Virginia Tech’s impact on what, where and when to grow

Virginia Tech professor Tony Wolf’s experiments and monitoring of Virginia terroir have an ongoing influence on our region’s winemakers. Courtesy of Virginia Tech Virginia Tech professor Tony Wolf’s experiments and monitoring of Virginia terroir have an ongoing influence on our region’s winemakers. Courtesy of Virginia Tech

You’ll often find a university at the epicenter of many of the world’s great wine regions. Learning institutions help drive and fund research and increase wine quality. Since 1905, the University of California, Davis has conducted vine and wine research just outside of Sacramento. Its findings have had an immeasurable impact on winemaking in Napa and Sonoma. Hochschule Geisenheim University, a wine-focused institute since 1872, sits in the heart of German wine country and has a far-reaching influence throughout Germany. The University of Bordeaux offers a master’s in vineyard and winery management or a doctorate in oenology and viticulture. Cornell University offers programs in viticulture and has buttressed the explosive wine scene in the Finger Lakes region. In Virginia, we have Virginia Tech, where a significant part of the agriculture program focuses on grapes.

VT’s influence on Virginia’s wine industry can, at times, be difficult to pinpoint. Much of the research and information is freely available online, so winemakers may read an article, apply that knowledge in their own vineyard, and you’d never know that VT had a subtle impact on the wine you drink. In speaking to movers and shakers in the Virginia wine scene, their responses indicated two main areas where VT’s research shapes our industry: viticulture and winemaking research results that winemakers can apply to their products, and VT’s site selection-tool that helps wineries pinpoint great places for grape growing.

At VT, “Tony Wolf and Bruce Zoecklein (now retired) were major contributors to the Virginia wine industry’s growth and improvement in the 1990s and 2000s,” says wine writer Dave McIntyre. “Their research influenced the selection of vineyard sites and grape varieties, as well as techniques in the wineries.”

When I contacted Joy Ting, enologist at Michael Shaps Wineworks, and asked her about VT’s impact, she laughed because she was holding Zoecklein’s article on sparkling wine, which she was in the middle of referencing before tackling a sparkling wine project.

“For me, [the] biggest impact has been the breadth of information about which Bruce Zoecklein wrote,” says Ting. “It doesn’t matter what question I have about wine chemistry, Bruce has written a paper about it. His academic research was vast, but he also wrote Enology Notes, a free online database of short articles collected from his newsletters over the years. It’s a great topical reference for all things wine chemistry. If that wasn’t enough, Bruce was (and still is, despite his retirement) always available to answer questions personally.”

Emily Pelton, winemaker at Veritas Vineyards & Winery, graduated from Virginia Tech and studied with Zoecklein. As a founding member of the Winemaker’s Research Exchange, Pelton maintains a commitment to research and its practical application to Virginia wine.

Virginia’s unique climate faces a host of challenges that many other wine regions don’t confront, such as hurricanes, humidity, hail, frost and local pests such as turkeys, bugs and deer. “When I read the enology literature, much of the work is done in areas whose viticulture is so different that I wonder if the results really apply here,” Ting says. “Also, some of the grape varieties we feature are not widely used elsewhere in the U.S. (viognier, cabernet franc, petit manseng). Virginia Tech helps bridge that gap. The research they do is driven by the issues we see here.”

“Tony Wolf’s research at his experimental vineyard near Winchester, along with his regular updates on weather conditions and disease threats, continue to help growers cope with the challenges Virginia’s tricky environment throws at them,” says McIntyre.

“Their work with vineyard pests and controls has made clean wine making possible,” says local winemaker Jake Busching, with Michael Shaps Wineworks. “We are constantly finding new things that like to damage our fruit. Virginia Tech has been there to find fixes and new methodology for remediation every time.”

VT’s focus on local challenges for vineyards offers practical and custom-tailored research results to winemakers around the state. The application of this research has, in part, been the wind in the sails of Virginia’s recent wine boom.

VT has also developed “a site-selection tool that helps you to see if a specific plot of land is good for growing grapes,” notes Ting. “It basically allows you to locate the plot by address or latitude and longitude, then use a drawing tool to specify where on that site you want to plant. From there, it uses nationally available climate and soil databases to help you see if the site is suitable for grape growing. Since site selection is so important, this is a great first step.”

Ben Jordan, winemaker at Early Mountain Vineyards, thinks the future of higher quality in Virginia wine is to secure the best vineyard sites that aren’t necessarily right next to the winery. He points to VT’s online site-evaluation tool and Wolf as a resource in site selection. “I have been trying to find an awesome site so we can push quality,” he says.

Like so many other wine centers around the globe, the academic world has the ability to ignite a complex and vital relationship between those who study wine and viticulture and those who operate wineries. Many of the world’s great regions thrive because of a healthy link to universities, and it will be fascinating to see how the relationship between Virginia Tech and local wineries continues to develop in the future.

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