“I want to empower the state’s growers to give us feedback. Hopefully, the truth shakes out across all the variations of vineyard sites.” —Cain Hickey, Penn State
By Paul Vigna
Whether you’re an aspiring winegrower in Pennsylvania trying to figure out what to plant or someone with a 20-year-old vineyard who wants to replace a block that’s lost its vigor, there’s a new tool to help you make an informed decision: Cultivars in the Commonwealth, a web application financed through a grant supported by the Pennsylvania Wine Marketing and Research Board, funded by the state’s Liquor Control Board and coordinated by the Penn State Extension Grape and Wine Team.
This interactive resource will provide data on grapes grown statewide, county by county, as well as information on how well each variety is performing in those locations and consumer demand.
Surveys were sent to growers this past winter and the data took several months to organize. The app went live in late April. It’s admittedly just a first step for Pennsylvania grape growers, according to Penn State Viticulture Extension Educator Cain Hickey. “I was really happy with the way the project came together,” he says. “Literally, going from zero to what we have here is something that [involved] so many people.”
Hickey explained the importance and usefulness of the app during a session at the Pennsylvania Grape and Wine Industry Conference in March: “Let’s say, from a grant writing perspective or a research perspective, when we think about doing things, we need to economize our time. It would be good to know what’s grown, where it’s grown, and at what scale it’s being grown.”
The data pool
The survey asked multiple choice, sliding scale, and write-in questions. For each cultivar in their vineyard, growers were asked about:
- the planting properties (What is spacing between rows? What is the growth vigor?);
- the grape’s sensitivity to frost (What is the timing of the bud break? How susceptible are the buds to cold injury?);
- the grape’s resilience to disease (How difficult is it to control downy mildew?); and
- the grape maturity and composition (What is the timing of the harvest? What is the chance — up to 100% — that the fruit will reach desired maturity?).
Hickey received around 60 responses and noted there are another 15 to 20 vineyards operating on a commercial scale that aren’t represented in this first version. Still, the number of answers and the complexity of those responses make this an effective tool even in these early stages.
“Our web app developer designed it so you not only see the average response — whether it be about disease pressure, sales trends, [vine] spacing or brix attainment — but you can also see the breakdown,” Hickey says. “There’s a ‘more details’ tag that gives the number of answers received for each possible response.”
Winery owners such as Jonas Nissley, vice president of Nissley Vineyards in south central Pa., like what they see. He notes the information from other growers “will help us make informed decisions about the future of our vineyard.”
Ed Lazzerini oversees a 5-acre vineyard on rocky soil that produces Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon, Nebbiolo and Barbera for his Vox Vineti Winery outside Philly. He says the app will add “a lot of value as a tool to aid with site selection and variety selection,” noting that “its value to the industry will deepen as its data set grows.”
Cultivars in the Commonwealth will soon be complemented by a similar offering from neighboring Maryland. Joe Fiola, a specialist in viticulture and small fruit for the University of Maryland Extension, is working on a statewide cultivar performance and summary, primarily he says, to guide growers who are considering planting or replanting new blocks. “In a state with very diverse climates, whether Pennsylvania or Maryland, the key to consistent quality wine production is finding the best cultivar-to-environment interaction — finding the cultivars that perform consistently well in a specific region,” he says.
Pennsylvania’s app will continue to increase in value as more growers complete the survey and provide notes on the cultivars they’re using. Says Penn State’s Hickey, “I want to empower the [state’s] growers to give us feedback. Hopefully, the truth shakes out across all the variations of [vineyard] sites.”
Paul Vigna is a writer and editor in Harrisburg, Pa., who has been covering East Coast wines for 10 years. He was the first winner of the Atlantic Seaboard Wine Association’s Birchenall Award in February 2018. You can find him at the Wine Classroom at www.pennlive.com and follow him on Twitter @pierrecarafe.