Wine Scientists Converge on Napa

Zelma Long, Andy Walker, Gregory Jones and many more share insights at wine academia's annual gathering

by Jim Gordon
Zelma Long is congratulated on her Merit Award by her husband Philip Freese and ASEV president Michael Silacci.
Napa, Calif. --Enologists and viticulturists from across North America seemed to revel in the new format and venue -- sans the traditional trade show -- for their most serious scientific gathering of the year as they met June 23-26 to discuss everything from rootstock to lab equipment. The 60th annual meeting of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture was the first ever to convene in Napa, and attracted an estimated 800 registrants.

ASEV executive director Lyndie Boulton said that hosting the meeting in the middle of a major wine region was quite unusual, rather than in bigger cities as in recent years. "We have previously been close to well-established wine industries such as in Portland and Seattle but never on center stage among wineries and vineyards. It was also a first to host a conference during such challenging economic times and we were pleased with the attendance."

Three symposia were held in conjunction with the meeting this year. The High Brix Winemaking Symposium on June 23 and the Cabernet Symposium on June 26 each drew an estimated 200, while the Rootstock Symposium on June 23 saw an estimated 150 attendees. "Meeting in Napa definitely extended ASEV alliances and friendship," Boulton said.

Walker on grapevine breeding

Faculty member Andrew Walker of the University of California, Davis, and international winemaker Zelma Long gave the two marquee presentations of the week, as recipients of special honors from the ASEV. In what one observer described as a victory lap for Walker, the accomplished grapevine breeder and geneticist reviewed accomplishments and missteps in his field over three decades.

The ASEV chose him for this year's Honorary Research Lecture based on his 20 years on the faculty at Davis, where his work has emphasized the development of rootstocks and fruiting varieties with genetic resistance to many of the winegrape grower's worst enemies: phylloxera, fanleaf, nematodes, Pierce's disease and more recently, drought.

Global lessons from Long

Long, the first woman to run both the winemaking and business sides of a major American winery -- Simi in Sonoma County, Calif. -- chose to speak on Lessons From Global Winemaking, based on her experiences during the second half of a long career.

"A lot of our benchmarks for fine winemaking are overseas," she said. "It is important and will become more important that we all have a global perspective in fine winemaking." She urged all the young winemakers in the room to do an internship overseas.

Long and her husband, Philip Freese, own land in the Cape of South Africa and operate the Vilafonte winegrowing and winemaking project. In the late 1990s, she spent three years making Riesling in the Nahe valley of Germany with a partner, and post-departure from Simi, has developed a local and international consultancy in the California North Coast, the Pacific Northwest, Israel and Provence, France.

She delineated five lessons she has learned in global winemaking:

• Great, fine and delicious wines are made in every country. She said South African wines are strong in Europe, Spain is bursting with excellent wines from old vines, and Israel has just showed up on wine critic Robert Parker's radar screen.

California and North America have no monopoly. "It's clear to me that delivering high and excellent quality for our price-points is essential," she said. "If we don't keep our eyes on the global context, we won't be energized to the point we need to be."

Terroir exists and is important. "Phil and I spent three years making wine in the Nahe Valley of Germany. They have very long summer days, but it's very cool, and they make high-latitude Rieslings." Making Riesling in other locations yields fundamentally different results, she said. "We cannot by any measure in winemaking make up for that difference in latitude.

"Terroir is ground truth," she continued. "Our foods also reflect these terroir differences, only due to the transient nature of lettuce and strawberries we have not been so sensitive to them. Down the road somewhere, there may be an opportunity for the wine industry to pair up with the food industry, to take our knowledge of terroir and apply it and communicate it to food consumers as we do with wine."

• Culture affects winemaking. She recommended that to make wine overseas one should learn the language, work with a local partner, and learn from the local culture of wine. Long advised studying ahead of time the regulations, business culture and systems of the foreign wine region, but also recognizing that American winemakers can bring a fresh perspective, just as Napa winemaking benefited from New York's research on trellises, and from French consulting winemakers.

• There's a lot to be learned out there. Take advantage of learning opportunities internationally. She praised the Australian Wine Research Institute for its very helpful work on closures, terpenes in aromatic varietals, vineyard mechanization and now smoke taint. She said she had eye-opening experiences in Spain, and respects what's being discovered in Eastern Washington and the Finger Lakes of New York, among other regions.

• Financing and financial success are an important part of the wine business. Financial success can bring startling changes for the good, she said, such as what happened to Bordeaux's infrastructure in the 1990s, and Napa Valley's at about the same time. Wineries could then afford not just bigger cellars, but better designed, better equipped wineries and better vineyards using new winegrowing techniques.

The quality of grapes and wine is the foundation of success, she observed, but investment -- both personal and financial -- are necessary to achieve high quality. In this regard she praised how well Australia has supported its wine industry financially for research, and called on the audience to support research funding in whatever way they can.

Digitized AVA climate maps

The meeting featured dozens of programs, lectures, poster sessions, daylong symposia, organizational sessions, receptions and winery dinners. A session on Viticulture and Climate brought out interesting and possibly game-changing preliminary findings about vineyard climates on both the macro and micro scales.

Geographer Gregory Jones of Oregon State University gave a preliminary overview of his new research on viticulture and climate in the Western United States, and previewed a sweeping new mapping database that ties historical climate data to every individual American Viticulture Area in the region. With no digital AVA maps available from the TTB or any other source, Jones' project involved copying onto digital files all the AVA boundaries, 131 of them as of 2008, he said.

Tied to the maps at a resolution of 400 meters are several decades of weather data, such as monthly maximum and minimum temperature, which can be analyzed by several methods, including Winkler's growing degree-days regions, growing season average temperatures, the Huglin index and biologically effective degree-days.

With this information, he can now ask the database to find other AVAs in the Western U.S. that have the same climatic profile as, say, the Rutherford AVA within Napa Valley (famous for its Cabernet Sauvignon). He showed a map of the results that revealed small dots of potential Cabernet havens in the hills ringing California's Central Valley and among the coastal hills.

Jones said his challenges included gaps and flaws in the data originally used by Winkler and others, and the limits of the Region I to V system that evolved. An example is that many of the climate stations used for this work rely on "corn degree" days, measurements that take every temperature below 50°F and convert it to 50°, thus eliminating the effects of especially cool nights in some areas.

In 10 to 18 months, Jones said, his team will have the rest of the winemaking world mapped digitally and linked to pertinent climate data.

Too much light on Pinot?

During the same session, Kimberly Nicholas Cahill, formerly of Stanford University and now at UC Davis, shared her research on Vineyard-scale Climate Variability, Vine Light Intensity and Pinot Noir Phenolic Composition. After studying eight sites in Carneros and Sonoma Valley from 2005-2007, she concluded that light exposure in the VSP-trained vineyards was highly variable, and probably higher than desirable for phenolic composition due to viticultural practices such as leafing and hedging.

Cahill noted that excessive light on berries decreased anthocyanins and tannins. She observed light is a proxy for heat, and that ripening temperatures have an inverse relationship to the price of Pinot Noir grapes in various parts of California. Conversely, she observed that cool temperatures in the previous fall and during the previous bloom-veraison period favored development of both tannins and anthocyanins in the following season.

Next year: Seattle

The 2010 ASEV meeting will convene from June 20-25 at the Washington State Convention & Trade Center in Seattle. In conjunction with this 61st meeting, the ASEV Northwest Chapter is organizing the Seventh International Symposium on Cool Climate Viticulture and Enology. This conference week will include a complete content-driven program integrating research reports, themed workshops, seminars and symposia. Tours and dinners are also being planned with focus on the Pacific Northwest wine and grape industry.

Regarding next year, ASEV's Lyndie Boulton said, "Our post-event evaluation has just begun, so we are not yet able to confirm what we will change. We will focus on engaging even more regional organizations in addition to the wonderful support we had from the Napa Valley vintners, grapegrowers and many appellations the next time we host a conference in Napa."
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