Michigan's "Legendary" Viticulturist Dies

Stanley Howell revolutionized grape growing and the state's wine industry

by Linda Jones McKee
Stan Howell received the American Society for Enology and Viticulture Eastern Section's Lifetime Achievement Award at the Section's annual meeting in 2012 in Traverse City, Mich. After the banquet, he was surrounded by former graduate students (front, left to right): Drew Perry, Brian Hosmer and Bill Nail; (back): Charlie Edson, Keith Striegler, Dave Johnson, Jim Wolpert, Stan Howell, Russ Smithyman, and Dave Miller.

East Lansing, Mich.– G. Stanley Howell, professor emeritus in the department of horticulture at Michigan State University, died Aug.ust 13 at age 77. After receiving his Ph.D. in horticulture from the University of Minnesota in 1969, Howell moved to East Lansing, Michigan, to take a faculty position as a horticulturist at Michigan State University (MSU). Over the next 37 years, MSU was the home base for his research and extension work that transformed the grape and wine industry in Michigan and the upper Midwest.

 The first time I met Howell was in the 1980s, probably at an ASEV-Eastern Section meeting. He was sitting with his friend, Dr. Justin Morris (professor in the food science department at the University of Arkansas), telling hilarious stories. They were surrounded by current and former graduate students, and every one of them was having a terrific time.

Dr. Keith Striegler, one of Howell’s students who received his doctoral degree in horticulure in 1990 and currently is grower outreach specialist at E. & J. Gallo Winery, told Wines & Vines, “We (both students and Howell) worked hard and we played hard. He and Justin tried to one-up each other. But the next morning at 8:00 a.m., he (Howell) would be there in the audience, listening to your presentation.”

In 1970, there were only seven wineries in Michigan, but the southwest region of the state had 12,000 acres of grapevines, primarily Concord and Niagara, that were used for juice by Welch’s and to make sweet wines by wineries such as St. Julian Wine Company and Bronte Champagne and Wine Company. Howell’s position was supposed to be 50% percent research and 50 percent% extension work on small fruits (strawberries, blueberries and grapes); in 1970 one of his first assignments was to do research for the grower-owned National Grape Cooperative.

In the course of that investigation, Howell met two winemakers who stimulated his interest in the possibilities for expanding the Michigan grape growing industry. Angelo Spinazzé, winemaker for Bronte, had planted hybrid grapevines, beginning with Baco Noir in 1954 and then adding De Chaunac, Chelois, Aurore and Seyval. Upon meeting Howell, Spinazzé asked him if MSU could help the state’s wine grape growers, since the university was an agricultural school.

Howell also met Nate Stackhouse, a graduate of the University of California, Davis, and the winemaker for Michigan Wineries (now Warner Vineyards). He told one reporter in 2014, “Before I met Nate, I didn’t know jack about winemaking; I was a Southern boy, weaned directly from mother’s milk to sour mash whiskey.”

With the support of the newly appointed dean of the MSU College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, Dr. Lawrence Boger, and the chair of the department of horticulture, Dr. John Carew, Howell planted a research vineyard in 1970. The following year he added some cold-resistant French-American hybrids, including Seyval, Vidal Blanc, Vignoles and Chancellor, that he learned had grown well in the Finger Lakes region in N.Y.

Boger and Carew encouraged Howell with his wine grape research, and in 1972 he established Spartan Cellars, an experimental campus winery that taught students all aspects of grape and wine production, from planting the grapes to doing laboratory analyses on finished wines. Spartan Cellars allowed Howell to hold professional tastings for the seven Michigan wineries, and because the industry was small, most of the wineries would attend and discover for themselves which of the varieties they wanted to grow and vinify.

Within the next five years, Howell’s responsibilities shifted from small fruits to full-time work on wine grape production and the research needs of the juice grape industry. His research involved evaluating grape varieties in the vineyard, including training systems and crop control for high quality grape production, and in the cellar. A “Seven Year Study” was started by Howell, his graduate student Jim Wolpert, and others in 1977 that evaluated four training systems and six crop control strategies. After the harvest of 1983, their overall results showed that specific trellising and crop control techniques definitely affected the quality of the grapes and the subsequent wine.

Throughout his career, Howell sought out information about research in viticulture that was taking place in Ohio, Ontario, New York and abroad. In 1975 he took his first sabbatical year to learn more about growing wine grapes from Nelson Shaulis at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., and did research on the value of stratified random sampling and within canopy cold hardiness variation. On subsequent sabbaticals, he went to Switzerland, New Zealand and the University of California, Davis. He became a full professor at MSU in 1980.

Howell retired in 2006, and as professor emeritus, received the American Society for Enology and Viticulture’s Merit Award in 2007. In his speech at the ASEV annual meeting, Howell said, “There is no better way to determine whether viticultural science is a good personal fit than to get into the vineyard. That is where you can learn the realities of the vine’s growth and productivity and can get an idea of the conditions and limits a commercial grower faces in the region of your responsibility.”

One consequence of his hands-on philosophy was apparent in the way he guided his students. In one publication, Howell said, “We always had a series of projects. I gave each student one plot as their responsibility and said, ‘You’re the team leader.’ It worked. Each of our master’s and Ph.D. students had about a quarter of an acre with 50-150 vines. We set up to ask relevant production questions and employed statistical approaches producing analysis that yielded quality results.”

Dave Miller, now owner and winemaker at White Pine Winery in St. Joseph, Mich., worked for Howell as a technician and as a teaching and research assistant for 13 years and earned a Ph.D. in horticulture in 1997. He believes that Howell’s legacy is his influence on both the Michigan and the wider Eastern wine industry, in part from the research he conducted and from the students he trained. As of 2017, 12 of those students were winemakers in Michigan and six were in various wine-related positions in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa.

When asked about Howell’s contributions to the wine industry, Striegler noted that Howell was “the first guy to say ‘we’re not going to have an industry based on Concords. We need to do hybrids and then vinifera.’” He remembered that as graduate students, “when we used to take trips to southwest or northwest vineyards in Michigan, it was a classroom while you were going there. He kept us on our toes. You don’t appreciate that at the time, but later you do. He had one of the best viticultural minds I’ve been around.” He continued, “If you look at Stan, he has students all over the place. That’s a legacy that will last a long time.”

Howell is survived by his wife, Nancy, two sons, Joshua and Adam (Elaine), and a daughter, Shannon Hibser (Jeff), and one grandson, Sam Howell. An open house celebration of his life will be held on Saturday, August 25 at Eagle Eye Golf Club and Banquet Center, East Lansing.

Howell summed up his overall role in the industry when he stated, “A successful grape grower secures the best current knowledge regarding location, site, variety, training and trellis choice, canopy management and crop control, and ruthlessly applies such practices. I would be terrible as a farmer, not for lack of knowing the right things to do, but from my interminable ‘tinkering’ and asking ‘what if?’ No, I have been better for Michigan as a ‘vine dreamer.’”

Posted on 09.12.2018 - 15:10:11 PST
I was moved by this story, thank you G. Stanley Howell for you years of passion for the industry! I toast you! I love a "Vine Dreamer"!
Beth Smalley