For years, some of America's top researchers into the genetics of grapevines have been working in borrowed, cramped quarters. Now they're moving on up, and it should eventually lead to better American wines. On Feb. 26, Sen. Chuck Schumer announced that $68.9 million in federal funding will be devoted to building a long-awaited federal grape-genetics research lab at Cornell AgriTech in Geneva, N.Y.
The facility will allow for the expansion of the USDA's Agricultural Research Service's Grapevine Genetics Research Unit (ARS GGRU). The unit's mission is to employ cutting edge genomic tools to aid traditional grapevine breeding, helping create better vines for vintners.
"What the facility does is look at the genetics of grapevines, then [the researchers] give the info to breeders," said John Martini, owner of Anthony Road Wine Company in New York's Finger Lakes. He has been an active supporter of the GGRU's work. "These are not [genetically modified organisms] we are talking about. They are vines that have been conventionally bred using cutting-edge genetic information from the GGRU to reduce the amount of time and effort it takes a breeder to get from point A to point B."
"Since this unit was formed, we have been renting space from Cornell, so this facility was imperative for us to continue our work," Gan-Yuan Zhong, research leader of the GGRU, told Wine Spectator. For many years, the space was small and outdated. In 2003, the USDA did a feasibility study for the project, but the project was sidelined until now due to lack of funding.
The unit's scientists have typically addressed wine industry challenges such as improved fruit quality, disease resistance and cold tolerance. "Our focus is to generate genetic knowledge and tools which we can then pass on to breeders," said Zhong. "We currently have three scientists and several support technicians on staff, each focusing on a different area or problem, and are looking to hire a fourth scientist soon."
As the global climate changes and as vintners try to use fewer chemicals in farming, the researchers' work is becoming increasingly relevant. Zhong is focused on using genetics to improve fruit quality and vine architecture, while Lance Cadle-Davidson, a plant pathologist, is focused on developing vine resistance to powdery mildew, a big problem in the northeastern United States. Cadle-Davidson says his aim is to "develop eco-friendly disease resistance that will last for future generations" and reduce the need for fungicides.
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Geneticist Jason Lando's work is aimed at understanding how vines respond to abiotic stress factors such as temperature shifts due to climate change, drought, flood conditions, salt, heavy metals and changes in light. Zhong says he would like to have a fourth member of the team who is focused on improving flavor and aroma compounds.
The new building also cements a partnership between the GGRU and Cornell University scientists. "We benefit so much for having them present here," said Cornell instructor and grape breeder Bruce Reisch.
"The grape industry drives incredible growth in New York state, providing $4.8 billion in economic benefits and supporting thousands of good-paying jobs in the Finger Lakes region," Sen. Schumer said in a statement. "The outstanding ARS researchers at the GGRU are working diligently to revolutionize this industry. It is vital that the federal government invest in its own scientific workforce and provide them with the necessary resources to keep pace with innovative, state- of-the-art technologies."
What's next? "Our next step is to get the relevant parties together, choose a site, and plan the changes that may need to be made, all before the construction can even begin, " said Zhong.