The grapevines look orderly as they climb the famed Dundee Hills in straight green lines. But up close, the vineyard is a study in controlled chaos. If allowed, the gnarled trunks will send canes to hedge over their neighbors. They’ll sprout leaves, spurs, and tendrils and develop clusters of grapes in their own time and location.
Rob Schultz, vineyard manager at Stoller Family Estates, estimates that the 190‑acre vineyard has 400,000 vines that must be manipulated eight times a year. Pruning, thinning, removing leaves, tying vines, cutting suckers, and more: all of it takes time and costs money. If some of that work can be reduced without harming wine quality, Schultz and other vineyard managers are all ears.
Which is why they’ve become enthusiastic backers of “vine to wine” research undertaken by the Oregon Wine Research Institute based at Oregon State University. Formed in 2009, the institute is a collaboration of OSU scientists and the growers and winemakers who have given Oregon a reputation for premium wine, especially Pinot noir.
“Any industry that wants to grow and improve must conduct research, whether the industry is wheat, wine, or potatoes,” says David Beck, co-founder of Crawford Beck Vineyard in Amity and a member of the Oregon Wine Board.
So, it begins with science. In the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon, and the Columbia plateau, small research blocks within commercial vineyards are being used to test such things as cover crop practices and techniques to influence vine vigor and reduce plant stress. For example, OSU viticulturist Patty Skinkis is pursuing a 10-year, statewide “crop load” study at 16 vineyards to examine the relationship between yield, vine balance, and Pinot noir fruit and wine quality.
Oregon vineyards often prune away half of the developing grape clusters during what is called “green harvest.” A heavy yield, the thinking goes, makes it more difficult for grapes to ripen, and the wine made from them may lack character. A lighter crop yield would seem to ensure more uniform ripening and more interesting wine. But does it? The idea has never been scientifically tested in Oregon.
Skinkis is testing these and other field practices all the way to the glass. She’s wired plots within commercial vineyards with equipment to measure photosynthesis, soil moisture, water stress, and nutrients to understand the effect that vineyard management has on the resulting wine. She works directly in commercial vineyards and wineries, following the grapes from field to crush.
Back at OSU, Skinkis’s colleagues evaluate the results from the vineyard studies. They use a sophisticated gas chromatograph connected to a mass spectrometer—GC-MS for short—to identify trace levels of aroma and flavor compounds in wine samples.
Ever swirl your glass to aerate the wine and sniff its bouquet? The GC-MS works somewhat the same way. The machine gently swirls tubes containing juice or wine. A substance that traps volatile compounds “sniffs” the air above the sample and graphs the results. The human nose still has a place; researchers sniff the same sample and record their comments, too. This and other research is possible because of collaboration with growers, who offer access to their commercial vineyards, and with the Oregon Wine Board, who offer financial support for research, says Beck.
Schultz, the Stoller vineyard manager, says his years in the industry in California initially dampened his enthusiasm for working with academics. In his experience, ideas espoused by university researchers didn’t necessarily play out well on the ground. That’s ivy growing up the campus towers, after all—not grapevines.
However, as Oregon’s wine industry began to grow, the need for research-based information grew, too. In 50 years, the industry has expanded from a handful of iconoclastic entrepreneurs to more than 400 wineries and an annual economic impact approaching $3 billion. Oregon’s wine industry is based on producing premium-quality wines, not mass quantities. So when winery owners compared themselves to premium regions around the world, they saw that a commitment to research was necessary to keep them at the cutting edge.
“Industry leaders recognized that they needed to take research to a new level,” says Bill Boggess, executive associate dean of OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. In 2009, the industry provided $2 million to get the institute rolling, and found receptive partners at the college. The institute brought together OSU’s viticulture and enology experts with about 20 other OSU scientists who spend part of their research time on grapes and wine. The list includes plant disease and insect pest experts, sensory specialists, irrigation specialists, and a handful of courtesy faculty from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Teaching is growing along with research and the industry. Building on the strength of the fermentation sciences program and the opportunity to work closely with wine industry producers, the number of food science majors at OSU has grown in a decade from 40 to more than 200 students, and the number of horticulture majors has more than doubled.
In June, the Oregon Wine Research Institute welcomed Mark Chien as the new program coordinator. Chien will manage the institute’s daily operations, monitor progress on research and education efforts, and facilitate engagement with the industry.
The experience of Oregon’s wine pioneers has provided a model of mutual support for the research institute. In the early days, as industry leaders worked to establish the state’s reputation for fine Pinot noir, the entrepreneurs shared information and helped each other. “They recognized that their individual success depended on the industry’s success,” says Boggess. Still, the research collaboration is an act of trust, people in the wine industry say. Vineyards put part of their valuable harvest at risk as OSU researchers experiment with the vine-to-wine process.
Is it worth it? “I think so, I really do,” says Schultz, vineyard manager at Stoller. “We hope to have a long collaboration [with OWRI].” He’s been pleased at the “level of practicality” university researchers bring to the Stoller vineyard. “It’s nice having a Ph.D. in the field,” he says with a smile.