By Seth Truscott
Partnerships key to healthy Northwest grapevines
Retiring operations manager’s career highlights program’s successes
Washington’s grape industry has seen accelerating growth over the past several decades. That momentum is owed, in part, to the vision and hard work of people like Gary Ballard, the retiring operations manager of Washington State University’s Clean Plant Center Northwest Grape Program.
Formerly known as the NorthWest Grape Foundation Service, the Clean Plant Center has been producing “clean” grapevines for Northwest growers since 1961. Now in its tenth year under its current name and structure, the center is a reliable source for growers to buy planting stock from 300 grapevine varieties that are state-certified as being tested free of 30 targeted viruses.
Ballard—who graduated from WSU in 1971 with a master’s degree in plant pathology—will retire in April after 12 years as the Clean Plant Center’s operations manager and a career focused on plant pathology. In 2003, he left a lucrative private industry job to work for WSU, out of conviction for what he believes a clean-plant program means for the grape industry.
Viruses cause smaller yields and lower quality fruits—which end up costing growers, winemakers and consumers. Today, thanks to the work of Ballard and many others, vineyard owners who choose healthy, virus-tested planting material continue to see greater yields and higher quality grapes.
Providing clean grapevines to the Northwest and beyond
The Clean Plant Center is part of the National Clean Plant Network, which promotes the use of healthy plant material for important specialty crops in the United States. The University of California at Davis serves as headquarters for the grapevine network, with other centers located at Florida A&M University, Missouri State University and Cornell University.
In the Northwest, clean plants are produced at the Clean Plant Center’s foundation vineyard at the WSU Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Prosser. Customers include certified nurseries, university and federal research programs, and grape growers in Idaho, Oregon, Washington and beyond.
“We’re still a Pacific Northwest organization, although it seems we’re becoming a main source for the northern states and eastern seaboard states,” Ballard said. Sometimes growers purchase vines from the Clean Plant Center because their climate matches Washington’s more than other centers that are geographically closer.
“We go a little bit further because of the crown gall disease that happens quite often in the northern states,” said Ballard, explaining why the Clean Plant Center ships grapevines as far as New York, Michigan, Minnesota and Texas. “Grapevines can suffer winter injury and if there’s bacteria inside that plant, it causes the onset of crown gall disease. If there’s no damage, then that bacteria lies latent. In warmer climates where you don’t get cold weather injury, it’s not a problem, so they don’t deal with it to the extent we do.”
Kevin Judkins is co-owner of Inland Desert Nursery along with his father Tom and brother Jerry. They are the largest certified nursery for grapevines in Washington. Judkins said the protocols to combat diseases such as crown gall that California was not dealing with were improved in 2004, after Ballard came on board.
In 2003, WSU viticulture professor Markus Keller hired Ballard to manage the NorthWest Grape Foundation Service. Keller led the program at the time.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” Keller said. “Gary doesn’t just work with clean grapevines, he IS clean grapevines. Without him, the program simply would not have happened.”
“My role in the program was to basically do it,” Ballard explained. “At that time there were three of us in the program, excluding Markus: me, myself and I. I did all the tissue culture work. I did all the greenhouse maintenance. I developed a foundation vineyard and did all the maintenance there as well.”
Soon Ballard was so busy that he needed help. Around this same time, WSU merged their clean plant programs for grapes, fruit trees and hops under Director Ken Eastwell.
The plant doctor is in
Despite carefully coordinated efforts by growers and the Washington Department of Agriculture to keep infected grapevines out of Washington, plant pathogens infiltrate the borders from time to time and clean plants become infected when weakened by stress or environmental damage. That’s when WSU grape virologist Naidu Rayapati steps in to diagnose and treat grapevine ailments. He works with industry stakeholders, nurseries and regulatory agencies to implement best management practices for healthy vineyards.
Until 2013, grapevine redleaf (red blotch) disease in Washington vineyards was mistaken for grapevine leafroll disease. Similarities in the symptoms—a red discoloration of the leaves and reduced fruit yields at harvest—make it difficult to differentiate the two pathogens. When checking for viruses in symptomatic vines, however, Rayapati discovered that some of these vines tested negative for grapevine leafroll disease and developed a detection method for redleaf disease.
Identifying pathogens and finding solutions maintain the health, quality and productivity of Washington’s grape and wine industry, but it also comes with a considerable price tag. The alternative, however, is more costly in the long run.
If a disease spreads from illegally imported vines, not only can the grower be fined, but they may have to rip out the whole block of vines, said Vicky Scharlau, executive director of the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers, a group that has been instrumental in educating growers about the benefits of using clean plants and the disadvantages of risking it.
The National Clean Plant Network has been federally funded since 2009, which is one reason the Clean Plant Center foundation block advisory group is a tri-state effort, according to Mike Means, group chair and vineyard manager at Chateau Ste. Michelle, the largest wine producer in Washington. Including Oregon and Idaho in Washington’s clean plant efforts supports the health of the region and encourages those states to add to the federal funding that sustains the program.
In 2011, the Washington Wine Industry Foundation surveyed the grower community to measure their awareness of clean plants and understanding of disease. Results showed the need to educate the growers. Since then, WSU and various grape-growing and wine industry associations have made a concerted effort to share information through workshops, publications in both English and Spanish, and clean plant field trips that include tastings comparing grapes from healthy and diseased vines.
Order clean vines early for best selection
Growers should plan to order clean vines more than one year in advance whether they are purchasing from the Clean Plant Center or a certified nursery. The center gives priority to orders placed before December 15 from customers in Idaho, Washington and Oregon, but increasingly Ballard receives requests from outside the Northwest.
Demand has grown to the point where one of Ballard’s last projects is creating a tissue-culture-generated plantlet, or young plant, of patented table grape vines from the University of Arkansas. Plantlet material is typically created in-house to clean up a plant and establish material for the Clean Plant Center foundation vineyard. However, this material will be sold to a vineyard in South Africa and needs to remain in plantlet form to meet that country’s quarantine requirements.
Whether it’s propagating clean planting material for growers in the Northwest or somewhere else in the world, Ballard has enjoyed providing a service to the industry as a whole.
“WSU has given me the opportunity to do that with assistance and guidance where needed,” he recalled. “Along with the successful raising of my kids and a full-term marriage, those three things are what I consider the major accomplishments in my life.”
- Erika Holmes
How many bubbles are needed in bubbly?
Fizzy bubbles are the big draw for those who love sparkling wine, but can they tell the difference between varying carbonation levels? And do they have preferences as to how much carbonation should be in their wine?
That’s what Washington State University School of Food Science graduate student Kenny McMahon is looking at as part of his Ph.D. dissertation with advisor Carolyn Ross.
Findings from his first study “showed that consumers like the lower carbonation levels but have a greater preference for the higher carbonated wines,” said McMahon, who presented his data at the Washington Association of Wine Grape Growers annual conference last week.
A second study is being conducted.
Detection and preference
For the first study, he convened two panels, one with trained wine tasters and one with typical wine consumers.
McMahon made his own sparkling wines – with differing carbonation levels – in a commercial Washington winery. The carbonation range was 0-7.5 grams of carbon dioxide per liter.
The trained panel was studied regarding attributes related to carbonation. Panelists were asked to consider the perception of bite/burn, carbonation/bubble-pain, foaminess, numbing, prickly/pressure and tingliness, as well as various aromas, flavors and basic tastes.
McMahon said the trained panel started to pick up those various attributes at lower carbonation levels than the typical consumers, but most participants noted the carbonation by about 2 grams per liter.
The consumer panel was studied to see if participants noticed the differing levels of carbonation and what amount they preferred.
McMahon also asked both panels to think about the carbonation in each sip and how it impacted the sensation in their mouths.
“We were looking to see at what point people noticed the carbonation-related attributes and what wine they liked the most,” he said.
Various grapes, carbonation levels
Sparkling wine is any wine containing carbonation, which gives rise to bubbles. The wine can be made using a variety of grapes, such as chardonnay or pinot noir.
Some sparkling wines, such as Portugal’s vinho verde, benefit from lower carbonation levels, but there haven’t been many studies on the subject.
Traditional producers keep a steady 9-11 grams per liter because that’s the way champagne was originally made. A proportion of U.S. producers of sparkling wine follow that tradition. But only wine made in the Champagne region of France can be labeled with the term “champagne.”
- Scott Weybright
Wine Science Center nearly complete
Members of the viticulture and enology program at Washington State University are packing to move into their new digs on the Tri-Cities campus this spring.
Construction of the $23-million Wine Science Center has reached substantial completion, and Lydig Construction is working through the “punch list” to finish the 39,300-square-foot, LEED Silver-certified research and teaching facility.
The construction has progressed to the point that the Richland City Council voted this month to disband the development authority whose board members oversaw Wine Science Center construction and managed the finances. That development authority has successfully completed its mission and is turning over $98,000 of unused funds to the WSU Foundation.
That money will go into the Wine Science Center construction fund, which will pay for remaining unfinished rooms as well as equipment purchases. Rooms yet to be finished are a teaching laboratory and three plant growth chambers.
The growth chambers will provide important research capacity, allowing scientists to study grapevines under a wide range of temperatures and light and irrigation levels. This research will provide the Washington wine industry with better management tools for their vineyards, to support premium grape production, preserve resources, and prepare for climate change.
A grand opening for the Wine Science Center is planned for early June, but program director Thomas Henick-Kling recently toured the facility with Tri-Cities’ KEPR Action News. For a sneak peek at the facility, check out reporter Davis Wahlman’s video report “WSU’s Wine Science Center is state of the art.”
- Erika Holmes
Winery owner offers online info session
Learn about wine tasting, wine etiquette and how to pair food and wine in a free online presentation by Patrick Merry, owner of Merry Cellars Winery. Merry will also provide an inside look at the process of wine production.
Merry launched Merry Cellars Winery in 2004 with an inaugural vintage of 400 cases, and now produces 5,000 cases annually.
This presentation is 6 p.m. March 3. It is offered through WSU’s Digital Academy, part of the Global Connections program that brings extracurricular events to WSU Global Campus students. The session lasts about 45 minutes, and includes time for attendees to ask questions. All participants present in the chat area will be entered into a drawing for a $100 Merry Cellars gift certificate.
Find us on Facebook to win “The Crimson Spoon”
“Like” the Washington State University Viticulture & Enology Program on Facebook for program and wine industry updates!
Everyone who likes our post about “The Crimson Spoon: Plating Regional Cuisine on the Palouse” between February 18 and March 17, 2015, will be entered to win a copy. This 200-page, photo-illustrated, hardback cookbook features WSU Executive Chef Jamie Callison’s gourmet dishes and recipes.
The winner of the cookbook will be announced on March 18 in the “Voice of the Vine” and on the WSU Viticulture & Enology Program Facebook page.
Get your “like” on, and good luck!
Voice of the Vine
Each issue of Voice of the Vine brings you stories about viticulture and enology and WSU researchers, students, and alumni working in Washington’s world-class wine industry. Subscribe here.
If you are interested in WSU research and education about organic agriculture and sustainable food systems, check out Green Times. Subscribe here.
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Welcome to the mother block: Nursery is main source for clean vines
The Judkins family has been in the business of clean grapevines for more than 40 years.
Today, their Inland Desert Nursery, co-owned by brothers Kevin and Jerry and their father, Tom, cultivates 100 acres of clean grapevines known as “mother blocks” with material sourced from the Washington State University Clean Plant Center foundation vineyard. These mother blocks are where 75 percent of the clean grapevines planted in Washington come from.
Mother blocks are visually inspected multiple times during a growing season by the Washington Department of Agriculture to confirm their disease-free status, according to Aaron Paul, an environmental specialist in the WSDA plant services program in Pasco. Paul says Washington’s clean plant program and quarantines on imported vines help maintain freedom from viruses and limit the distribution of grape phylloxera within the state, allowing growers to plant certified grapevines directly into the vineyard without the use of grafted rootstocks.
“WSDA is constantly on the lookout at wholesale and retail plant outlets for certification and quarantine compliance,” Paul said. “Plants that are out of compliance with state quarantines are destroyed or returned to their state of origin.”
Federal funding through the WSDA Specialty Crop Block Grant Program pays for testing of all certified mother blocks in the state, a cost that would have been too great a burden for private vineyard owners.
Chateau Ste. Michelle planted a certified mother block in one of their vineyards with materials from the Clean Plant Center foundation vineyard. They have expanded that first mother block to have more stock available. Any plants not used in their own vineyards are consigned to Inland Desert Nursery.
“Kevin Judkins and Inland Desert have done a great job developing mother blocks and getting [clean material] out to the growers,” says Mike Means, vineyard manager at Chateau Ste. Michelle and the Clean Plant Center foundation block advisory group chairman. “We don’t always have enough to go around, but what we have is quality.”
This year will mark Inland Desert Nursery’s biggest year to date for grapevine sales. They will deliver more than 3,000,000 dormant vines and 600,000 green-grown vines.