Lying along the northwest coast of the main island, the Finger Lakes are known for their picturesque beauty and rich history. In the nineteenth century, the Finger Lakes became a popular vacation destination for the wealthy, and the vineyards and orchards that sprouted up around the lakes provided a welcome respite to city dwellers looking for fresh air and a glimpse of the natural world.
In a region with a reputation for singularity, the Napa Valley Vintners are working with local nurseries to produce a variety of grapes that are more regionally appropriate. The project is intended to give growers the chance to grow grapes that were previously only available from other regions. (The goal is to expand the varieties of grapes available to local winemakers and reduce their reliance on imported varieties.) The experiment is promising enough that the Vintners have published a book on how to grow local grapes, complete with a list of fruits that will grow well in the region.
Wine is a global commodity, but is it better if everything is produced locally?
The history of grape growing dates back to at least 6000 BC. Chr. It is closely linked to the development of civilizations, empires and world trade. Grapes are grown on every continent except Antarctica, and producers make wines from grape varieties grown in different parts of the world.
But increasingly, winemakers are trying to source ingredients closer to home to, they say, produce more authentic and delicious wines. There are many reasons for this, ranging from concerns about the spread of pests and diseases to logistics and the desire to develop the terroir of one’s own region.
Harvestis pressed on the Wölffer estate, Long Island, New York / Photo courtesy of the Wölffer estate
Local nurseries can prevent entire vineyards from being infected by established and new viruses, according to some experts.
Diseases know no boundaries, says Mark Fuchs, a professor at Cornell University’s School of Integrative Crop Science. That’s the lesson we learned with Covid. Quarantines are useful, but viruses and diseases can get in. Some manifest differently depending on the weather conditions.
Fuchs explains how crown gall, a disease that causes tumors on vines, can be transmitted from plant to plant in the vineyard. This can eventually lead to vine loss, he adds, and is a much bigger problem in cooler climates like the Finger Lakes. It can come from a warmer climate without symptoms and then develop during a sudden cold snap.
Nurseries do their best to keep their plant material clean and virus free. The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service has quarantine protocols and laboratory tests available. Similar measures are being introduced in states such as California, Missouri, New York, Oregon and Washington.
In California, 22 nurseries participate in a state certification program that certifies vines are free of major grape pathogens. Other states, such as. B. Michigan, have launched virus and malware scanning programs.
But for many, these measures are not a sufficient guarantee.
We’re seeing viruses from other states, says Lee Bartholomew, director of viticulture at Results Partners, which works with wineries in the Willamette Valley, southern Oregon and the Columbia Valley in Washington. It is impossible to be virus free even if they are certified. It’s like antibacterial soap, there will always be some. However, we do work with nurseries outside of the state if they have rootstocks or [grape varieties] that we want, and we have a strict quarantine program where those are first grown outside of other vineyards until we are reasonably certain that they are virus free. However, it is not a perfect, closed system.
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vines in pots / Photo courtesy of Jessica Dunnam, winemaker, Results Partners
Logistics and associated
For others, the choice of local nurseries is related to logistics and to meeting the specific needs of their region.
The dangers of remote sourcing can be illustrated by the example of the pot wine failure at Red Newt Cellars in the Finger Lakes region of New York.
We bought thousands of vines in California that were certified virus-free, and they came in individual jars, says James Russell, Red Newt Kelby’s winemaker. I couldn’t believe it. We had to bring in extra workers to dig the holes and plant them immediately so the buds wouldn’t bloom too early.
We missed the ordering window at our local nurseries, so we ordered from them, but that would never have happened if it was a nursery we had a personal relationship with. They would have noticed the mistake we made ordering online and called us to discuss it.
Personal relationships with suppliers help overcome many of the difficulties, but climate also plays a role when East Coast wineries source wine from California.
We discovered that California vines are too long for us in the Finger Lakes, because we have to bury the vines here to insulate them from the winter cold, says Scott Osborne, owner of Fox Run Vineyards. With the orders from California, we had to buy special equipment to dig deeper into the ground to properly plant the vines. We also noticed that sometimes we received vines that were already in bud when they arrived. If we plant vines with buds and then the frost comes, it will be a big problem.
Vineyard workers use a Wagner laser planter at Fox Run Vineyards in the Finger Lakes region of New York / Photo courtesy of Fox Run Vineyards
Russell also notes that rootstocks and vines grown outside the state just don’t have the winter hardiness he’s looking for.
We had a Washington Riesling clone that wasn’t available in New York, but it didn’t live up to expectations, and the vines died from the terrible winter of 2015, he says. We replaced it with the same clone from a local nursery and it is doing fine.
There’s also still some mystery about exactly how the land works. Russell and others see local production as a way to work with the unique climate of their region and create a product with a higher degree of purity and transparency.
For Richie Pisacano, who runs Wölffer Estate Vineyards on Long Island, the goal is to think globally but source the wine locally.
Today, with the large number of new clones and viruses ravaging vineyards, finding plants has become more difficult in some ways, Pisacano says. I’m looking for clones that I think are best suited to our microterroir. They can come from anywhere in the world, but I prefer to have them as close as possible.
Man crushing grapes in plastic containers at the Wölffer winery
Shaping the future
Growers also see opportunities to shape the future of their regions through informal but highly effective partnerships with local experimental nurseries.
There’s a real synergy between growers and breeders, Russell says. We are constantly crossing paths, discussing ideas and brainstorming. I will be happy with the Gamay Noir, and they will make an effort to find a clone that works here and grow it in their nursery.
We now have a new half acre of Cheyrebe in the ground at Double A Vineyards. This is the result of a speculative announcement and conversation. Our first commercial vintage will be in 2022, probably 150 cases, but we believe this wine has a future, and not just for us.
New riesling planting and experimental trial of gamay at Lahoma Vineyard in Red Newt / Photo by Kelby James Russell
Bartholomew also wants to expand Oregon’s repertoire. It is currently in the middle of a multi-year legal battle.
In Oregon, only three species of undergrowth are widespread, she says. And that’s not enough. We partnered with Oregon State University [OSU] and worked with 18 rootstocks to create a Riesling clonal variety. Several other grape growers are also involved. They supply the vines, OSU helped us plant and lay out the blocks, and we collect samples to test yield stress, ripening variables, and other parameters.
Ultimately, the vintners hope to learn how different rootstocks can help them make better wine by creating vines that are more resilient to climate change.
Absolute control of the country is impossible, after all. The winemakers can only try to manage the situation. Local clones and rootstocks are just one way for winemakers to tap into the ever-growing network of nurseries across the country and bring to light the true character of the wine.
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