January 2019 Issue of Wines & Vines

Reflections from a 50-year Vineyard Meander

by Richard Smart

I was flattered when I was invited to contribute to the final issue of Wines & Vines, commemorating 100 years of distinguished service to the American grape and wine sector. As an older member of the viticultural science fraternity, I have seen many changes in my 53 years working in vineyards, and I will comment on some of these here. I have been involved in research, teaching and consulting in more than 35 countries and many wine regions of the world, so I can offer some sort of international perspective.

A vital element of a successful grape and wine industry is communication between members, especially of technical information. To go back 50 years, this was largely the pur¬pose of trade magazines such as Wines & Vines. I recall that when I began my career, I was a devout reader of the Australian equivalent. Now trade meetings are more fre¬quent, and there are many other sources of information, but the printed word still has an important place. Trade magazines remain an important information source, and most grape and wine scientists still use them to get their message out to in¬dustry practitioners.

Another important American legacy is the American Society for Enology and Viticulture, which has spawned similar societies in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and Japan. Well done, ASEV.

While I was born in Australia and spent much of my life there, I have been a frequent visitor to the United States over my profes¬sional career, for education, speaking engagements and con-sulting. I have visited most grapegrowing states of the U.S. To my mind, the United States and Australia have been im¬portant countries so far as technical improvements in viticulture have been con¬cerned, some of which I ac¬knowledge here.

I wondered about a relevant approach to this historical review and decided on a classification of “what had changed” in this period from 1966 to 2016, and “what has not changed,” some of which maybe should have! After I wrote this column, I came across Cliff Ohmart’s colum in the August 2018 issue of Wines & Vines, “Twenty years of sustainable winegrowing,” where he took a similar ap¬proach. Some of our conclusions are similar.

I wonder if there may be another period of 50 years with more changes than have occurred over the period of, say, 1966 to 2016, which I am discussing. I am no historian, and maybe others will comment, but it seems to me this has been a period of very substantial change. The following entries are listed in no particular order, but I would hope that some of the more significant from a global point of view are included higher up on the list.

Grapevines have been irrigated for millenniums, as it was practiced by the ancient Egyptians. The 1960s saw the introduction of drip irrigation, developed in Israel but subsequently widely adopted in Australia and elsewhere. This irrigation system presented enormous benefits. It could be applied on undulating topography and does not wet foliage and fruit. Precise control was possible, and water application could be combined with soluble fertil¬izer. Compared to flood and sprinkler irrigation, the in¬troduction of drip irrigation was truly revolutionary. In the late 1960s, I compared drip and furrow irrigation in one of the first experiments; few then would believe that wetting only a small soil-root zone would be sufficient under arid conditions, but it was!

At the beginning of this period, there was virtually no mechanical harvesting nor pruning. These two tasks were traditionally the largest labor requirements in viticulture. Interestingly, the relevant technologies for both were de¬veloped in the U.S., and not, as one might imagine, on the West Coast but in New York State. Viticulturist Nelson Shaulis and engineer Stan Shepherd at Cornell University developed prototype harvesting and pruning machines, which were subsequently commercialized.

Of the two, machine harvesting was the more complex operation, and the machines were by nature expensive and have remained so. Interestingly, many of the world’s machine harvesters are now man¬ufactured in Europe, not in the U.S., where the technology was developed. Machine har¬vesting has had a major impact on vineyard and winery design. Recent New Zealand re¬search has even credited machine-harvesting action with improvement in wine quality by the release of volatile thiol compounds from Sauvignon Blanc grapes.

The first mechanical pruners were rela¬tively simple cutter bars, and many have retained this format. Australia quickly ad¬opted mechanical pruning, including use of circular saws; mechanical pruning is now quite universal there, and some vineyards are not pruned at all. Mechanical pruning is being adopted in parts of California with concerns of labor availability and cost. Ro¬botic pruners are being evaluated but have yet to be commercialized.

Pests and diseases
Over this 50-year period, there have been substantial developments in terms of pest and disease control. There are now in-field weather stations with models to predict dis¬ease onset for major fungal diseases. This was also a period of active research into virus disease, with virus-free planting material made available to nurseries for propagation. In the 1990s, many California vineyards were replanted due to use of a rootstock, AxR1, with insufficient resistance to phylloxera biotypes from the East, a fact long known to Europeans. When field-grown grafted vines were introduced from Eastern nurseries to meet shortages in California, the inevitable widespread replanting of AxR1-rooted vine¬yards occurred.

The 1990s were also the period of in¬creased awareness about grapevine trunk diseases (GTD). While Eutypa had been long recognized in U.S. vineyards, newly planted grapevines in the 1990s suffered from “young vine decline.” This problem came to be rec¬ognized as Petri disease, which was associ¬ated with a group of fungal pathogens. California surveys early in 2000 demon¬strated the presence of other fungal diseases affecting grapevine health, which are yet to be diagnosed and controlled in many vine¬yards of the world, including in the U.S. In Eastern vineyards, GTD symptoms are found in vines with “winter kill”; maybe it is mis-diagnosed. Grafting to phylloxera-tolerant rootstock has been practiced for almost 140 years to control phylloxera. However, the adoption of bench-grafting machines in the 1980s has caused the problem of trunk dis¬ease infection and spread in newly planted vineyards from nurseries worldwide. This GTD epidemic is a greater problem now than phylloxera ever was, in my opinion.

Canopy management
The 1980s and 1990s were periods of active canopy-management research. One practice that has emerged and has been widely adopted is fruit-zone leaf removal, although it is typi¬cally and excessively done by hand. Divided canopies were fashionable for a while, and many of the lyre designs are found on the North Coast of California. The Geneva Double Curtain developed by Shaulis in New York state and the Scott Henry system of Oregon have not been widely adopted, despite research showing their many benefits.

Organic, biodynamic and sustainable systems
These systems have become more fashionable, largely in response to perceived environmental damage with conventional viticulture. Agricul¬tural chemicals are seen to be the worst culprit, and undoubtedly the general public is becom¬ing more chemophobic. Adoption of these sys¬tems is considered by many to be a wine-marketing strategy, since such producers receive disproportionate press attention.

Spray application
There have been improvements in machine design, but dense canopies still cause problems of spray penetration to a target. Unfortunately, sprayers that recycle off-target material are not used nearly as much as they might be.

What has not changed? In some ways, this list is more difficult and more subjective.

No definition of wine-grape quality
Despite much research on this topic, it is still not possible to simply (and cheaply) measure the quality potential of wine grapes. Imagine how the wine industry might be transformed if the quality potential of grapes could be de¬termined at the scale at the crush pad. I see this as a holy grail of viticulture and enology research, and in my opinion it receives too little research funding.

Planting “international” varieties
I term this the “Coca-Cola-ization” of the wine business. Global planting statistics re¬inforce this trend toward making wine from fewer varieties, those 10 or so so-called “in¬ternational.” Why is it, when we have such a wide range of grape varieties, aromas and flavors, that we continue to present to con¬sumers such an increasingly limited range of grape varieties, and mostly French ones at that! Varietal labeling was developed in Cali¬fornia as an alternative to generic labeling, to encourage the planting of better wine varieties after Prohibition. Prohibition is long since over, but the winemaking use of more than a handful of grape varieties effectively seems prohibited by varietal labeling around the world. The world needs more variety in grape varieties.

How might this restrictive tendency be over¬come? The answer lies in convincing consumers that they are being shortchanged by the present boring tendency. A concerted effort needs to be made by enlightened producers and the wine press alike to argue for 30 or so international varieties, for a start. Maybe then we can stretch it to 52 international varieties, one for each week of the year. Why not? We are certainly not limited by candidate varieties.

Use of heavy tractors and machinery
A California study compared the long-term vineyard environment with that of adjacent pasture land. The biggest difference between the two was not in applied chemicals, as some might imagine, but in soil compaction. We have the technology to reduce compac¬tion by use of semi-track tractors. Why are they not more used? Soil compaction is en¬vironmental degradation, but sadly is out of sight, out of mind.

Traditional beliefs, or are they myths?
These mostly originate in Europe, and some are in encoded in legislation. The classical example is that of “high yields causing low quality.” I am amused and amazed how fer¬vently this is believed by enologists the world over, even by recent graduates from science-based courses.

The major influences on wine quality for any one vineyard source are the weather and vine¬yard and cellar management. Why is it we only read about “winemakers”? I always thought anyway that yeasts made wine. The more things change, the more they are the same, to quote an old French proverb.
This brief summary indicates how viticul¬tural practices have changed over the last 50 years, and modern grapegrowing has been forever modified. I wonder what changes the next generation of viticulturists might see?

Print this page   PRINTER-FRIENDLY VERSION   »
E-mail this article   E-MAIL THIS ARTICLE   »
Currently no comments posted for this article.