UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Here is something to toast about — Pennsylvania's grape and wine industry pours an estimated $4.8 billion into the state's economy through employment, wine sales, tourism, tax revenue and related avenues, according to the National Association of American Wineries.
That impact is expected to grow as the industry continues to branch out — the number of in-state wineries has increased from 64 in 2000 to 257 today, with more opening every year.
Supporting this blossoming field is the Penn State Grape and Wine Team, a group of viticulturists, plant pathologists, entomologists, enologists, sensory scientists and marketing specialists in Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences and Penn State Extension.
"We understand how challenging the wine business can be," said Kathy Kelley, professor of horticultural marketing and business management. "There are many decisions that wineries have to make — from the fanciful name to the packaging to how they promote it — in order to appeal to wine consumers."
For the past decade, the team has been making those decisions easier through cutting-edge research and outreach that addresses grape and wine production and quality challenges, with particular emphasis on Pennsylvania and the eastern United States.
Though the state ranks fifth in the nation when it comes to growing grapes, it unfortunately does not produce enough wine grapes to meet increasing local demand, according to Michela Centinari, assistant professor of viticulture. That shortage requires some of the state's wineries to purchase grapes or grape juice from other states.
"There are challenges when it comes to producing wine grapes in a sustainable and profitable way in the eastern U.S., most notably climatic features such as variable, but often excessive, precipitation during the growing season, and winter and late spring cold damage," she said. Despite those challenges, the wine industry is committed to producing high-quality wines, Centinari pointed out.
She said Penn State studies over the past several years have focused on grape variety trials; disease- and insect-management strategies; improving wine quality through cultural and winemaking practices; understanding consumer attitudes and behaviors; and effective marketing methods. Two projects underway examine frost-avoidance techniques and crop management practices to decrease disease pressure and improve wine quality.
Crop losses and delay in fruit ripening caused by post-bud-burst freeze damage represent an economic challenge for wine-grape producers in Pennsylvania. Complicating the problem is that most frost protection methods, such as deploying wind machines or helicopters, are too expensive for small-size vineyards to purchase, Centinari said.
To address this issue, Centinari is evaluating and comparing affordable frost-avoidance technologies for delaying the onset of bud burst. She also is collaborating with food scientists Ryan Elias and Helene Hopfer to examine whether a significant delay in bud burst and a shortening of the annual vine-growing cycle might negatively influence wine chemistry/quality and sensory perception in red and white wine-grape cultivars.
In another study, Centinari is working with Kelley and Bryan Hed, research technologist in plant pathology at Penn State's Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center, to compare different crop management practices such as cluster thinning, and manual and mechanical fruit-zone leaf removal. They want to know whether those practices improve fruit quality and reduce fruit sensitivity to fungal diseases such as bunch rot.
Working side-by-side with researchers are undergraduate and graduate students, because, as Centinari noted, "We want to provide them with real-world experience so they have the knowledge they need to work in the industry. It is an eye-opening experience for many of them because growing and harvesting grapes, and then making wine, is labor intensive but it's also rewarding."
Growing grapes, however, is only one step — successful wineries also need to know how to produce and sell quality wine.
The Penn State’s Grape and Wine Team offer a number of education resources provided through the Penn State Extension. Videos, articles and other resources cover topics such as wine production, consumer behavior, and managing nutrients, diseases and insects in the vineyard.
A blog, Facebook page and newsletter are a few of the tools the team uses to share real-time information with audiences around the world. "We reach viticulture and wine industry professionals well beyond the United States — we have subscribers from Europe, Australia, China and more who want to keep up to date on what we are doing," Kelley said.
Other core members of Penn State's Grape and Wine Team include Michael Campbell, professor of biology at Penn State Behrend and director of the Lake Erie Regional Grape Research and Extension Center; Jody Timer, research technologist in entomology at the Lake Erie center; Don Smith, research technologist in plant science; and Andy Muza, extension educator based in Erie County.
Support for the group's initiatives comes from the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Board, Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture; the Specialty Crop Research Initiative of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture; the USDA Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program; the John and Timothy Crouch Program Support Endowment; and the New York Wine and Grape Foundation.
Penn State recognizes that there is a growing interest in winemaking. To that end, interested individuals, age 21 and older, can enroll in an online program that will be offered spring 2018 through Penn State Berks. Participants will learn the ins and outs of winemaking — the grape growing, the chemistry, the equipment used, the actual winemaking process and final wine product, and bottling/packaging. Information on the winemaking certificate can be found on the Penn State Berks website or by emailing Elaine Berish at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To subscribe to the team's newsletter, send a blank message to WINEGRAPE-L-SUBSCRIBE-REQUEST@LISTS.PSU.EDU.