MSU Viticulture Research and Extension Program Builds Strong Engagement with Michigan Grape and Wine Industry

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The next time you reach for a glass of Michigan wine, chances are you could enjoy an excellent beverage courtesy of a widespread collaboration. The Viticulture Research and Extension Program in the Department of Horticulture at MSU, led by assistant professor Dr. Paolo Sabbatini, works with growers, winemakers, industry experts, research colleagues, and students to produce and expand healthy, high quality, and abundant grape yields in Michigan.

Viticulture is the science of grapes and their culture, including the cultivation of grapevines, and enology is the study of wine. Michigan State University became involved with the state's grape industry nearly 50 years ago, when Dr. G. Stanley Howell, now professor emeritus, came to the university in 1969 and began a research project on behalf of the National Grape Cooperative, based out of southwest Michigan. At that time, 12,000 mature grapevines were intact primarily in two counties, Berrien and Van Buren, and the grapes produced were used primarily for juice.

At the growers' request, Howell's agricultural research explored cultivating wine grapes in traditional grape growing geographic regions of Michigan, providing additional economic opportunities for growers and potential entrepreneurs. Howell worked to install wine grapes in those areas, but also established field research on wine grapes in the northern Michigan in the Lake Leelanau area, and expanded experimental wine production with an endeavor called Spartan Cellars.

Grape Growing and Research in Michigan

In 2007 Dr. Sabbatini came to Michigan State University, with the goal of building on the research and extension work begun by Dr. Howell. "I recognized that the future of grape production in Michigan was closely related to my research on achieving maximum yields of quality fruit every year," says Sabbatini. "And, in contrast with juice grape production, the shortage of high-end premium wine grapes and appellation-specific grapes was another critical issue for Michigan wineries."

According to Sabbatini, several high value vinifera varieties are often harvested in Michigan before they achieve optimum maturity and fruit have reduced accumulation of sugar and aromatic compounds. "Understanding how photosynthesis, carbon assimilation, and translocation are affected by environment and cultivation practices is the most important component of my research program."

Picture for MSU Viticulture Research and Extension Program Builds Strong Engagement with Michigan Grape and Wine Industry

Under Sabbatini's direction, the viticulture team is currently investigating the ripening potential under cool climate conditions, analyzing factors affecting partitioning of assimilates from leaves to cluster, which leads to a broader understanding of the physiological mechanisms of sugar production and allocation in grapes.

$790 Million Impact in Michigan

The impacts are substantial. "Our vineyards and wineries are a key component of Michigan's tourism and agricultural industries," says Linda Jones, executive director of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council.

According to Council statistics, Michigan has more than 14,000 acres devoted to grape growing; 2,000 of those are devoted to wine grapes. There are now 91 Michigan wineries that see more than one million visitors annually. The industry affects more than 5,000 jobs in Michigan, with a payroll upwards of $190 million. The total estimated impact on Michigan's economy is $790 million.

In the past 11 years Michigan wine sales have outpaced total wine sales, and the state's wineries now claim a 6.5 percent market share.

Michigan grape growers and vineyard managers face multiple challenges, among them the state's cold climate and unpredictable seasonal weather patterns. Add other considerations, such as pest management, soil content, and fruit rot, and it is easy to see why so many MSU researchers are involved.

"Everything is dictated by climate," says Sabbatini. "Most vineyards are within 25 miles of the Lake Michigan coast, where warmer breezes protect fruit from the harshest winter weather. Staying within ten miles is perfect, and closer is even better. When you are very close to the lake the growing sites resemble some of the best wine grape growing regions of Europe, but we are still vulnerable to spring frosts and winter damages. The grapes need sun and warmth for a full maturation process, and time to fully ripen in the shorter growing season."

Along with healthy vineyard production, Sabbatini is experimenting with additional grape varieties that can adapt and thrive under Michigan's cool climate conditions. These grapes have the potential to produce outstanding wines, and therefore, increase market share for Michigan grape growers and wineries.

"It is a competitive market, now a global market, and viticulture performance is essential," says Sabbatini. He and his team collect data on harvest, cluster weight, number of clusters per vine, clusters per vine with rot, and pruning weights. When harvested, measurements are taken for basic fruit chemistry. The final step involves variety trials, which are critical for the future of Michigan's wine and grape industry, because they help evaluate potential for commercial production of new wines.

The Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council was instrumental in helping to establish the Viticulture Certificate Program in Northwest Michigan, a partnership between the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology, Northwestern Michigan College, and the Viticulture and Enology Science and Technology Alliance. The Viticulture Certificate Program provides students with a solid background in plant science, along with expertise and skills needed for careers in the grape industry. The program allows students to complete a Viticulture Certificate Program from MSU's Institute of Agricultural Technology, while working towards an Associate's degree from NMC. For more information, please visit the Viticulture Certificate Program website.

Interdisciplinary Collaboration

The need for an interdisciplinary and collaborative approach to this work is evident from the broad array of MSU partners working with the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council, including AgBioResearch, Extension, the Product Center, the Department of Community, Agriculture, Recreation, and Resources Studies (CARRS), the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics, and the Department of Horticulture. Dr. Sabbatini also works closely with colleagues in plant pathology, entomology, and horticulture.

In turn, the Council includes MSU on its research and education advisory committee, and works with researchers and Extension specialists to schedule presentations for growers, vineyard operators, vintners and various industry representatives that convey research report highlights, address member needs, and set research priorities.

Jones and members of the Council are working to increase wine grape production up to 10,000 acres and three million cases of Michigan wines annually by 2024. They rely on multiple resources at Michigan State University to address the many aspects of boosting the state's grape and wine production and sales, as well as tourism at area vineyards.

Of this partnership and its impact Jones says, "It is an interdisciplinary approach toward solving some of the challenges our growers, producers, winemakers, and winery owners face each season. We benefit not only from the expertise of researchers at MSU but also from their ability to work together to address these challenges. It is a collaborative atmosphere, and one that we value."

Lorri Hathaway and Sharon Kegerreis are co-authors of a book, The History of Michigan Wines: 150 Years of Winemaking Along the Great Lakes, and The History of Wine Grape Research at Michigan State University for the Michigan Department of Agriculture.

"MSU researchers have worked with Michigan growers and entrepreneurs since the Michigan State Agricultural Society was established in 1849," says Hathaway and Kegerreis. "The partnership today is strong, and MSU's viticultural specialists are playing a pivotal role in recommending specific wine grape varieties to fit Michigan's diverse site characteristics."

This year, Michigan grape growers suffered a setback with a mid-April freeze that destroyed thousands of acres of juice grapes in the southwest counties of Berrien, Cass and Van Buren. Early spring temperatures caused plants and trees to exit their winter dormancy stage and bitter frost destroyed early buds.

"Each season brings new challenges," says Sabbatini. "When I say everything is dictated by the climate, some years that has more meaning than others."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photographs by Steve Sadler, courtesy of the Michigan Grape and Wine Industry Council and Pat Murad, courtesy of the Southwest Michigan Research and Extension Center

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