs. Large, vigorous vines are, in grower parlance, “unbalanced.” Vine balance is a reference to the relative proportion of vine vegetative growth and crop yield. That simple definition can be qualified by consideration of the training system used, the seasonal duration of vegetative growth and the intended fruit quality. We have some useful benchmarks to measure vine balance, but additional metrics are being explored with the project.

Objective 1 has two sub-objectives: The first is to evaluate practical tools that might be used to optimize vine balance such as under-the-trellis cover crops, rootstocks and root-containment systems; the second is to refine our canopy descriptive metrics and to explore certain canopy-management practices such as cluster exposure goals under the varied macroclimates of the East.

The first sub-objective is being pursued at the AHS Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, Va., and at Cornell University’s Lansing farm near Ithaca, N.Y. The projects have similar goals and use similar methodology to evaluate vineyard treatments, but the projects also differ in some respects.

Led by the author of this article, project director Tony Wolf, the Virginia project uses Cabernet Sauvignon clone No. 337 as the test cultivar. Treatments include two different vineyard floor-management schemes: One involves using a permanent cover crop (creeping red fescue) under the trellis, combined with permanent inter-row cover crop; the other is the conventional floor-management scheme for this region—permanent inter-row cover crop combined with an 85cm-wide under-trellis herbicide strip. Additional treatment levels include rootstock comparisons (101-14, 420-A and Riparia Gloire) and a means of restricting root development. An early report about this project was provided in the American Journal of Enology and Viticulture (Hatch et al., 2011).

Some of the key findings thus far:

• ?Root restriction and under-trellis cover crop (UTCC) were independently effective in suppressing vegetative development of vines as measured by rate and seasonal duration of shoot growth, lateral shoot development, trunk circumference and dormant pruning weights. The net effect was that less time was needed for specific canopy-management practices such as lateral shoot and leaf removal and shoot hedging.

• ?Riparia Gloire rootstock was, at least initially, the most effective rootstock in limiting vegetative development among the three evaluated; vines grafted to Riparia Gloire had approximately 25% lower cane-pruning weights than vines grafted to 420-A or 101-14. These results were consistent with our knowledge of the relative vigor-conferring abilities of these three rootstocks. Rootstocks were not as effective, however, as the under-trellis cover crop, or root-restriction, in suppressing vegetative development. Furthermore, the rootstock effect was most dramatic in the first several years of the experiment and less so in the past two years of data collection.

• ?Canopy architecture was generally improved by both UTCC and by root restriction, but generally unaffected by rootstock. Both UTCC and root restriction provided a sustained improvement in canopy architecture in an environment where annual, remedial hedging and leaf-pulling are often required to achieve the same degree of fruit exposure.

• ?The principal, direct effect of the UTCC and the root-restriction treatments was a sustained reduction in the vine’s water potential—that is, how hydrated or dehydrated the vine is. Plant nitrogen levels (including yeast-assimilable nitrogen of musts) also were depressed by under-trellis cover crops (UTCC). A follow-up study is under way to determine the most efficient way to apply nitrogen fertilizer in vineyard systems that use the under-trellis cover crops.

• ?Certain components of yield, including berry weight, were positively affected by vineyard floor management and root restriction. The UTCC generally increased juice and wine color density and total phenolics. Wines have been made from the various treatments, and both preference tests and sensory descriptive analyses have revealed modest but positive impacts of improved fruit exposure on finished wines.

A similar cover crop experiment was established in the Finger Lakes with Cabernet Franc under the direction of Drs. Ian Merwin (now retired) and Justine Vanden Heuvel. Rather than using perennial grass, the Finger Lakes project utilizes annual cover crops or native vegetation under the trellis, as the vines are annually hilled and de-hilled for winter protection. The Finger Lakes experiment also was engineered to allow monitoring of soil solution leachate through the soil profile as a function of vineyard floor management. Thus, the fate of agrochemicals such as fertilizer and pesticides can be monitored in response to floor-management practices.

Objective 1 involves research faculty and graduate students in North Carolina, Virginia and New York. Using sites across the East will ensure that the tools developed are appropriate for the different macroclimates that exist between New England and the Southeast. The metrics developed for the second sub-objective of Objective 1 ?include c anopy description, impact of light and temperature on specific grape metabolites and wine quality potential, and climate-specific means of estimating crop loads to bring vines into balance.

Objective 2: Develop research-based recommendations ?for optimally matching grape cultivars with site-specific ?environmental conditions
With few exceptions (e.g., Riesling in the Finger Lakes, Merlot from Long Island in New York, Viognier in Virginia’s Piedmont region), the eastern U.S. has few signature varieties that help brand our wine sub-regions. We are using two approaches to help match suitable grape varieties with specific vineyard sites. First, information from a national wine grape variety evaluation (NE 1020) will be analyzed with respect to viticulture performance and enological evaluation of resultant wines. NE 1020 is a coordinated, national research project that uses uniform research protocols among member institutions to generate an extensive database of grape, grapevine and wine data.

An additional component of the variety evaluation involves the enological study of wine tannins in selected white and red grape varieties. A feature of many of the hybrid and American-type red wine varieties used in the eastern U.S. is low tannin concentrations. Conversely, some of the hybrid white cultivars common in the East such as Traminette often exhibit somewhat bitter phenolic finishes. Tannin studies of selected grape varieties are being led by Anna Katharine Mansfield at Cornell University.

The second and related approach in Objective 2 is the development of a web-based geographical information system (GIS) tool that incorporates the variety performance data with climatic, topographic and soils data to improve “site-cultivar” selection. (See “Tool for evaluating eastern U.S. vineyard sites” on page 108.) This GIS tool will build upon state-specific tools that our research teams have deployed in Virginia and New York. In practice, anyone with Internet connectivity will be able to evaluate the potential vineyard suitability of a parcel of land and obtain general recommendations for varieties that would be expected to perform well at the site. We envision the tool as a high-resolution first step in the vineyard site evaluation process.

Objective 3: Understand and capitalize on regional wine style through market exploration of consumer perception/demand, willingness to pay (WTP) and influence of quality assurance programs
Perhaps some of the most important questions and problems for the eastern wine industry are those that relate to consumer perceptions of eastern wines. Objective 3 aims to achieve the following: 1) Determine the key factors that influence consumer decisions to purchase wines at independent wineries, such as product selection, product quality, prices and competing wines; 2) Determine the effectiveness of advertising and promotional programs for influencing customers to purchase wines from independent wineries; 3) Determine consumer satisfaction with the wines currently offered at various marketing outlets such as grocery stores, wine stores and competing independent wineries; 4) Identify and characterize the various market segments for wine; 5) Determine how consumers view the eastern wine industry and how the industry could build customer satisfaction and loyalty to increase its market share; 6) Recommend specific changes that will assist winery managers in improving their marketing, advertising and promotional programs; and, finally, 7) Use experimental economics to study how alternative advertising approaches influence consumers’ willingness to pay (WTP) for wines produced in the East.

A portion of Objective 3 research utilizes survey data and experimental economics to shed light on the effectiveness of advertising/promotion and other factors influencing consumers’ willingness to pay for wines from the eastern U.S. Two sub-projects have been completed under the lead of Bradley Rickard at Cornell University in this area: The first examined how consumers respond to regional reputations—American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) and information that links AVAs to wine-producing regions in France (Rickard et al., 2012). A laboratory experiment was conducted in Cornell University’s Lab for Experimental Economics and Decision Research for this study. Subjects were randomly assigned to one of three different information treatments and were asked to place bids on seven white wines. The wines were from seven different AVAs in the United States: three from California, two from Oregon and two from Virginia. Expert wine ratings for each wine were presented in an effort to communicate that the wines were of similar quality. Wines in the first treatment were introduced without any additional information; the collective reputations (AVAs) were described in the second treatment, and the collective reputations were described and augmented with information about similar regions in France in the third treatment.

Using the data from our auctions, we were able to employ an econometric model to disentangle the effects from the three treatments. Our results showed two important findings. First, drawing attention to AVAs for wines from emerging regions does not seem to impact consumers’ valuation, even among consumers who are relatively familiar with wine. However, efforts to highlight AVAs in emerging regions as part of a larger package of information may be a critical component of developing a long-term strategy for building reputations of new wine appellations. Second, the study results suggested that information that uses references to well-established regions in France resonated with subjects in our experiment, and indicated that making such links to famous regions may prove to be an effective marketing strategy for emerging wine regions—notably among consumers with greater familiarity (and perhaps greater appreciation) for wine.

The second Cornell market study explored the demand for eastern wines by examining wine lists at restaurants in New York state. Food and wine menus were collected from 1,400 Zagat-rated restaurants in the state, and the information was used in a statistical model to assess what drives the restaurants to list New York wines. The Zagat Survey is a very rich and yet very under-utilized resource in restaurant data collection. As a premier and well-established rating group, Zagat contains a large amount of information across a wide variety of restaurants (approximately 5,000 restaurants in New York state).

The analysis of this unique da taset showed that the type of restaurant, Zagat Décor score and wine list characteristics increased the likelihood of a restaurant serving New York wines. In particular, we found that restaurants serving New American cuisine and restaurants with many domestic wines on their lists were more likely to sell New York state wine (compared to restaurants serving European or Asian cuisine). Lastly, we also found that restaurants in Manhattan were less likely to serve New York state wines compared to restaurants in the outer four boroughs and notably when compared to restaurants on Long Island and in upstate New York. This last finding suggests that the definition of “local,” as viewed through restaurant menus, may be more geographically concentrated than what others have suggested.

Objective 4: Develop a range of resources including decision-assisting tools to encourage implementation of production practices that improve grape and wine quality, decrease production costs and improve the competitiveness of the eastern U.S. wine industry
The solutions and resources created by this project have the potential to improve the profitability and sustainability of the eastern wine industry. However, those solutions must be transformed into practices and delivered to the industry in order to realize this potential. The extension objective of this project is aimed at transforming the knowledge created by this project into commercially sustainable practices using a variety of resources.

Extension workshops and short courses are effective means of delivering research-based information to the wine industry. These workshops allow for direct contact between investigators and growers as well as important networking opportunities for the industry. For example, project investigators worked with the Virginia Vineyards Association in 2012 to host a canopy-management and vine-balance workshop attended by more than 140 growers in Winchester, Va. A series of four “research summits” is currently planned for February 2014. These summits will highlight some of the research coming to fruition with this project, and each will provide a forum for stakeholder feedback to gauge the value and potential impact of the project deliverables. The four meetings will be conducted in concert with regularly scheduled industry meetings in North Carolina, Virginia, Ohio and New York.

Educational events for Cooperative Extension agents/educators also are provided under the auspices of this project. For example, Virginia Tech hosted 31 extension agents from the southeastern U.S. for a June 12 in-service training workshop about grapevine canopy assessment and modification (see photo on page 105). While the project is not intended to directly train a labor workforce for the wine industry, it will deliver educational tools useful to that goal. Examples include the online site-suitability tool and the “Wine Production Guide for Eastern North America,” which was published shortly before this project was conceived.

The majority of project investigators are involved in the Grape Community of Practice, which develops material for eXtension’s grape content. The site (eviticulture.org) has seen substantial traffic, and the grapes component has seen more than half a million visitors since its inception.

Growth of the eastern wine industry will require new academic research and extension leadership. In fact, five of the original 21 investigators from our project have retired in the three years since inception of the project. The project currently has 15 graduate students and several post-doctoral research associates involved in various aspects of this project. Some of these researchers represent the future of viticultural and enological research, extension and teaching in eastern states.

“Improved grape and wine quality in a challenging environment: An Eastern U.S. model for sustainability and economic vitality” is a multi-faceted, five-year project that will have an impact on nearly all current and future wine growers in the eastern U.S. Additional information and updates, including details about the research summits planned for February 2014, can be found at the project’s website.

Tony Wolf is a professor of viticulture at Virginia Tech’s AHS Jr. Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Winchester, Va. ?Tremain Hatch is a research/extension associate at the center.

 
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