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Now testing: A grape to make an organic, profitable wine

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CONTRIBUTED PHOTO
Researcher Chelsy Villarroel examines young Verona grape vines as part of the sustainable agricultural research experiment at Mountain View Vineyard in Hamilton Township, Monroe County.
CONTRIBUTED PHOTO Researcher Chelsy Villarroel examines young Verona grape vines as part of the sustainable agricultural research experiment at Mountain View Vineyard in Hamilton Township, Monroe County.

There’s an experiment underway in the Poconos that if successful could make the wine industry in the region more environmentally friendly and more profitable at the same time.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Penn State University and Mountain View Vineyards in Hamilton Township are collaborating on a sustainable agriculture research education experiment to test a high-quality wine grape that could be heartier for the climate and environmental conditions found in the Poconos and throughout the Northeast.

This spring, farmers planted 3.5 acres of a new hybrid grape. If successful, the test would show that a new grape could make it possible to grow high-quality, organic wine grapes in the region, an endeavor some in the industry have called nearly impossible – at least not profitably.

The grape being tested is a Verona, named after the region in Italy. It is a hybrid grape, crossbred to be less susceptible to the insects and fungus that can plague grapes in this growing region. Experts say it produces wine that tastes like classic European wine but doesn’t need all of the harsh chemical sprays that the classic European vines require in the Northeast U.S.

It is the granddaughter – if you will – of the petite pearl grapes that Mountain View owner Randy Rice already grows at the vineyard, which are grapes that also are a blend of hearty and tasty that were created to thrive locally.

NATURE IS NOT KIND

Brian Hed, a researcher with Penn State who is working on the project, explained that most popular varietals, such as chardonnay, are grown in northern California where the conditions are dryer.

“In California, which is a dryer climate, conditions can be managed by irrigation. East of the Mississippi, it’s hard to grow organic anything,” Hed said.

Since many of the grapes that make the most popular wines are not hearty in the eastern Pennsylvania region and surrounding states, they often fall victim to fungus and insects.

Rice said that while there are many varieties of grapes that grow well in the region, those are grapes that tend to make lower quality, “less balanced, often more acidic wines.”

FREQUENT, COSTLY SPRAYINGS

So, to grow the grapes that make the tastiest, and most in-demand wines, wine growers in the region must regularly spray their vines with pesticides and anti-fungals, Hed said.

This creates myriad problems for wine growers in the region, both men said.

First, treating the more delicate grapes with those chemicals is costly. Rice said the spray is $200 to $400 per gallon and most of the fine grape varieties need to be sprayed weekly.

Depending on the size of the crop, that can be a major expense for growers.

It’s also quite time consuming, and not particularly the best for the environment or the people who will ultimately drink the wine, Rice said.

ORGANIC DEMAND

There is another important factor at work – market demand. Rice said many of the same people who seek out locally made wine are the same people who seek out organic, nongenetically modified products.

“We have the conversation almost every day. Customers ask us about it,” Rice said. “People are spending more money on organic food. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the wine?”

However, when it comes to wine-grape growing in the Northeast, “locally grown” and “organic/non-GMO” are virtually mutually exclusive, Hed said.

FARING WELL SO FAR

Some vintners, Rice said, would call it impossible to be both organic and high quality and be able to make enough of a profit to sustain a winery business.

If a grape such as the Verona can be grown locally in an organic, or at least more sustainable, manner, it could open up a new market for local wineries, Rice said.

So far, Hed said, results have been promising. The vines planted at Mountain View are faring well.

Rice said a big cost savings he’s realized is in the spraying. The Verona grape vines have gotten by with only two sprayings of an organic treatment, versus the weekly chemical sprays some grapes require.

TASTE IS PARAMOUNT

The grapes are about three years from being used to make wine, which will be the real test, their flavor.

Rice said if they produce a high-quality wine that people are willing to pay top dollar to buy, it would make the Verona a profitable grape to grow – a good business model for small wineries such as his.

“When you talk about sustainability, it’s not just the environment,” Rice said. “We need to create sustainable, profitable businesses.”

OTHERS COULD FOLLOW

Rice’s goal is not to just grow the grape on his own. If it proves to be an improvement on the current available grapes, he’d like to see more regional wineries use the new way.

He’d also like to see more people get in the winery business if they have an easier-to-grow grape and more profitable final product.

“Farmland is disappearing in the Poconos,” Rice said. “This might make someone choose to put in a vineyard rather than sell the land to a developer.”

Preserving farmland and growing the Poconos as a viticultural region and destination would be the ultimate big-picture goal.

“I want to inspire other landowners to get into winemaking. I want to show that it can be more profitable,” Rice said.

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