Lodi Honors Longtime Farm Advisor

Paul Verdegaal reflects on how area's wine industry has changed in past 31 years

by Ted Rieger
wine grape vineyard Lodi
Lodi Winegrape Commission chair and grapegrower Bruce Fry (left) of Mohr-Fry Ranches was one of several industry leaders to honor Paul Verdegaal at Lodi Grape Day for his 31 years of service as a UC Cooperative Extension farm advisor for San Joaquin County. Photo: Ted Rieger

Lodi, Calif.—Lodi Grape Day has long been one of the region’s most informative and well attended educational meetings for grapegrowers. At the 66th annual Grape Day held Feb. 6, Lodi’s grape and wine industry honored the man who helped organize the educational sessions for nearly half the Grape Days held to date. Paul Verdegaal, University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) San Joaquin County farm advisor for the past 31 years, officially retired Jan. 1. His longtime service was recognized as this year’s Grape Day keynote speaker. 

Verdegaal is well-respected throughout San Joaquin County and beyond for his depth of knowledge, dedication and work as an integral team member with many organizations and the research community. In his talk, he reflected upon the changes in Lodi and California viticulture during the past 30 years and provided insightful professional and personal observations.

Verdegaal has been involved with grapevines since the age of 10, when his family moved to a farm planted with vineyards and orchards near Ripon, in south San Joaquin County. He earned a bachelor’s degree in fermentation science from UC Davis in 1976 and later completed a master’s degree in plant science/viticulture at Davis under the direction of viticulture professor Dr. Mark Kliewer. He worked as a vineyard foreman in Sacramento County for Pacific Agri-Lands Inc. from 1977 to 1984. He joined the UCCE office in San Joaquin County as a field and lab technician in 1984. In 1986, he took the job of viticulture farm advisor upon the retirement of Jim Kissler, who had held that position for 29 years. Verdegaal recalled Kissler’s advice when he started the job: “Always be on time, always have a shovel, and when you don’t know something, say so.”

Verdegaal observed, “1986 was not just a big year for me because I got a job, it was also a big year for area growers because Lodi received American Viticultural Area (AVA) status, and it helped put Lodi on the map. The Lodi Winegrape Commission (LWC) was established in 1991 and is still at it, promoting the appellation and helping increase the value of Lodi wine grapes in the market.”

When Verdegaal began in 1986, there were 43,370 acres of grapes in San Joaquin County. Today, the Lodi AVA, which includes part of Sacramento County, has more than 100,000 acres of wine grapes, and more than 100 different varieties are grown.

The job had its share of challenges. In 1986, the UCCE program was near its height with 325 farm advisors and specialists working statewide. The current total is estimated at around 175. According to Verdegaal, San Joaquin County had 15 farm advisors in 1986, but in 2017 it was down to seven farm advisors. Over the years, Verdegaal was asked to take on additional duties beyond viticulture advisor.  He was assigned to serve as an almond advisor in 1992, and in 2008 he added berry crops to his workload.

“In simplest words, my job was to conduct research, education and problem diagnosis for San Joaquin County grapegrowers and to provide a two-way conduit of communication between county growers and the UCCE in order to make available the resources of the university to help maintain a strong and sustainable winegrowing community,” Verdegaal summarized.

Important contributions
When Verdegaal began as a farm advisor, furrow/flood irrigation was still common practice in the majority of Lodi vineyards. Today, 90% to 95% of area vineyards are drip irrigated. He assisted UCCE colleague Terry Prichard with field trials to understand regulated deficit irrigation (RDI) for grapevines, which improved grape and wine quality with efficient water use that is now a standard practice in vineyards.

“Working with growers to use less water while farming more acres has been one of the biggest challenges for me the past 30 years,” Verdegaal said.

Verdegaal also was involved with many rootstock, variety and clonal trials. He assisted (now retired) UC Davis extension viticulturist Jim Wolpert in evaluating Zinfandel and heritage Zinfandel clones. These trials identified Primitivo as a clone with favorable growing and quality characteristics, and it is now commonly planted.

The wine grape variety mix had begun to shift in the mid-1970s, but in 1986, Lodi acreage was still dominated by blending and generic wine varieties. Flame Tokays were the major variety in San Joaquin County for both wine and table grape production, with 17,887 acres planted to the cultivar (about 34% of the total). Zinfandel accounted for 10,144 acres, mostly generic table wines. In the mid-1980s there was new interest in planting premium varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot. At the time, Verdegaal said, “All were considered not viable for ‘Valley production,’ based on university recommendation.”

Verdegaal also noted, “When I started, Valdepenas (a Tempranillo clone) was grown as a blender and sold for $50 a ton. Today we have increased acreage of Tempranillo in Lodi selling for varietal wine production at $700 to $1,200 a ton, so sometimes what you call a variety makes a difference.” Today the Lodi AVA produces Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, Rhone, German and other varieties, as well as Pinot Grigio and Pinot Noir, that Verdegaal said “were not even imaginable” for the region in the early 1980s.

More recently, Verdegaal established field trials to compare different trellis systems for mechanized canopy management and harvest including high-cordon machine-pruned systems that have become prevalent in Lodi as a way to efficiently manage for productivity and quality with less available labor.

Referencing the Lodi Rules for Sustainable Winegrowing and statewide sustainable programs, Verdegaal observed: “There has been increasing interest in sustainable practices and certification of such efforts. From my perspective, this interest is not so much needed to improve growers’ methods and strategies, as it is to inform consumers, buyers, non-agricultural advocates, regulators and legislators about the day-to-day and generation-to-generation commitment of winegrowers to community, environment and employees.”

In “retirement,” Verdegaal will continue to be involved with several viticulture research projects he started. With his wife of 39 years, Chi-Anne, he will continue to manage his family’s Zinfandel vineyard in Acampo, where the grapes are sold under contract to Constellation Brands’ Woodbridge winery.

Fellow professionals praise service
Verdegaal received praise and recognition plaques from a host of industry leaders and colleagues. Nat DiBuduo, president of Fresno-based Allied Grape Growers, thanked Verdegaal “for many years of dedicated service to grapegrowers and the wine industry. The work Paul has done has gone beyond San Joaquin County and benefitted all of California.”

Fourth-generation Lodi grapegrower, winery owner and former LWC chair Larry Mettler said: “Paul’s involvement with the Lodi Winegrape Commission will be missed. During Paul’s service, our local industry has transitioned from one that relied upon lower value Tokay grapes used in wine blends to an industry now recognized for premium higher value varietals. We commend Paul for his steady guidance and the excellence he has brought to our area as a community leader and a farm advisor.”

Glenda Humiston, VP of the UC statewide Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources that oversees UCCE, presented Verdegaal a service plaque and stated, “Paul epitomizes what a UC farm advisor should be.”

Verdegaal left his audience with the following advice: “Treasure the good parts of life. Push through the bad. Remember the Golden Rule and enjoy a glass of Lodi wine.”

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