10.07.2009  
 

Washington Expands Vineyard Research

WSU consolidates plantings for better control; other Northwest institutions also hope to grow

 
by Peter Mitham
 
Markus Keller Washington State University vineyards
 
WSU professor Dr. Markus Keller says newly consolidated vineyards in Prosser will allow better control of viticulture research.
Prosser, Wash. -- Washington State University is consolidating its research vineyards in an 8-acre plot designed to bring its research activities in line with contemporary interests. The university currently has approximately 18 acres of research vineyard at its Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser, split almost evenly between Concord grapes for juice and various winegrapes. The acreage includes a 4-acre foundation block that provides clean plant material to industry.

But the 5 acres of vineyard used for winegrape research consist of several small plots, which limit the university's research capabilities. The new vineyard, located on a former wheat field, will consolidate two of the existing 5 acres on a single site, and add another 6 acres of vines. WSU will keep two acres of the current vineyards for rootstock trials in Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay, and an acre for plant pathology trials. All told, the university will have 11 acres of research vineyard available by 2014.

Vines to be planted include the four major winegrape varieties grown in Washington -- Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Riesling. Plant material will come from the university's foundation block, ensuring stock that is free from crown gall and leafroll virus, one of the scourges that resulted in removal of previous research acreage.

The new vineyard will not only streamline management of the university's vineyards, said WSU viticulture professor Dr. Markus Keller, it will expand its research capabilities. Deficit irrigation, canopy and crop load management trials, as well as the potential for precision viticulture trials, are part of the research plans for the new vineyard.

"Currently, we cannot do any irrigation-related research -- and we are the Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center!" Keller told Wines & Vines. "So it's high time to get us back on track."

The primary benefit of the new, larger site will be the opportunity to do replicable trials. The small scale and diverse locations of the current plots mean that trials involving several grape varieties typically occur under different site conditions. This introduces an important variable when researchers are studying the effects of deficit irrigation and other irrigation strategies. The new, single vineyard site will change that. "We can actually replicate the same treatments on different varieties, which has always been an issue in the past," Keller said.

The new vineyard represents an investment of $55,000, drawn largely from grant monies, as well as $16,000 from industry. However, the vineyard represents a greater commitment from the university than just planting costs. WSU appointed a vineyard and orchard manager in 2008 to oversee its research plantings, a move that recognized the importance and value of keeping research resources in-house.

While a common practice in recent years saw researchers working with growers -- a practice that will continue--Keller said working with someone else's vineyards meant that a year's research could be lost by the inadvertent harvesting of fruit before the season's research finished.

"It's more expensive to do it this way, because we now have to pay for vineyard management," Keller said. "(But) it reflects the realization that you have to have control over your experiments if they are to be meaningful."

The new vineyard in Prosser is one of several being planted around the Pacific Northwest. WSU doubled the size of its foundation block earlier this year to four acres and, under the direction of viticulture and enology director Dr. Thomas Henick-Kling, the Richland campus is considering expanding its half-acre demonstration vineyard to 2 acres.

Walla Walla Community College maintains its own 5-acre teaching vineyard. While it has no immediate plans to expand, Valerie Fayette, director of the college's Center for Enology and Viticulture, said ongoing investments have sought to upgrade trellising and other vineyard infrastructure.

Meanwhile, Umpqua Community College and the Southern Oregon Wine Institute in Roseburg, Ore., planted the first 400 vines in a 5-acre teaching vineyard this past May. Viticulture students planted Nebbiolo and Syrah vines in the vineyard.
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