PULLMAN, Wash. — Markus Keller, a horticulturist at Washington State University’s Prosser Irrigated Agriculture Research and Extension Center, has been designated the Chateau Ste. Michelle Distinguished Professor in Viticulture.
“Markus has a vision for the future of the industry and the direction it needs to go,” said Ray Folwell, director of WSU’s viticulture and enology program. “He knows what type of research is needed to support the industry’s development.
“It is a nice recognition of my work so far,” said Keller, who has been on the WSU faculty for three years. “I was totally surprised.”
The Chateau Ste. Michelle winery established the distinguished professorship to help WSU attract and retain a world-renowned scholar and practitioner with special expertise in the science of viticulture, according to Ted Baseler, president and CEO of Ste. Michelle Wine Estates, owner of Chateau Ste. Michelle, Columbia Crest and other Washington state wineries.
“Just as Washington state wines are now among the best in the world, our state university’s program will be known as a viticulture and wine making program second to none,” Baseler said.
With funding provided by the endowment for the professorship, Keller plans to purchase some needed research equipment and to sponsor one or more students to work on projects examining different aspects of grape ripening.
“We have an odd problem here, pretty much along the entire West Coast,” he said. “Grape berries ripen in the fall but sometimes they seem to stop at some stage and sit there and not do anything. Nobody seems to know why. If we can figure out the physiology behind this problem, then maybe we can come up with a solution for the growers.”
Keller also is testing different pest-resistant rootstocks to determine their suitability for local growing conditions. “Some of the grafts don’t seem to cope well with Washington’s occasional cold winters. We have to test different combinations to see if they will survive the winter and perform well under our conditions.”
Most wine grapes in Washington are grown on their own roots. However, they are susceptible to a root louse known as phylloxera. Keller said the soil-residing pest has been in Washington for more than 100 years but it hasn’t spread very far. “The rootstocks we are testing are very resistant. If phylloxera ever takes over, we want to be ready to make a recommendation to growers.”
He also wants to be able to provide growers with rootstocks that resist attack from nematode roundworms. “When you replant a vineyard after 30 or 50 years, young vines can die from nematode damage,” he said. “The rootstocks we are testing also are nematode-resistant. It could well be that nematodes force us to use rootstocks before phylloxera does.”
Keller holds a master’s of science in agricultural science and a doctorate in natural science from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. Before coming to WSU, he was a senior lecturer in viticulture in the School of Wine and Food Sciences at Charles Sturt University in Australia. Prior to that he was a research scientist in the same school as well as at Cornell University’s New York State Agricultural Experiment Station and at the Swiss Federal Research Station at Wadenswill.
Washington has more than 300 wineries and more than 30,000 acres in wine grapes, according to Folwell. The industry contributes $2.4 billion annually to the state’s economy, according to the Washington Wine Commission.
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