Texas Hires Four Extension Viticulturists

Legislation also funds research & education projects for state wine industry

by Linda Jones McKee
Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service appointed Michael Cook, Andrew Labay, Fran Pontasch and Piere Helwi (from left) as viticulture program specialists with posts around the state.
College Station, Texas—Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service announced Jan. 18 that it is hiring four viticulture program specialists to work in four different regions around the state. Gov. Greg Abbott signed a bill in June 2015 that created and funded the positions located in Fredericksburg in the Texas Hill Country, Lubbock in the High Plains, College Station near the Gulf Coast and in North Texas.

According to Dr. Ed Hellman, professor of viticulture at Texas Tech University, who also holds a dual appointment with Texas AgriLife Extension Service in Lubbock, this is the second time the state has funded viticulture extension agents. Similar legislation passed in 2007 that provided $2 million through the Department of Agriculture; then the Texas economy went into a slump, and the funding was not renewed.

“Things got better in the past few years,” Hellman told Wines & Vines. “The wine industry went back to the legislature last year, and the funds for the four extension positions are being appropriated directly to the universities.”

While the bill has a 10-year sunset provision, because Texas has a bi-annual budget the positions are funded for two years for $2 million. More money will have to be appropriated to continue, but Hellman is optimistic. “Texas’ economy is more diversified now, and everything looks good. The Texas wine industry is politically active and also effective.”

The four program specialists include: Michael Cook in North Texas, Piere Helwi in the High Plains and West Texas, Andrew Labay in the Texas Hill Country and Fran Pontasch on the Gulf Coast.

Cook, who was originally from North Texas, has a bachelor’s degree from Texas A&M in horticulture and a master’s in viticulture from Fresno State University. His research at Fresno was focused on fruit zone light management and applied water on vine productivity and phenolic composition.

Helwi recently received his doctorate in enology from the University of Bordeaux. His dissertation project looked at the effects of nitrogen nutrition on aroma compounds in grapes and wine. Hellman noted that while Helwi is new to extension, he has a good chemistry background. “Having dual experience in both viticulture and enology is a real strength in that he understands the winemaking side as well as viticulture,” Hellman stated. “But he will have to get used to Lubbock!”

Labay has a master’s degree in functional plant biology from the University of Montpellier II in France and is finishing his Ph.D. in horticulture at Texas A&M. He has been an Agri-Life extension associate in the viticulture program at the Fredericksburg Viticulture and Fruit Lab for five years. “Since Andy has been working in the research program there (in the Hill Country), he already knows the vineyards,” Hellman commented.

Pontasch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in horticulture from Texas A&M and worked on Pierce’s disease for her master’s degree in biology from Sul Ross University, was one of the four viticulture program specialists hired under the funding in 2007. “Fran is coming back to the position but in a different location. Previously she was in North Texas,” he said. “In the interim, she worked for Messina Hof Winery in Bryan College Station in the Gulf Coast region, so she won’t have to move for this new position.”

In addition to the new extension positions, the legislation also provides funding to Texas Tech for research and education programs. According to Hellman, the bill provides money for four graduate assistantships, an analytical laboratory and a research/teaching vineyard complete with its own technician. Two continuing-education programs are also part of the program: one for people just getting into the industry and a second that is a “refresher” for industry veterans.

Justin Scheiner, assistant professor and extension viticultural specialist in the department of horticultural sciences at Texas A&M, told Wines & Vines that the university is planning to hire an extension enologist in the near future. “We’re about to post the position,” Scheiner said. “We want to have the person on board in 2016, and that will complete our team.”

Texas currently has 222 wineries and more than 4,000 acres of producing vineyards. Grapes are grown from the Gulf Coast to the High Plains, with a wide range of climate and growing conditions. There are eight American Viticultural Areas: the High Plains AVA (west of Lubbock in the Texas panhandle); the Texas Hill Country AVA, located west of Austin, and which includes the Bell Mountain AVA and the Fredericksburg AVA; the Texoma AVA in north-central Texas along the Texas-Oklahoma border; the Texas Davis Mountains AVA in west Texas, where vineyards are located at elevations between 4,500 and 8,300 feet; the Escondido Valley AVA in far west Texas (Pecos County); and Mesilla Valley AVA, located in far western Texas north and west of El Paso.

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